A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

2020 #195
Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

2020 #29
Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

She be back

Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

He be back

Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

3 out of 5

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Bait (2019)

2020 #9
Mark Jenkin | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Bait

The past and the present — the old ways and the new — clash head-on in Mark Jenkin’s Bait, both in its storyline and its production.

The former is the tale of a fisherman without a fishing boat: Martin (Edward Rowe) is a Cornishman through-and-through, a lover of his community and resistant to change; but his brother, Steve (Giles King) has turned their boat into a tourist vehicle, and they’ve had to sell their childhood home to well-to-do city-dwellers (played by Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, as the very embodiment of upper-middle-class London-types with the money for a rural second home). As the summer season arrives, and upcountry tourists descend on the small town, flashing their cash, Martin struggles to get by; and the clash between two different worlds comes to a head.

As to the latter (the production method), Jenkin has steeped his film in both older filmmaking methods and the place it was made. It was shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with a wind-up camera, with all the sound post-synced because the camera was too noisy to record on set. All 130 rolls of film were hand-developed by Jenkin in his Cornish studio, with a deliberate degree of what some might call “carelessness” to add authenticity: scratches come from washing the film under a running tap; exposure varies because the film was wound manually, therefore at an inconsistent speed; a “strange sparkle” on one bit of film was caused by leaving the studio door open and pollen blowing onto the drying film (there’s more about tall that in an interview with Jenkin by British Cinematographer). It’s a defiantly hand-crafted and old-fashioned method for making a movie; a way that’s becoming ever rarer thanks to the appealing ease of digital, both to blockbuster and low-budget productions. It’s funny that the only people ‘allowed’ to use film are either your Christopher Nolans — big-name auteurs who make tonnes of money for the studios, so they can do what they want — or your Mark Jenkins — tiny independent artists producing films for a pittance, so they can do it how they want.

Beautiful black and white

Some might consider Jenkin’s method to be unnecessarily pretentious — self-consciously Arty — but it’s actually a wonderful marriage of form and content; the earthy, hand-hewn visuals reflect the film’s themes. It’s not just an exercise in style, either. This would be a worthwhile narrative if told in a more conventional manner, but it would feel less striking and authentic with a glossy digital sheen. Of course, all filmmaking is “technology”, but there’s something about using such old cameras and film stock, developing the footage by hand, post-dubbing the sound, that all feels like The Old Ways, like it’s traditional and handmade, in a way that matches up with Martin’s desires and goals.

Some reviews have compared the end result to silent film, which doesn’t wash for me. The damaged visual quality might initially call to mind a poorly-preserved and unrestored print, which, if one has encountered such a thing at all, is likely to be from a silent film. But the actual feel is more 1950s location-shot social realism, with the themes of everyday rural working life, naturalistic acting and lighting, and post-dubbed dialogue (there’s none of that on your average silent movie, is there?)

Lest you think Jenkin is a one-note polemical storyteller, different points of view are allowed to exist: the upcountry folk aren’t all ‘evil’ (Martin may feel they’re a thorn in his side, but sometimes they’re actually on his side), and not all the locals long for the past (some are happy, or at least resigned, to fitting in and making their way with how things are). These are issues Cornwall has been dealing with for decades — it’s one of the poorest regions of the UK, thanks in part to so much property being bought as holiday homes and only occupied for a few weeks a year. But now is the right time to tell a story like that, because those problems are coming to a head: Brexit is set to be a disaster for Cornwall, because they’re going to lose a lot of EU funding. Will the British government replace it? The Cornish people, who did vote for Brexit, presumably assume so. I think they’ll be lucky.

This is a local pub for local people

Not that Jenkin is directly engaging in the Brexit debate here. In one scene we can overhear it being discussed on the radio, leaving us in no doubt when we are, but this isn’t a commentary on political upheaval. This is a story of normal people and how their lives have been altered by changing times. It may be unquestionably set now, but, as the filmmaking style underlines, the story is fairly timeless; it’s grounded and everyday.

