Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

2017 #19a
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

Black and Doof

And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

Furiouser and Furiosa

Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

2017 #4
Taika Waititi | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The most recent feature from the director of the very-different-to-each-other What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, this very-different-again* adventure-comedy-drama was a surprise hit in its native New Zealand, then around the rest of the world, before it wound up as Empire magazine’s pick for the best film of 2016.

Young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a delinquent who’s been rejected by every foster family in the city, so in a last-ditch attempt to avoid juvie he’s homed at the remote farm of kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her terse, irritable husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Despite initial misgivings, Ricky warms to his new home, so when child services threaten to take him away again he runs away into the bush. He’s soon found by Hec, but as child services launch a nationwide manhunt for the missing pair, they decide to go on the run as fugitives.

So yes, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Ricky and Hec end up bonding and working together and all that jazz. But this isn’t the kind of movie where it’s all about developing mutual respect and having heartfelt hugs and making declarations of everlasting father-son love. Well, maybe it is a little, in its own way — but it’s also the kind of movie where they (spoilers!) write awesome birthday songs, end up in a punch-up with some hunters, steal all-important loo roll, meet a girl worthy of the old Flake adverts, eat relaxing sausages, stumble into a vicious fight with a giant boar, and engage in the wildest third-act police car chase since… I dunno, Blues Brothers or something.

Skuxx 4 life

Writer-director Waititi (adapting the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump) keeps a fairly tight hand on the film’s tone, a slightly leftfield view of the world that isn’t as extremely stylised as, say, Wes Anderson, but nonetheless is heightened beyond the normal boundaries of real-life. I only say a “fairly tight” grip because a couple of comic cameos arguably stretch things a little too far, but that’s a minor complaint. Mostly he’s skilful in balancing the comedy with genuine emotion, so that the former never neuters the latter, but equally the latter never dares become too sickly. The events of the plot may not be plausible, but the emotional underpinnings are.

Nonetheless, it’s regularly hilarious, especially when centred on Dennison and Neill’s interactions. It’s the kind of role and deadpan performance that will no doubt have some hailing Dennison as a real find, and maybe he will be, or maybe he’ll go the way of most child stars with “breakthrough” roles like this and never be heard from again. Pardon my cynicism, but it seems to be such a perfect marrying of actor and role that I’m not sure it marks the start of a glittering career so much as one superb turn. Maybe I’m wrong; time will tell. Neill, on the other hand, juggles grumpiness, likeability, and pathos in a manner that suggests his near-relegation to “the guy from Jurassic Park” for the last quarter-century is a real shame. I’m not intending to dismiss everything he’s done between then and now (some of which I’m a definite fan of), but this is likely the best showcase of his abilities for a long time.

Unhappy campers

The rest of the cast don’t shirk, with particular note to the kind of double act performed by Rachel House and Oscar Kightley as (respectively) the ‘dedicated’ child services agent and her escorting policeman who lead the manhunt. Whoever was in charge of the soundtrack did an excellent job with several amusing song picks, while the highlight of the score (credited to three composers) is an unusual use of the increasingly ubiquitous Christmas tune Carol of the Bells (the scene in question has nothing to do with Christmas, for starters). Cinematographically, DP Lachlan Milne makes marvellous use of New Zealand’s truly majestical scenery — well, why wouldn’t you?

Whether or not Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best film of last year is immaterial — I mean, it’s a little film from a small country on the other side of the world: it’s not like it’s going to be in competition this awards season, is it? But maybe it should be. Few films get to be this funny without being overworked, this sweet without being cloying, and this quirky without being keraaazy, all at the same time.

5 out of 5

In the UK, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is available on Netflix now, and is released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

* Well, from what I know they all seem very different to each other — I’ve not seen the other two. ^

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

2016 #112
Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

Terrible meal

The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

Terrible face

Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

3 out of 5

The Last Dragonslayer (2016)

2016 #195
Jamie Stone | 101 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK / English

The Last DragonslayerI’m not sure whether to commend or condemn Sky1 for having the balls to schedule a light family-friendly fantasy drama against Doctor Who on Christmas Day — that seems like damning yourself to low ratings. But then Sky never exactly stands at the pinnacle of the charts, and, in the catch-up-driven landscape of modern TV, does it even matter? I mean, as if to show their disregard for schedules, the premiere broadcast was actually at 3am the night before.

