The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Review Roundup: Comedy Documentaries About Music

In today’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin roundup:

  • Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)


    Anvil:
    The Story of Anvil

    (2008)

    2017 #117
    Sacha Gervasi | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Canada / English | 15

    Anvil: The Story of Anvil

    This is the real Spinal Tap: a rockumentary about heavy metal group Anvil, who once headlined alongside Whitensake and Bon Jovi, and are cited as an influence on groups like Megadeth and Metallica, but who haven’t enjoyed the same success as any of them. The film follows the group as they attempt to relaunch with a tour and new album.

    Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and, thanks to This is Spinal Tap, Anvil at first feels like fiction, with broad characters and a humorous tone. But it isn’t a blatant rip-off of Rob Reiner’s influential mockumentary, it’s a true story.

    That knowledge gives the whole thing a different air. It’s not so much tinged with sadness as endlessly sad — hopes and dreams that have come to nothing, even though they’re still pursued; how those continued pursuits falter and fail. And, perhaps worst of all, is the esteem other bands hold them in — the influence they admit to have taken from Anvil — and yet Anvil themselves languish in crummy jobs with no wide recognition, while the people who ripped them off (as one of them even admits) are famous and successful.

    A lot of comedy would actually be quite sad if it wasn’t fiction. Anvil proves that.

    4 out of 5

    Popstar:
    Never Stop Never Stopping

    (2016)

    2018 #41
    Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

    This is Spinal Rap: comedy trio The Lonely Island star as the Style Boyz, a popular pop-rap boy band who disbanded after their frontman, Conner4Real (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg), decided to go solo. The mockumentary follows Conner as he goes on tour to launch his second album.

    Popstar is every inch a modern do-over of This is Spinal Tap. That’s not to say it’s a straight-up remake, but it’s certainly a spiritual sequel, with many similar building blocks: not very bright musicians; unsuccessful musical endeavours; and lots of fully-realised spoof songs. Where Spinal Tap satirised the metal scene of the ’80s, Popstar turns its sights on the world of present-day mainstream music. In both cases, the base funniness is enough that you don’t need much familiarity with reality to get the gags.

    It only bears so much comparison to its forebear (there’s nothing as iconic as “it goes up to 11” to be found here), but as a modern take on the same genre, it has merit. And, most importantly, I thought it was consistently very amusing.

    4 out of 5

  • The Director and the Jedi (2018)

    2018 #59
    Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    The Director and the Jedi title card

    So, The Last Jedi, eh?

    No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

    If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

    The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

    If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

    Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

    It ain't easy at the top

    Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

    The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

    The princess and the director

    “Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

    5 out of 5

    The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

    The Hurricane Heist (2018)

    2018 #60
    Rob Cohen | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    The Hurricane Heist

    Billed as a “Sky Cinema Original Movie” here in the UK (which, I presume, is like half of Netflix’s “original” movies — i.e. they paid for exclusive rights to something already completed), The Hurricane Heist… does what it says on the tin, really: as a hurricane strikes Alabama, a gang of crooks plan to use it as cover to rob a Treasury facility and its $600 million of waiting-to-be-shredded old notes. What they didn’t count on was crack ATF agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who attempts to stop them with the help of meteorologist Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell) — who drives a tank-like hurricane-proof car — and his ex-military mechanic brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten).

    Yes, a film called The Hurricane Heist has a main character called “Breeze”.

    I suppose that’s indicative of the tone the film’s shooting for, really. It’s not Sharknado, but you have to hope the filmmakers knew it was cheap and cheesy as hell and wanted to play up to that. It’s only sporadically successful — much of the dialogue is just bad rather than so-bad-it’s-good, for example — but it has its moments. About halfway through there’s a sequence where Will throws scrap hubcaps into the wind so that they fly at the bad guys like spinning discs of death, at which point the film looks like it might tip from “so mediocre it’s mediocre” into “utter genius”. Sadly, it doesn’t keep that inventiveness up for more than about ten seconds, but at least it means there’s something memorable here. And while it may generally look and feel kinda cheap, there’s a massive amount of practical wind and rain being thrown around to create the storm, which is pretty effective.

    The wet and the windiest

    Another success comes in a couple of amusing villain deaths during the climax, but to say more would spoil things. The chief villain is played by Ralph Ineson, whose basic skill as a performer at least elevates that role somewhat. Toby Kebbell is probably better than this too, though considering some of his other choices in the past couple of years (Ben-Hur, Warcraft, Fantastic Four) maybe he’s lucky to get this now. Certainly, this is more entertaining than the ones I’ve seen of those.

    If The Hurricane Heist had been made 20 years ago it probably would’ve been a major blockbuster. It certainly looks like the CGI was produced back then. Now… well, it’s gone direct to Sky Cinema, hasn’t it? Maybe it’ll find a cult following, but I’m not sure it’s quite barmy enough to achieve that so-bad-it’s-good love. It is pretty stupid and definitely cheesy, but… well, it’s not so much boring as… not exciting. Like, it’s middling. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. You won’t remember much of it the day after, but for a bit of daft brain-off action on a lazy evening, it’s alright.