Well, until a shocking event near the end, anyhow. No spoilers, but I have mixed feelings about that plot development. In one sense, it takes away from the feeling that this is an everyday situation that plays out across modern Cornwall; but, in another way, it’s a realisation of all the tensions that have been brewing throughout the film, like it’s almost inevitable that some tragedy would occur. Fortunately, how the film then deals with the aftermath is typically coolheaded and understated. We don’t get to see the immediate fallout (there are some characters we don’t even see again), just what ultimately happens later. In some ways that’s almost too little (for example, we’re not shown how it affects the locals’ relationship with the upcountry folk), but it also lands its overall point.

Bait has mostly been a regional success; regional not just to the UK, but to specific parts of the UK: according to figures published in Sight & Sound (and repeated in the BFI’s booklet accompanying the film’s Blu-ray), a typical movie makes 4.9% of its UK box office in the southwest, but for Bait that’s up at 35%. Hopefully time will see it break out further, because it’s a compelling story, both timely and timeless, uniquely told.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Bait is on Film4 tonight at 11:20pm.

The 100-Week Roundup XII

In the interests of catching up, this roundup combines two separate weeks.

The first contains two of the most acclaimed films of all time (both feature on numerous “greatest ever” lists, including those from IMDb, Letterboxd, TSPDT, and Empire), which happen to be my final reviews from September 2018.

The second is a pair of movies I watched back-to-back in October 2018 that share an obvious pregnancy theme — but, oh, they could hardly handle it more differently.

This week’s films are…

  • Network (1976)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Prevenge (2016)
  • Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)


    Network
    (1976)

    2018 #201
    Sidney Lumet | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Network

    no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.

    So wrote Aaron Sorkin, who has cited Network’s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major inspiration on his own writing; he even cited the man when accepting his Oscar for The Social Network; and Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom feels like it could’ve been called Network: The Series.

    Well, maybe not. The first half-hour or so of Network feels like The Newsroom (which was a series very much aimed at being realistic, to the extent that it was set in the recent past and mostly used real news stories for its plots), whereas Network spirals off into its own level of satirical craziness, far beyond what Sorkin’s series attempted.

    But whereas The Newsroom looked to the recent past and real events, Network is as indicative of the future as Sorkin said in that opening quote. The film may be 44 years old, but I’m pretty sure you could Chayefsky’s this screenplay, change only a couple of minor specific words, and film it as being set today. It forecasts the future of TV news as angry men ranting as if they were prophets (this was 20 years before Fox News launched), as well as commentating on the place of terrorism in driving TV ratings.

    It’s cynical and ultimately bleak, but, worst of all, it’s entirely accurate.

    5 out of 5

    Network placed 21st on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Ran
    (1985)

    2018 #203
    Akira Kurosawa | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan & France / Japanese | 12 / R

    Ran

    Akira Kurosawa returns to Shakespeare (after Throne of Blood quite closely adapted Macbeth and The Bad Sleep Well may or may not have been based on Hamlet) for an adaptation of King Lear, relocated to feudal Japan. At the time, it was speculated to be his final film. It wasn’t — he made three more — but this was his last large-scale work.

    The title translates roughly as “chaos”, “pandemonium”, or “turmoil” — I guess they didn’t bother retitling it for the West because the original is a nice, simple word we can understand. But the original meaning is clearly apt, because the film depicts the mayhem that ensues when a warlord abdicates and tries to divide his kingdom between his three sons.

    It’s testament to Kurosawa’s greatness that he can make a movie this magnificent and I wouldn’t even put it in his top five. That might be my failing, though — this is a longer and more complex work than, say, Throne of Blood or Sanjuro. I need to revisit all of Kurosawa’s movies, but none more so than this.

