Tomb Raider (2018)

2020 #143
Roar Uthaug | 118 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Tomb Raider

In this gritty(-ish) reboot of the videogame-turned-movie franchise (inspired by a similar reboot they did in the games), Lara Croft loses her most famous twin assets — her dual pistols (also, her giant boobs) — instead replacing them with a bow & arrow (and muscles, respectively) for an adventure that sees her travelling to a secret island where her father disappeared seven years earlier while in search of an ancient curse surrounding a long-lost tomb. Well, natch — clue’s in the title.

“Movie based on a game” used to be synonymous with “shit”, and to an extent that reputation persists — it takes time to turn such widespread prejudices around — but there have been a few in recent years to buck the trend, like trashy-but-fun Rampage and (apparently) Angry Birds 2. For my money, Tomb Raider is part of that movement. For one thing, it manages to actually feel like the games (or, at least, what I presume the games are like — I’ve never really played any of them), which is a noteworthy point for a genre that sometimes spectacularly failed to understand its source material. Tomb Raider successfully recreates the running, jumping, shooting, puzzle-solving action of its inspiration without too overtly abandoning real-life logic for video game logic. Well, I say “real-life logic” — it’s actually “action/adventure movie logic”, but I think that’s allowed in an action/adventure movie.

As an entry in that genre, it’s fun enough. It’s not going to compete for greatest-of-all-time status with its urtext, the Indiana Jones films, nor does it quite challenge the heights of more-overt homages like The Mummy, but it’s not a bad couple of hours’ entertainment in their mould. On the downside, the amount of preamble the plot goes through before taking us to the island is a tad unnecessary, mainly because there are a couple of early set pieces that feel forced to make sure there’s some action in the first act. I can understand having one or two (as much as anything, it establishes that Lara isn’t completely unskilled in combat and physical endurance), but it feels like padding. Besides, we’ve come for an Indiana Jones-esque affair — a bicycle race around grey London isn’t quite the right tone.

Hanging around

Alicia Vikander is more than capable in the lead role, both as an actress and a physical performer — she’s clearly developed the physique for the part, and apparently did her own stunts. Unfortunately, her accent is a little all over the place, a blend of English and Swedish (rather similar to Rebecca Ferguson’s) with occasional flecks of Irish. It’s kind of charming in itself, and I guess it just passes as “English” to Americans, but it’s too distractingly ‘off’ to truly pass as the upper-crust English girl Lara is meant to be. She’s surrounded by a supporting cast of reliable performers — Walton Goggins (surprisingly understated as the villain), Dominic West, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Nick Frost (just a cameo) — but none leave a particularly large mark.

A quick word on the 3D, which is fairly enjoyable. I’d heard bad things, but it’s not awful, just unexceptionally adequate — a bit like the film itself, I guess. It adds somewhat to the “hanging over a chasm” shots (of which there are more than a handful), if nothing else.

The film ends with a massive sequel tease, which I thought was fairly well handled. I’ve often criticised movies that exist purely to setup sequels/trilogies/franchises, and there are clearly parts of Tomb Raider that have been designed to do that, but it’s managed well enough to not really intrude until the final scenes. That said, it’s an odd kind of tease, suggesting more “corporate espionage” than “tomb raiding”. Unlike so many sequel teases nowadays, this one will actually be acted upon: after some umming and ahhing (the film wasn’t a huge box office hit, but did respectably outside the US, particularly in lucrative markets like China and the UK), it’s going ahead… with Ben Wheatley directing! Colour me surprised. (It was scheduled for release in March 2021, but the shoot was meant to begin in April 2020 and, surprise surprise, got cancelled, so who knows.)

Tomb raiding

A lot of this review has wound up couched in disclaimers but, fundamentally, I enjoyed Tomb Raider. It may not have a surfeit of original ideas, but once it gets going it offers up solid levels of excitement — highlights include a protracted boat crash in a storm, Lara negotiating a plane teetering on a cliff edge, and the titular raiding of a tomb, which occupies the third act. If Wheatley can supplement that with a dash of his trademark oddness, the sequel might well be worth looking forward to.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Tomb Raider is on ITV tonight at 7:50pm.