    3 out of 5

    The Hurricane Heist is allegedly in some UK cinemas now. It’s definitely available on Sky Cinema, and will be (presumably exclusively) until at least 5th April 2028.

    The Boss Baby (2017)

    2018 #12
    Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    The Boss Baby

    The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

    It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

    Sibling rivalry

    For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

    If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

    Parents are so gullible

    Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

    Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

    It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

    3 out of 5

    Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.

    Benji (2018)

    2018 #53
    Brandon Camp | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

    Benji

    Aww, look at the cute lickle doggie! And all the cute tricks and stuff he can do!

    “5

    Okay, more seriously…

    One of Netflix’s latest original movies (they’re releasing 700 this year, so there’ve probably been another 154 since this came out a couple of weeks ago), Benji is a reboot of the ’70s/’80s dog movie franchise, arguably best remembered because its 1987 instalment, Benji the Hunted, earnt a “thumbs up” rating from Roger Ebert the same week he gave Full Metal Jacket a “thumbs down”. I don’t know if I’m going to be giving any classic movies a poor rating this week, but I’m definitely giving the new Benji a big thumbs up.

    The film begins as it means to go on: with misery. (Seriously, this is quite a gloomy, peril-filled film alongside all the cute canine antics.) On a dark and stormy night, a dog warden snatches a mother and her three young pups, accidentally leaving one behind. He tries to give chase, but can only look on forlornly as his whole family is carted away. Aww! He sets off along the road, growing up on his travels, and eventually finds himself in New Orleans. There he stumbles into the lives and hearts of two kids, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), who decide to name him Benji. They live with their mom (Kiele Sanchez), who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep her kids happy since the death of their father (see, more misery). Anyway, the kids get kidnapped and Benji’s the only witness to where they’ve gone, but the silly humans can’t follow his hints properly, so Benji sets off to rescue his newfound family by himself.

    Benji's on the case

    Benji isn’t half bad for a kids’ movie. And while it is undoubtedly a kids’ movie, it can get quite dark and serious at times — well, quite a lot of the time (it’s a PG for a reason) — but there’s a good storyline and some strong themes. It’s not super realistic (I mean, you read my plot description, right?), but it mixes in just enough real-life hardship to sell itself. There are decent performances too, including from the two kids, who I’ve seen other reviews criticise. I mean, they’re not going to be troubling next year’s Oscars, but they’re not bad. Certainly, I’ve seen poorer turns from child actors in proper adult movies, and definitely ones that have been more irritatingly objectionable. The choice to set the film in New Orleans is a nice one as well, offering a different and distinctive flavour to the usual stomping grounds of New York or L.A.

    But that’s all gravy to the real reason we’re here: the dogs. My introductory joke was, actually, kinda serious: Benji himself is a clear 5-out-of-5, both super cute and super smart. Yes, I know the film’s edited to make him preternaturally clever (there’s an awesomely daft sequence where he thinks back over everything he’s seen and comes up with a plan), but the tricks he performs without the aid of editing show that he’s a damn well trained doggy. Variety’s review writes about the Kuleshov effect, which is “the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after”, and how Benji uses that to make the dog give a ‘performance’. Director Brandon Camp applies that technique more than once, I’m sure, but Benji’s got enough tricks at his disposal that such artifice isn’t always necessary to build character. Also, blimey can that dog run!

    Run, Benji, run!

    Okay, if dogs don’t tickle your fancy in any way then there’s nothing for you here; but as a lover of dogs — and particularly little scruffy ones like Benji — this film was a near-constant delight. It’s pretty great entertainment for kids too, though don’t stick it on unless you’re prepared for them to want a Benji of their own afterwards.

    4 out of 5

    Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

    Coincidentally, Full Metal Jacket will be reviewed later this year as one of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” films.

    The Silent Child (2017)

    2018 #57a
    Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

    The Silent Child

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    1 nomination — 1 win

    Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


    It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

    Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

    There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

    Libby and Joanne

    As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

    There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

    4 out of 5

    The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.

    Cars 3 (2017)

    2018 #54
    Brian Fee | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Cars 3

    At this point I think it’s fairly well known that the Cars movie series continues not because of any artistic desire on the part of Disney/Pixar, but because the toys the films generate sell like hotcakes. Indeed, that situation hasn’t necessarily changed with this third instalment: apparently Cars 3 features 65 different individual racers, more than both the previous films combined. And several of those appear kitted out in different paint jobs. Disney gotsta make that toy money! The disregard with which they hold the actual movies is perhaps demonstrated by the fact this third one is helmed by a first-time director, Brian Fee, whose previous credits are as a storyboard artist on a couple of Pixar productions. Maybe they lucked out, then — or maybe they actually knew what they were doing promoting him — because I think this is easily the best film in the Cars trilogy.