    5 out of 5

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

    Prevenge
    (2016)

    2018 #208
    Alice Lowe | 88 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Prevenge

    Seven-months-pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe, who also writes and directs) believes she can hear the voice of her unborn baby, and it’s telling her to kill people. Why is a mystery… unless you read the Wikipedia entry, which just tells you upfront. (Don’t read the Wikipedia entry.)

    The behind-the-scenes story of Prevenge is impressive: it was made while Lowe herself was pregnant; she wrote it in just four days, and shot it in just 11. Speed is no indicator of quality, either positively nor negatively, but Prevenge is very good. The premise is obviously absurd, but it leans into that by being darkly funny. As a horror movie, it’s not scary, more kind of creepy, although not even quite that — it’s not playing on those kind of thrills.

    Perhaps this means it fails to satisfy “horror fans”, thus explaining its fairly low score on IMDb, which I think is unwarranted. But it’s also not what people have started to call “elevated horror” (i.e. horror that is acceptable as a Quality Movie too), because it’s too transgressive for that. Perhaps it is best taken as an exceptionally black comedy.

    4 out of 5

    Bridget Jones’s Baby
    (2016)

    2018 #209
    Sharon Maguire | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, France & China / English | 15 / R

    Bridget Jones's Baby

    I first and last watched the original Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, The Edge of Reason, many years ago (probably close to when they were originally released, in 2001 and 2004 respectively; certainly well before this blog existed). I didn’t dislike them, but all I can really remember about them is broad-sweep stuff, including barely anything from the second one. So I didn’t come to this belated third movie as an all-read-up fan; but, just like the first two, I didn’t dislike it… and, 100 weeks later, can barely remember any details about it. (I read the detailed plot description on Wikipedia and some of it came back to me.)

    The storyline is mostly pretty obvious — it’s a recycle of the previous films’ love triangle thing, now with the added complexity of a pregnancy — which means the over-two-hours running time feels somewhat excessive (I continue to believe all comedies should be about 90 minutes). In spite of that, it’s often pretty funny. Some of the riffs on modern media and whatnot are a bit tired (“those young people, just posting photos of their food on Instagram!”), but other gags land well enough.

    In the earlier movies, Renée Zellweger attracted praise for her ability to inhabit a British lass. It feels like she’s forgotten how to do the accent in the 12 year gap; or maybe it’s just thanks to the work she’s obviously had done on her face… At least she’s helped by a supporting cast so stuffed with quality performers from UK comedies that some literally just appear in the back of shot (presumably there were deleted scenes).

    Reasonably successful at what it sets out to do, then; enough so that there’s been talk of a fourth one.

    3 out of 5

  • Le Mans ’66 (2019)

    aka Ford v Ferrari

    2020 #177
    James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
    12 / PG-13

    Le Mans '66

    Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

    That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

    Winner!

    To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

    The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

    Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

    We are golden

    That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

    Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

    4 out of 5

    Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

    Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

    2018 #228
    Frank Pavich | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | France & USA / English, French, German & Spanish | 12A / PG-13

    Jodorowsky's Dune

    In 1974, director Alejandro Jodorowsky was hot off a pair of psychedelic projects — “acid Western” El Topo and surrealist fantasy The Holy Mountain — that had brought some cult attention and success (El Topo was the original “midnight movie”, while The Holy Mountain was apparently second only to that year’s Bond film at the Italian box office). Consequently, his French distributor, Michel Seydoux, offered to produce whatever he wanted to do next. Jodorowsky’s answer was Dune. He’d never read it, but he had a friend who said it was fantastic.

    So begins the crazy story of how a director of surrealist Mexican art-films came this close to making an epic space opera out of one of the most acclaimed science-fiction novels ever written, but, in his failure, accidentally helped give birth to Star Wars (sort of), Alien (indirectly), and possibly the entire history of screen science-fiction that did actually get made in the ensuing 40 years. Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Um, well, yeah… but that doesn’t stop some of this documentary’s contributors from asserting it, and they do kind of have evidence.

