The Dark Tower (2017)

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

The Dark Tower

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

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

Strut

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

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

Slinging guns

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

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

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5

Shrek 2 (2004)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek 2

Not so far, far away…

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 93 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 19th May 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd July 2004
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $919.8 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, The Love Guru)
Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Norbit)
Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels, The Holiday)
Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, The Skin I Live In)
John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda)
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Princess Diaries)
Jennifer Saunders (Muppet Treasure Island, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie)
Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband, St. Trinian’s)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)
Kelly Asbury (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs Aliens, Sausage Party)

Screenwriters
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Pip)
Joe Stillman (Shrek, Planet 51)
J. David Stem (The Rugrats Movie, The Smurfs)
David N. Weiss (All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Smurfs 2)

Story by
Andrew Adamson (Shrek the Third, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig — even more loosely than last time, though.


The Story
Newlyweds Shrek and Fiona travel to meet her parents, the King and Queen of Far Far Away. They’re less than pleased about their daughter marrying an ogre, especially as the King made a deal with Fairy Godmother for her son, Prince Charming, to be Fiona’s husband — and she insists that bargain be fulfilled.

Our Heroes
Shrek and Donkey, off another whirlwind adventure! After Shrek has a lover’s tiff with his new bride, he sets off to try to make himself what he thinks she wants: human.

Our Villain
Fairy Godmother might seem sweet and helpful, but she actually runs a factory with oppressed workers (they don’t even have dental!) and is manipulating the King so her son can become his heir.

Best Supporting Character
When Fairy Godmother orders the King to deal with Shrek, he seeks out a renowned ogre hunter: Puss in Boots. He may look like an adorable little kitty, but he’s a devil with a sword.

Memorable Quote
“It looks like we’re up chocolate creek without a Popsicle stick!” — Gingerbread Man

Memorable Scene
As a party begins at which Prince Charming will kiss Fiona and make her fall in love with him, Fairy Godmother entertains the guests with a rendition of Holding Out for a Hero — as Shrek and friends storm the castle to rescue his wife.

Memorable Music
The use of pop songs was a defining characteristic of the first Shrek, so naturally that continues here. However, there are also a lot more diegetic songs this time: Jennifer Saunders gets two musical numbers as Fairy Godmother (one an amusing riff on typical Disney numbers, the other mentioned above), plus Tom Waits and Nick Cave both sing (as the same character). The film also includes two really good covers of Holding Out for a Hero (the second, by Frou Frou, plays over the credits), which is some kind of achievement.

Making of / Letting the Side Down
For the UK release, two minor roles were redubbed: Doris the Ugly Stepsister, voiced by chat show host Larry King originally, was replaced by chat show host Jonathan Ross; and the red carpet announcer, voiced by Joan Rivers in the US, was replaced by Kate Thornton, who also must’ve done red carpet stuff at some point, I dunno. I guess it seemed like a fun idea at the time — the idea, presumably, was to localise famous voices with ones that would be better-known in other countries — but they shouldn’t’ve bothered: it’s just distracting, and neither replacement gives a very convincing performance. I think this was the first time such voice localisation had been done, and it seemed to kick off a minor fad for it. I thought it had gone away, but they recently defaced Kung Fu Panda 3 with a similar trick.

Previously on…
Shrek 2 picks up pretty closely from the end of Shrek — you probably need to see that to make full sense of this one.

Next time…
A further two sequels followed, plus a spin-off movie (which has its own spin-offs, including a six-season TV series). There’s also a 4D theme park attraction (which uses a plot that was rejected for Shrek 2) and numerous TV specials. There are always rumours of the franchise getting resurrected, too.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Animated Film, Original Song (Accidentally in Love))
2 Saturn Award nominations (Animated Film, DVD Special Edition)
7 Annie Award nominations (Animated Feature, Animated Effects, Directing, Music, Storyboarding, Voice Acting (Antonio Banderas), Writing)
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (again!)

Verdict

Having said Shrek has aged and dated, I think Shrek 2 has fared better. Arguably the first one has more pure originality, giving birth to an irreverent fairytale meta-verse, but Shrek 2 expands on those building blocks and plays with the ideas. There are lots of fun movie spoofs (though many are from the same era, so their effectiveness could partly be nostalgia), the climax is a legitimately good action sequence (see Memorable Scene), and there’s even a decent thematic throughline about what you’re prepared to do or give up for the one you love. Plus the animation looks a lot more polished — three years makes a huge difference in computer animation, especially in the early noughties. The first one has its moments, for sure, and perhaps some of them are better or more memorable too, but as an overall film I prefer the sequel.

Shrek (2001)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek

The greatest fairy tale never told.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 29th June 2001
Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Gross: $484.4 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Cat in the Hat)
Eddie Murphy (Coming to America, Dreamgirls)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, Gangs of New York)
John Lithgow (Cliffhanger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)
Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale, Post Grad)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Joe Stillman (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Gulliver’s Travels)
Roger S.H. Schulman (Balto, Mulan II)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig.


The Story
When his swamp is overrun with fairytale creatures, ogre Shrek sets off to confront the man responsible, Lord Farquaad. To get his land back, Shrek must rescue the Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded castle, so that Farquaad can marry her. But all is not as it appears…

Our Hero
Shrek is a grumpy Scottish-accented ogre who just wants to be left alone in his swamp, but events conspire to get in his way. Of course, as things transpire, he really has a heart of gold.

Our Villain
Men of his stature are in short supply, though there are those who think little of him — it’s Lord Farquaad, who wants Fiona to be his bride primarily so he can become king.