The 100-Week Roundup V

Like last time, these five films are connected not only by when I watched them (July 2018), but also by a shared star rating.

Incidentally, it’s about to be a busy time for these 100-week roundups — there should be one every week for the next few weeks to keep up with my backlog. (As time goes on, such frequency may become commonplace.)

In this week’s roundup…

  • Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
  • Blade of the Immortal (2017)
  • Cash on Demand (1961)
  • Free Enterprise (1998)
  • Iron Monkey (1993)


    Muppet Treasure Island
    (1996)

    2018 #147
    Brian Henson | 96 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppet Treasure Island

    Following the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the little felt fellas turned their attention to another classic of Victorian English literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s piratical adventure Treasure Island. For my money, the result is even better — it’s so good that it made me want to finally read the novel, or at least watch a ‘proper’ adaptation. (Two years later, I’ve done neither. Typical.)

    Why Muppet Treasure Island doesn’t attract the same level of love that’s reserved for their Christmas Carol is beyond me, because it’s really a lot of fun. I’m predisposed to enjoy piratical movies, for whatever reason, so perhaps it appeals to me more than average; but even allowing for such bias, I think this is one of the more enjoyable Muppet movies — if I were to rank them, it would be a toss up between this and the 2011 reboot for first place.

    The best bit is definitely the songs, which are properly good. It helps when you’ve got the likes of Tim Curry to sing them, of course. They’re not all the kind of outright comedy numbers you’d expect, either: the opener, Shiver Me Timbers, is quite dark, in fact. They’re supported by a score by Hans Zimmer, which with hindsight sounds like a dry run for Pirates of the Caribbean. There are seven songs in all, and only one that I didn’t really like, which I’d regard as a good hit rate for a musical.

    To top it off, the film ends with a Muppet sword fight. Really, what more could you want?

    4 out of 5

    Muppet Treasure Island placed 17th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Blade of the Immortal
    (2017)

    aka Mugen no jûnin

    2018 #148
    Takashi Miike | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan, UK & South Korea / Japanese | 18 / R

    Blade of the Immortal

    Billed as the 100th film directed by Takashi Miike (which it isn’t, but hey), Blade of the Immortal is actually the first one I’ve seen by the (in)famous director. Based on a manga series, it’s about a samurai who’s rendered immortal to serve penance for his crimes, and the young woman who engages him as a bodyguard to avenge her murdered family.

    It’s a bit episodic at first, as our (anti)hero battles through the villains’ top swordsmen one by one, but that means there’s a regular feed of action sequences between the two bookends that are highlighted in the promotion: how he fights 100 men at the beginning, and 300 men for the climax. That last half-hour is an epic flurry of violence, by the end of which rivers of blood flow — literally.

    Aside from the combat, dramatically and thematically a lot of it is about the difference between good and bad, hero and villain; how, really, there’s not so much difference after all — sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective. It could’ve gone for a more streamlined, straightforward revenge narrative, but it throws many characters into the mix with attendant thematic points, which do lend more texture. Or, if you don’t fancy thinking about that stuff, there’s just a lot of really good fight scenes.

    4 out of 5

    Cash on Demand
    (1961)

    2018 #154
    Quentin Lawrence | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | UK / English | PG

    Cash on Demand

    This Brit-noir came to my attention thanks to the ghost of 82’s review after Indicator included it in one of their Hammer sets (though I caught it on TV). It’s basically a real-time single location thriller (so right up my street) starring Peter Cushing as a bank manager faced with a clever robber — far from a showy heist, this is a calm, almost sedentary robbery… which ultimately gives way to a furious bevy of twists and counter-twists in the film’s closing minutes.

    It’s led by an excellent performance from Cushing, who convinces entirely as an uptight jobsworth brought low by the stress he must endure, which reveals his true character. The film’s focus is on the ringer he goes through thanks to the heist, rather than on clever details of the heist itself — certain plot points are never explained, but it doesn’t matter because this isn’t about the robbery, it’s about how the robbery affects Cushing. To that end, he’s also nicely contrasted with André Morell as the affable thief, particularly as the pair spend much of the film in extended two-handers. Quentin Lawrence’s direction is unflashy but effective, allowing their performances to shine. It’s almost televisual, though with more setups than anything studio-bound of that era would’ve allowed. No surprise, then, that he only directed a handful of films, mostly plying his trade in ’60s and ’70s TV series.