    Mind you, Jodorowsky’s Dune is full of interviewees making grand assertions, not least the eponymous filmmaker himself. He unironically describes his Dune as “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. He pitches himself as a prophet, thinks of his crew as spiritual warriors, and is convinced the film was going to be a great message for humanity; that it would literally change the world. The lack of self-awareness when he considers Douglas Trumbull to be full of his own importance is palpable. Jodorowsky’s regard for himself and the project may seem deluded, but at least he was committed. They spent two-and-a-half years developing this movie, including storyboarding every shot and getting exactly the right kind of people for the cast and crew — he pursued Dalí literally around the world to persuade him to play the Emperor; he rejected Trumbull, not because of an ego clash, but because he felt he was a technician rather than a spiritual person. He’s a bit barmy, but Jodorowsky definitely believed what he was doing was some grand transcendent enterprise.

    A Chris Foss spaceship design for Dune

    Such an attitude might get you far with arty types, but it doesn’t wash with the moneymen of Hollywood. The film had a projected budget of $15 million, and they went to the Hollywood studios seeking the last $5 million. In hand they had a giant tome containing all the storyboards, the costume and production designs, and so on. The book convinced them — it was well planned out and reasonably costed — but this barmy director — whose only previous films were weird psychedelic experiences; whose response to “make it under two hours” was, “why? If it needs be, it’ll be 12 hours, or 20!” — he didn’t fill them with confidence. And so they didn’t get the money, and the film fell through. Well, duh. Surely they could see how that was going to go? Maybe people just weren’t as savvy in the ’70s, especially these optimistic, committed artists.

    All the documentary’s interviewees act like this was a problem with Hollywood moneymen having no vision, but c’mon, it’s easy to see where they were coming from. Plus, the fact that “the book convinced them” is just the word of Seydoux. Maybe Jodorowsky’s history and attitude was just a convenient excuse, because a lot of the stuff that was designed and planned is quite out there, especially to the mind of a ’70s Hollywood suit. It brings us back to how everyone’s making grand assertions: they all acts like the film was going to be an unquestionable masterpiece, but it seems to me there’s a much higher chance it would’ve been terrible. For one thing, there’s doubt over if they even could have made it. It was an insanely ambitious project, with plans to do things George Lucas wouldn’t even attempt in the prequel trilogy, never mind what he struggled to get done in 1977. But there’s a first time for everything — 2001 still holds up, after all, and that was made seven years earlier. Still, I don’t know how successful Jodorowsky’s surrealist mindset would’ve made it as a movie — it probably would’ve been even less palatable to a mainstream audience than the Lynch version.

    Dune storyboards

    That said, there seems little doubt Jodorowsky was ahead of his time here. For starters, the idea of making a 12-hour film isn’t so ludicrous anymore. In the deleted scenes (there’s a hefty 46 minutes of them on the Blu-ray), he acknowledges people wouldn’t sit through that, saying he was prepared to release it in chunks if necessary — so, just like Lord of the Rings would do to huge success 25 years later? Jump forward another 20 years, and it’s even how they’re doing Dune, in two parts! Of course, it was unprecedented in 1975; and, decades later, Rings was still seen as a gamble, but it paid off and Hollywood is now littered with franchises where instalments connect up as closely as TV series. And what of TV series, where you’re also seeing 12-hour (or longer) single narratives.

    Aside from general questions of form, when you look at some of Dune‘s storyboards and plans you can see mirrors to stuff that wouldn’t be done until later. This is where the claim that Jodorowsky’s work on Dune led to Star Wars, Alien, et al, comes from, because you can see parallels between what he did and what would come after. His film was never made, but they produced 20 copies of that book I mentioned, and only two are known to exists (one with Jodorowsky, one with Seydoux). The rest were left with Hollywood studios. Were they passed around behind-the-scenes? Did the likes of Lucas and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and Mike Hodges and James Cameron really see them and pilfer ideas? Or is it just coincidence — Jodorowsky thought of them first but couldn’t execute them, then others thought of them independently and pulled it off. Pick your own side.