Best Supporting Character
Shrek’s new best friend (whether he likes it or not), wise-cracking ass Donkey, gets many of the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Gingerbread Man: “Do you know… the Muffin Man?”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man.”
Lord Farquaad: “Yes, I know the Muffin Man. Who lives on Drury Lane?”
Gingerbread Man: “Well, she’s married to the Muffin Man…”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man!
Lord Farquaad: “She’s married to the Muffin Man…”

Memorable Scene
As Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey travel back to Lord Farquaad, they’re jumped upon by Robin Hood (who, for no apparent reason, has a French accent) and his Merry Men, attempting to rescue Fiona by, in part, singing a merry song. But she doesn’t want rescuing and so goes all Matrix on their merry arses.

Memorable Music
As part of its generally irreverent take on myths and fairytales, Shrek is laden with contemporary popular music. It was all very modern at the time, but, 17 years on, it’s obviously dated itself, sounding distinctly early-millennium-y now.

Technical Wizardry
The overall animation quality may be looking a bit dated now, but Shrek hails from the era when every major new computer-animated movie was breaking ground in the field, in one way or another. In Shrek‘s case, it was the ability to realistically animate hair and grass.

Next time…
To date there have been three sequel movies, a spin-off movie (which then has its own world of attendant spin-offs, including a six-season TV series), a 4D theme park attraction (which was included in 3D on some DVD releases of the film), plus numerous TV specials and the like, as well as a stage musical version. There are constant rumours of the franchise getting a big-screen continuation, too.

Awards
1 Oscar (Animated Feature)
1 Oscar nomination (Adapted Screenplay)
1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)
5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Music, Sound, Special Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA Children’s Award (Film)
1 Saturn Award (DVD Special Edition)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Writing, Music)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Theatrical Feature, Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature, Voice Acting by a Male Performer in an Animated Feature (Eddie Murphy), Individual Achievement for Effects Animation, Individual Achievement for Music Score an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Storyboarding in an Animated Feature)
4 Annie Award nominations (Individual Achievement for Character Animation (x3), Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (seriously)

Verdict

DreamWorks’ irreverent riff on fairytale animations was a breath of fresh air back in 2001, allowing them to net the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ahead of Disney or Pixar. A decade and a half of imitators have taken the shine off that somewhat, as have advances in technology (old CGI ages worse than old cel animation), but it remains an amusing and quotable film, with a surprisingly strong moral message at its heart.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

aka Zatôichi senryô-kubi

2018 #24
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

The sixth film in the Zatoichi series (and the first of four released in 1964) begins with blind masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) paying tribute at the grave of a man he killed (Ichi must spend most of his time pinballing from one such grave to another). Afterwards he stumbles upon a group of celebrating villagers — they’ve finally managed to scrape together enough money to pay the taxman the thousand ryo they owe. But when that money is stolen, Ichi happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of being involved in the theft. He sets out to clear his name — and, despite the abuse they hurl his way, also get the villagers their money back, because he’s that kind of fella.

What unfurls is one of the series’ typically fiddly plots, characterised by a shortage of explanation about who’s who, meaning it requires attention to work out what’s going on sometimes. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a cultural issue; by which I mean, would these stories be easier to follow for Japanese viewers? Or is it just a particular feature of the Zatoichi series’ plots? Mind you, other reviews note how straightforward the story is this time out. Perhaps the problem is just getting to grips with who’s who — these films don’t always lay that out neatly. Once you have a handle on that then, yes, Chest of Gold’s story is pretty linear. It does try to play something of a twist about who’s behind the theft of the money, but that revelation shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

Nighttime meeting

None of this is to say Chest of Gold is a poor film. Far from it. For one thing, it’s probably the most artfully directed Zatoichi film so far. Or if not artfully then certainly energetically — it’s full of more unusual angles and editing tricks than the previous films put together. But director Kazuo Ikehiro isn’t just a show-off, knowing when to not over-complicate matters: if a sequence calls for a simpler series of shots (in a dialogue scene, for example) then that’s what we get. The cinematography looks superb too, with a palpable richness. It was lensed by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa and Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu for Kenji Mizoguchi, amongst other noteworthy work. When you hire the best, etc.

Their talents extend to filming the action scenes, which are some of the series’ best. They’re brief but furious, especially one where Ichi takes down a convoy of executioners, including a compliment of musketeers, filmed in a single take with a simple pan. Such understated filming lets Katsu’s combat choreography be front and centre. There’s an unexpected and quite vicious epilogue fight scene too, described by Chris D. in his Criterion notes as “one of the highlights of the series”. That’s against Jushiro, one of the series’ greatest villains, who’s just as menacing when comparing Ichi to a worm as he is when wielding his whip or sword. He’s played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who previously appeared as the second film’s antagonist, but is a different character here.

Bathtime meeting

It’s quite a brutal and adult film all round, actually: there’s blood spurting all over the place in several of the fight scenes (a first for the series); a sequence where three of the villagers are cruelly tortured; and a somewhat risqué scene where our masseur hero gets a special kind of massage himself, from a very obliging woman who, to Ichi’s surprise, expects payment after… though when he gets a whiff of her hand…

Chest of Gold doesn’t deviate from the Zatoichi formula so much that it feels out of place, but it does have enough unique and memorable elements to mark it out. It’s the series’ best entry since the first, and, based on other reviews and rankings, seems likely to remain near the top of the list.

4 out of 5

Benji (2018)

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

Benji

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

“5

Okay, more seriously…

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

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

Benji's on the case

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

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

Run, Benji, run!

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

4 out of 5

Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

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

Cars 3 (2017)

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

Cars 3

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

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

Storm vs Lightning

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

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

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

4 out of 5

Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Long Way North (2015)

aka Tout en haut du monde

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

Long Way North

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

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

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

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

5 out of 5

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

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

2018 #47
Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: The Last Knight

Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

Non-stop Bayhem

And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^