    I do wonder if we could have spent more time with the rest of the bank’s staff, who remain unaware a robbery is taking place. As it stands, they’re all established at the beginning, but then mostly pushed aside until near the end, when they conduct their own investigation for all of two scenes. What if that was expanded into a proper B-plot through the movie? I think it could make the film even better by adding the potential for even more tension. Perhaps it could withstand an expanded remake…

    4 out of 5

    Free Enterprise
    (1998)

    2018 #158
    Robert Meyer Burnett | 109 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Free Enterprise

    Relationship/sex comedy meets geek reference-athon in this ’90s indie that plays like Swingers meets Clerks (he says never having seen Clerks, so that’s just an assumption of what it’s like).

    It slots into what seems like a very ’90s subgenre: the “young film-loving people trying to break into Hollywood” thing. I’m sure there are lots of societal and industrial reasons why there were so many movies in that vein produced in the ’90s. It also comes with the era’s schtick of dialogue loaded to the nines with pop culture references. It’s perhaps an overfamiliar style now, but here it’s at least quite witty and well performed.

    Indeed, this is so a ’90s indie all-round — you know, like the early Tarantinos, and everyone who copied his dialogue’s voice, that kind of thing. If that’s not your bag, you’ll hate Free Enterprise. But if you enjoy that style of film, and if you love geek culture too, well, this was made for you. Literally, I should think. It certainly felt made for me, and I’m not even a Trekkie. To laypeople, it might just look like “Swingers with geek references”, or conversely (to use that old stereotype of geeks), “my life but with sex”.

    So, to give it a 4-star rating feels like a very personal reaction — I think you’ve got to hit the right confluence of interests to get the maximum enjoyment out of this movie. But if you do, it’s really rather good.

    4 out of 5

    Iron Monkey
    (1993)

    aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau

    2018 #160
    Yuen Woo-ping | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

    Iron Monkey

    Back around the time I was first getting interested in Asian action cinema — when the Hong Kong Legends DVD label was doing sterling work bringing so many titles to the UK market in extras-packed editions — Iron Monkey was fêted as an absolute modern classic. I think it was one of the first to get a two-disc special edition from HKL too, as if to emphasise its importance. But I never got round to watching it, and so now it perhaps came overburdened with expectation. I found it to be a mix of impressively choreographed action, goofy humour, and a rather slight plot.

    The fights are definitely the star; without those, it’s no great shakes. But then, what do you come to this kind of movie for? It’s definitely one I need to revisit and reassess. (And as it’s been two years now, maybe it’s about time I did…)

    4 out of 5

  • Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

    aka Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw*

    2020 #40
    David Leitch | 137 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Samoan & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw

    In my review of Fast & Furious 8, I singled out the odd-couple double-act of lawman Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and semi-reformed criminal Deckard (Jason Statham) for particular praise. Well, clearly I wasn’t alone in that view, because the pair have become the subject of the first Fast & Furious spinoff. (It’s kind of ridiculous that this is devalued as a spinoff while Tokyo Drift gets to sit there as part of the main series, but that’s a whole other debate.)

    Here, despite their mutual antipathy, Hobbs and Shaw are forced to team-up when technologically-augmented super-soldier Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) manages to frame Deckard’s MI6 agent sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) for the theft of a programmable super-virus. Yep, the series that started out as a based-on-a-newspaper-article story of illegal street racers continues to play in more of a James Bond sandpit, albeit with a continued focus on vehicular activity for the action sequences.

    If you’ve seen any of the recent Fast & Furious movies (since Fast Five performed that soft reboot into the spy caper genre), you should pretty much know what to expect here: physically-implausible OTT action, with a knowing wink to the audience so we can all share in the ridiculousness. It certainly shares some of the main series’ preoccupations — crazy stunts with cars; the importance of family — but it’s a bit less self-serious whenever the latter is mentioned. Obviously on one level it’s a spinoff because the main characters (Vin Diesel and co) aren’t here, but they’ve used that “not part of the main saga” thing to allow it to cut a little loose with the tone; to have a bit of fun. The FF films aren’t at all averse to ludicrous hijinks, but even they don’t indulge as consistently as Hobbs & Shaw does.