    However, the claim that Dune led almost directly to Alien is less dubious. After he rejected Trumbull, Jodorowsky saw John Carpenter’s Dark Star and was impressed enough to hunt down its visual effects guy, Dan O’Bannon. Concept artists he hired included Chris Foss (painter of sci-fi book covers, mainly spaceships); Moebius (French comic book artist, for costume designs and storyboards); and H.R. Giger (German artist, who designed the dark and twisted world of the film’s villains). Those who know their Alien history might recognise all of those names: after Dune fell through, O’Bannon went on to write Alien, and all three of those designers followed on to the project. Maybe Alien would have come together just as well without the lead-in from Dune, we’ll never know, but those connections are pretty striking.

    Giger at work on Dune

    Lest you feel bad for everyone just ripping Jodorowsky off, he was able to recycle some of the ideas himself. His vision for Dune was only broadly faithful (one of the better deleted scenes is about his attitude to adaptation, which it seems Frank Herbert agreed with; i.e. that it’s not about being faithful, but reimagining something as a new, different work of art), and so he had plenty of fresh ideas that, presumably, weren’t tied up in the rights to Dune. Jodorowsky and Moebius piled some of these directly into later comic book collaborations, like The Incal and The Metabarons. A good idea never dies, I guess. Well, whether they were good ideas or just good in Jodorowsky’s mind, I don’t know. It does make me interested to read those books, though.

    Jodorowsky’s Dune is an interesting “what if” in the history of science-fiction cinema, and this documentary does a good job of being a making-of for a movie that was never made. (If you think this review reads like I’ve just regurgitated the entire story, I promise, there’s a lot more in the film; not to mention the unique benefits of hearing it from the horses’ mouths, rather than my abridgement for the sake of appending my own opinions.) Some critics assert the documentary does more than just recount interesting anecdotes; that it offers some kind of transcendent viewpoint about the creation of art. Maybe if you’re of a similarly spiritual disposition to Jodorowsky himself, that’s what you’ll take from it. For me, it’s most interesting as a window into what might have been. If it had been made, would Jodorowsky’s Dune occupy the place of Star Wars in our culture? Its devotees think so. I don’t, to be honest. But it’s fun to think about.

    4 out of 5

    The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune will be released later today.

    Before Midnight (2013)

    2018 #205
    Richard Linklater | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Greece / English | 15 / R

    Before Midnight

    The third film in co-writer/director Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy catches up with couple Celine (Julie Delpy, also a co-writer) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke, the third co-writer) in middle age, after years of being together, with two kids (plus his kid from a previous relationship) and a host of problems bubbling under the surface.

    Linklater got a lot of attention for shooting coming-of-age drama Boyhood in real-time over 12 years, but for my money he’s used a similar technique to much better effect in this trilogy. It’s a different way of handling it, of course: Boyhood was filmed across all 12 of those years, following the characters closely as they grow and change; whereas the Before films drop us in for a crucial few hours once every nine years, thereby offering a more concentrated experience of time on screen, but covering so much more in what’s discussed and implied about the time in between our visits.

    The first two films — 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset — are marked by an unreserved romanticism. Midnight is notably different, abandoning that lovey-dovey-ness and replacing it with a powerful examination of the tension in a long-term relationship. In some respects, it’s all the better for it. That’s in no way a criticism of the previous films (I still think Sunrise is first among equals), but it’s realistic that, as time goes on, people change. They can’t be young-spirited and full of the joys of first love forever. Well, they could, but it wouldn’t be life and relationships as most of us know it.

    Jesse and Celine

    Their interpersonal turmoil is all the more affecting because we’ve connected with these characters on and off in real-time for a couple of decades. Consequently, I can’t remember the last time I went on such an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not just realistic, but brave, to choose to swing the film in such a quarrelsome direction, rather than just show them rekindle old passions (again). It leads to an entirely different effect: the first two leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; this is more like being punched in the gut. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. Rather than feeling out of place when put next to its forebears, Midnight feels like a necessary addition.