    Beginning with nary a reference to the events of Cars 2, racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back doing what he loves: racing. That’d be American-style racing, i.e. constantly turning left for hundreds of laps. Anyway, turns out there’s a new generation of hot young racers, who are less on their way up and more already here, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). They use advanced training techniques and statistics to beat the old guard — soon all of Lightning’s contemporaries are choosing to retire or being forced out, leaving him the last one standing… until he crashes in the final race of the season. Is his career over? Well, what do you think? With the backing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and all the latest high-tech gear, Lightning sets to work training with young wannabe-racer-turned-coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). But as he struggles to regain his mojo, perhaps there’s something to be said for the old ways after all…

    Storm vs Lightning

    Although I wouldn’t say sports movies are my bag, I think Cars 3 probably benefits from taking a more clean approach to that genre, ditching all the spy hijinks distractions of the last one. That purity of genre keeps it straightforward and focused. It also re-centres itself on Lightning McQueen, shoving Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back into a cameo-sized supporting role, which is about where he belongs (I wouldn’t say he’s likeable in small doses, but he’s tolerable). It still finds room for humour and levity, just in a more natural, less goofy way.

    Around that, it actually takes a run at some weighty themes — specifically, old age and obsolescence — and carries through on them too, with a finale that goes for more of a “finding worth in what you do next” ending rather than a “still got it (for now)” one. Such maturity means it’s perhaps more suited to Pixar’s grown-up fans than their young ones — it’s a surprisingly serious movie, in fact, without being po-faced about it. That said, you could probably play down the thematic stuff and just be entertained: there are still good set pieces, both action-based and comical, to keep the right family-friendly tone.

    It makes for a winning combination. Cars 3 may not trouble the upper echelons of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but it is the best of their Cars movies — the first of the trilogy I remember genuinely enjoying, rather than just finding tolerably okay. That might sound like a low bar to set, but Cars 3 clears it admirably.

    4 out of 5

    Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Villainess (2017)

    aka Ak-Nyeo

    2018 #35
    Jung Byung-gil | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18

    The Villainess

    After taking bloody revenge on the people who killed her father, skilled combatant Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is arrested and then forcibly recruited into a secret government agency who want her murderous skills. In exchange for ten years of her life and abilities, she’ll get a new identity and her freedom. As Sook-hee adapts to her new situation, flashbacks fill us in on her past — and the role it still has to play in her future.

    There are obvious similarities to Luc Besson’s Nikita in that setup, but, frankly, I haven’t seen that movie in a long time, so I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth comparison than “hey, this is a bit like that!” The Villainess isn’t selling itself on the freshness of its premise, anyway — to most potential viewers, the primary attraction is the freshness of its action sequences. On that, it delivers, and then some.

    It starts as it means to go on, opening with an eight-minute tightly-choreographed (fake-)single-take mostly-first-person killing spree. It’s a giddy display of violence that’s sure to entertain those of us who are so inclined. Many more hyper-kinetic, just-as-awesome action sequences follow over the next couple of hours. A motorbike chase that is also a sword fight (!) was a particularly memorable one for me (as I mentioned in last month’s Arbies). That’s also done in a ‘single take’ — if there’s one thing director Jung Byung-gil loves, it’s a fake single-take action sequence. If there’s another, it’s spurting blood — apparently if you strike anyone anywhere you’ll hit an artery and the red stuff will be squirting all over the place.

    A sword fight... on bikes!

    While the action scenes will be the focus for many viewers, there’s also a surprisingly effective emotional story at the film’s core. It even stops being an action movie for a bit in the middle to become a kind of romantic drama, which sounds ridiculous, but it works. There are plenty of twists and revelations involved in the storyline, so no spoilers here, but I will say it’s ultimately a pretty bleak film — it goes places I don’t think many straight-up action movies would dare. Well, certainly not Hollywood ones, anyway.

    And none of that is to say it betrays its action roots — this isn’t one of those films that’s trailed like an action movie but, actually, only has a couple of stunts and is mostly something else. No, this really, really pays off just as a two-hour adrenaline kick; but it’s also, simultaneously, something more complicated. Put both sides together and I think there’s a good chance this will, deservedly, become regarded as a genre classic.

    4 out of 5

    The Villainess is available on Netflix UK from today.

    Long Way North (2015)

    aka Tout en haut du monde

    2017 #33
    Rémi Chayé | 78 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & Denmark / French | PG / PG

    Long Way North

    I can’t remember what brought this French-Danish animation to my attention, but I’m glad something did because it’s a beautiful little film that deserves to be better known. Set in the late 19th century, it’s about a young Russian girl, Sasha, who embarks on an adventure to the North Pole, following in the footsteps of her missing grandfather.

    Regular readers may recall I ranked it among the top movies I saw last year, when I cited the “understated beauty in its deceptively simple visual style”. Indeed, the animation initially seems so plain that it feels like watching a draft animatic, but that conceals its ability to reveal subtleties when needed. In the end, the distinctive look is part of the film’s considerable charm.

    I also mentioned its “equally subtle but strong feminist streak”, another positive aspect. Sasha is strong-willed and capable, but not without her faults, which makes her an engaging heroine. The film doesn’t overplay its “girls can too” side, which only makes it more successful, I think.

    There’s none of the epic action sequences or broad humour that most English-language animation assumes kids need to keep them engaged, but instead Long Way North offers good characters on a proper old-fashioned exploration adventure. Highly recommended.

    5 out of 5

    Long Way North placed 13th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.