Anyway: adapted from the novel by Jasper Fforde (the first in a series, as will eventually become clear), The Last Dragonslayer is the story of Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell), a teenage orphan living in the Ununited Kingdom (a name never uttered on screen, perhaps for fear of looking like political commentary in the current climate). This is an alternate-world Britain where magic exists but is on the wane — it’s powered by dragons, but they’re dying out; besides which, the public have become more enamoured with things like technology and supermarkets. Adopted by the kindly wizard Zambini (Andrew Buchan), Jennifer learns about the importance of magic, and the importance of dragons to magic, which is a bit of a problem when the country’s seers have a mass vision that the last dragon will be slain on Sunday, and shortly thereafter Jennifer discovers her long-prophesied role as the last official dragonslayer.

Jennifer StrangeAbout now you’re probably thinking The Last Dragonslayer is completely derivative of every other major young-adult fantasy franchise of the last… well, forever. It’s hard to deny that the plot is, at least in its broadest thematic strokes, a pretty familiar affair. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is its humorous execution. This isn’t a spoof of the genre, more a satirical mash-up of familiar fantasy building blocks and modern life. So, for example, the king’s chief knight is also a pop star, followed around by a gaggle of adoring female fans; when Jennifer finds herself in need of money, her dragonslaying assistant signs a sponsorship deal with soft drink brand Fizzipop that requires her to film an advert, make at least two promotional appearances, and wear a branded T-shirt until the dragon is slain. It’s this whimsical slant on our world that is arguably Dragonslayer’s most successful aspect.

Another would be its characters. Chappell makes Jennifer a capable hero without having to resort to the kind of self-serious moping that dogs so many current young adult leads (Katniss, I’m looking at you). Buchan also gets to move away from the moping that’s so often called for in series like Broadchurch, making the affectionate, skilful Zambini an easily likeable character within just a few deceptively simple scenes. Without meaning to spoil the plot, he’s not in it enough. The slack is taken up by the likes of Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson as a pair of batty magicians, Matt “Toast” Berry as the immature monarch, and Anna Chancellor as the smarmy corporate head of supermarket giant Stuff Co. The only weak like for me was Richard E. Grant as the voice of Maltcaisson, the last dragon — it just didn’t feel like he had the vocal presence to be playing a huge majestic beast. But not everyone can be John Hurt or Benedict Cumberbatch, I suppose.

Dragon breathI guess The Last Dragonslayer’s irreverent, sometimes silly tone won’t be to all tastes, but I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly (all things considered) the book is the first in a series, and so not everything is fully resolved by the film’s end. Let’s hope that, in spite of their scheduling, it’s done well enough for Sky that sequels are forthcoming.

4 out of 5

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

2016 #176
Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

Kung Fu Panda 3Po and co are back in a movie that bucks the sequel trend by being perhaps the best Kung Fu Panda yet.

The two-pronged plot sees Po (Jack Black) finally meet his birth father (Bryan Cranston), while evil warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks out of the afterlife to hunt down the Dragon Warrior, putting Po’s new-found community in harm’s way.

After the occasionally muddled second film (which I felt improved a little with repeated viewings, at least), KFP3 sets the legendary adventures of awesomeness back on track with an appealing mix of humour, action, and moral lessons for kiddies and adult viewers alike. It keeps things focused and pacey, running just 83 minutes before credits, as well as maintaining the series’ typically stunning animation, which is just as polished whether creating epic scenery or up-close physical combat.

It’s also particularly satisfying when watched alongside its forerunners: it feels like the Po’s story has come full circle, with the film linking in and wrapping up plot points from the first movie (as well as resolving things from the second). Reportedly DreamWorks have three more Kung Fu Panda films planned, but at this point it feels like a completed trilogy.

A downside for UK viewers, though: our localised soundtrack replaces the voices of two palace geese with members of the Vamps, who are a popular music combo, apparently. Wow. Aside from the underwhelmingness of the ‘famous’ guest voices, they’re appalling actors. They only have about three lines between them and they’re still terrible. To rub salt in the wound, some ‘clever’ disc coding means that if you have a Region B Blu-ray player this soundtrack is completely unavoidable, even if you import. Poor region-locked people. Family resemblanceI hope for humanity’s sake the version on Sky Cinema retains the original voices.

There are very few threequels that can lay claim to being a series’ best entry. Whether KFP3 actually tops the original or not is debatable, but it at least feels like a course correction after the somewhat disappointing first sequel.

4 out of 5

Kung Fu Panda 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 1:40pm and 7:15pm.