    My original reviews of Sunrise and Sunset from 2007 (linked earlier) are both marked as 4 out of 5, but I don’t stand by that. I watched them again before Midnight and would unequivocally give them each 5 stars. I wouldn’t want anyone to read all three reviews and think I’m rating Midnight as better than its predecessors. As a trilogy, they’re all almost equally good. I say “almost” because the hard-hitting emotional realism of this one is kinda depressing, while the unabashed romanticism of the first two is lovely. Maybe how you are as a person dictates which of those ends of the spectrum you prefer, because the dramatic shift in tone does not presage a shift in quality. Put another way, on a qualitative level I think they’re all 5s, but I love the first two that bit more because they’re nicer… but perhaps less real. Either way, together they are one of the greatest trilogies ever made.

    I really hope they do a fourth one, though. Maybe it’s just because I want to spend more time with these characters, but I also feel a little that the series might need balance. As I’ve said, the first two are so of a piece, the third isn’t, so perhaps there’s room for one more ‘act’ to even that up. Or, hey, why not just make another one every nine years until the inevitable? (Now I’m just getting greedy.) Ethan Hawke has observed that Sunrise begins with Celine and Jesse watching a couple in their 40s arguing and Midnight is about Celine and Jesse as a couple in their 40s arguing, so maybe it’s an apt place to stop. But he also says that all it takes is for one of them to have an idea that excites the other two and they’d do it again, so perhaps we can look forward to Before Midday in 2022 after all.

    5 out of 5

    Before Midnight placed 2nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Love on a Leash (2011)

    2020 #173
    Fen Tian | 86 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Love on a Leash

    Love on a Leash first gained a degree of notoriety when some YouTuber happened upon it on Amazon Prime and made a video about it, in which he instructed his followers to rate it 10-out-of-10 on IMDb. Enough of them did that it apparently resulted in his account being banned. (At time of writing, it has a score of 9.2 from almost 6,500 ratings.) I came across it more recently on Letterboxd, where it was featured on a list of divisive films. You only have to look at its ratings spread to see why:

    Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

    Are the 1,504 people who’ve rated it 5 stars in on the same joke as those YouTuber’s fans who rated it 10 on IMDb? Or is there in fact something to this movie that makes some people think “this is worth full marks”? You might be surprised to learn that, actually, I think it’s the latter.

    The film tells the story of Prince, a golden retriever who is actually a man turned into a dog (and whose human name may have been Alvin Flang. Or maybe not — I feel like the dog is an unreliable narrator). How has this happened? Why? Who knows? Who cares? (The film has a lot of random shots of ducks for no obvious reason (it’s almost Lynchian), so my guess is they did it to him. Still don’t know why, though.) Prince learns (from a magic rock-pool) that he can only return to human form by finding the true love of a woman. Enter unlucky-in-love shopgirl Lisa (Jana Camp), who meets Prince in a park and eventually takes him home. What unfolds is not as straightforward as the Beauty and the Beast narrative you might imagine, but to describe any more of the craziness would be to ruin half the fun. The plot’s constant twists and developments beggar belief — it’s genuinely imaginative, in its own way. By which I mean I don’t think you’ll have ever see anything else quite like this.

    Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

    I give full credit to Love on a Leash for just going for it. It’s hard to pigeonhole what genre it was even aiming for. The poster and basic concept suggest a cheesy kids’ film or Hallmark movie; the way it initially plays, you kinda assume it wants to be a romcom; but then it gets so fucking dark (suicide attempt! abusive coworkers! dead dog!), and there’s so much fantastical strange stuff… it’s so much weirder, wilder, and more unique than you can imagine. That’s without even mentioning the bizarre production quirks, like the fact Lisa only wears green clothes and lives in a green house with a green phone and green mugs and green plates… Or that it’s shot with a kind of documentary realism… um, maybe; or maybe it was just done quickly on digital video. There’s definitely no music, though. Like, at all. Even though there’s a composer credited.

    Well, except for a couple of songs the dog sings. Prince is constantly chatting away to himself in voiceover, and sometimes sings little childish ditties too (I suspect they weren’t actually composed by anyone). He can be a right snarky little bugger (he describes the love of his life as a “pizza-faced cinder block”), to the point that I suspect it may all have been improvised by the voice actor in post-production — he seems to be taking the piss out of what’s going on as often as we are.

    Love on a Leash was written and directed by Fen Tian, a 64-year-old Chinese woman who came to America in her 40s “with fifty dollars in her pocket, and not one word of English in her possession,” according to her production bio. It asserts that the screenplay won an award and funding from the Taiwan government, and at one point she took an American cast and crew to China to shoot it but funding fell through. After decades of trying, the film was eventually produced “with barely enough money to cover craft services”, and during post-production she “slept on the couches of her editors, dragging around her blanket, toothbrush, pillow and thirty-nine DV cam reels” and “spoiled” her team by “cooking up huge feasts of homemade Chinese food, and fixing her crew’s love lives with a motherly heart and some Chinese wisdom.” I feel like this deserves a Disaster Artist-type biopic…

    What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes...

    So, we come to the issue I touched on at the start: how do you rate a film like this? As an exercise in moviemaking, it’s a 1. The storyline is borderline nonsensical; it’s shot like an amateur using a camcorder for the first time; the sound mix is so unfinished I’m not sure it was ever started… And yet it’s constantly enjoyable, partly through a “so bad it’s good” hilarity (see the aforementioned terrible filmmaking), but also for the barminess with which it conducts itself, the relentless forward momentum of the storyline leading us in unpredictable narrative directions. Like famous cult favourite The Room, it transcends its amateur awfulness to be an artistic experience all of its own. In fact, it achieves a higher level of genuine artistry than The Room for me, because Wisseau’s film sometimes mires itself in wannabe-seriousness and runs out of stuff to laugh at, whereas Love on a Leash is restless in its creativity and consequently almost non-stop entertaining. It transcends its obvious awfulness through a kind of perverse innovation; a commitment to not hewing to any recognisable conventions. And it’s really funny — sometimes deliberately, often not.

    With reservations duly noted, then, I honestly and unequivocally give Love on a Leash full marks.

    5 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup X

    These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

    This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

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

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

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

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • Ready or Not (2019)

    2020 #90
    Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Ready or Not

    In my review of Get Out, I took issue with the fact that some people labelled it a “comedy horror”, because it wasn’t particularly funny. I mention that because Ready or Not takes a broadly similar premise to Get Out (albeit with white people and no commentary on racial issues) but does take things in a comedic direction.

    The similarity comes in that it’s about bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time at their wedding. On the wedding night, she’s introduced to an odd family ritual: she must select a card from a puzzle box and they play whatever game is on the card. Unfortunately for her, Grace gets “hide and seek”, which in this case is not just regular hide and seek: while she hides, the family arm themselves to hunt and kill her. Hilarity ensues.

    Badass bride

    Well, okay, maybe not hilarity per se, but this is definitely a comedy-horror, with more laughs than scares and an appropriate amount of gore. It obviously owes a debt to other movies, or at least has points of similarity (You’re Next particularly comes to mind), but it also has a few nice subversions and doesn’t always go the way you’d think — and when it subverts things that have already been subverted, like some kind of triple-cross of subversion, then you know it’s not as dumb a movie as some people think. Its biggest failing for me was the photography, too much of which is caked in over-graded green. The final shot is fab, though; indeed, the whole climax is an all-timer.

    There were times I wanted a bit more from Ready or Not to push it over into classic status, but even without that final extra something, if you enjoy your horror-thrillers laced with laughs, it’s an exceptionally fun time.

    4 out of 5

    Ready or Not is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.