    The car's (not) the star

    In fact, while not ‘officially’ labelled a Comedy, Hobbs & Shaw borders on being one. Johnson and Statham are both outwardly old-school action stars who’ve demonstrated a surprisingly good acuity for comedy in previous roles, so pairing them up in a buddy-comedy actioner allows them to spark off each other nicely. It’s directed by David Leitch, who demonstrated a fine handling of the balance between action and comedy in Deadpool 2, and brings a similar touch here. The plot is regularly paused to indulge in what are effectively comedy routines, to the extent of bringing in some cameos to basically do a couple of sketches. (No spoilers as to the identity of the cameos, other than to say they have connections to other work by members of the cast and/or crew, which makes them fun little meta-nods.) If you’re looking for a streamlined story or nonstop action, you’re out of luck, and I imagine the funny bits (which sometimes are allowed to run just a little too long) will get on your nerves. It may push the comedy a little further than regular FF films — tonally, it’s almost Deadpool level at times — but I’m all for it being self-consciously funny, rather than trying to remain po-faced while taking the action to cartoonish extremes.

    Like its saga brethren, Hobbs & Shaw aims squarely at being a couple of hours of pure entertainment for people who enjoy imaginative, physics-defying action scenes and a bit of a laugh on the side. It’s possibly my favourite Fast & Furious film since Fast Five — and I thought F7 and F8 were a lot of ridiculous fun, so that’s not damning with faint praise. There are some teases that it might spark a sequel, or even series, of its own, and I’m definitely up for that.

    4 out of 5

    Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    * I would love to know why Universal continue to insist on slightly retitling these movies for their UK and European releases. At least with, say, The Fate of the Furious I can see they wanted to get the brand name in there properly by officially calling it Fast & Furious 8, but removing Presents from this one? It looks neater, because “Presents” serves no purpose other than to try to suggest this isn’t a ‘real’ Fast & Furious film (and who the fuck cares? Except Vin Diesel, I expect), but, still, why bother to change it? ^

    The 100-Week Roundup III

    In this selection of films I watched back at the end of May / start of June 2018…

  • The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996)
  • The Warriors (1979)
  • Power Rangers (2017)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

    2018 #115
    Sam Peckinpah | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Wild Bunch

    After a gang of ageing crooks’ “one last job” goes sideways, they agree to rob a munitions train for a Mexican general, even as they’re hunted by a militia reluctantly headed by their leader’s former partner.

    The Wild Bunch is, of course, a Western, but it’s set in 1913 — not a time we particularly associate with “the Old West”. Well, change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly takes that “end of an era” thing to heart as a tale of old men, whose way of life is fading away. It’s also a ‘late Western’ in terms of when it was produced: this isn’t an old-fashioned “white hats vs black hats” kinda adventure, but one full of ultra-violence with a downbeat ending. The opening sequence gets pretty bloody, and then the climax is an absolute orgy of violence. It’s still almost shocking today, so you can see how it was controversial back in 1969.

    It’s not just the presence of violence and blood that’s remarkable, though, but how it’s presented, both in terms of filmmaking and morals. To the former, the speed of the cutting was groundbreaking at the time: reportedly it contains more cuts than any other Technicolor film, with 3,643 cuts in the original print. If that’s true, it gives it an average shot length of about 2.4 seconds. For comparison, the average in the ’60s was around 6 or 7 seconds, while even Moulin Rouge, a movie made decades later that was still notorious for its fast cutting, has an average shot length of 2.01 seconds. It’s not just speed that makes the editing so noteworthy, but its effectiveness, making juxtapositions and using shots to both tell the story and create the impression of being in the thick of it.

    Bad boys

    As for the morals, the film was all about showing these violent men as unheroic and unglamorous, setting out to “demystify the Western and the genre’s heroic and cavalier characters” (to quote IMDb). That piece goes on to say that screenwriters Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green “felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based… Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film’s protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.”

    Of course, antiheroes are ten-a-penny nowadays, so the idea that “men who commit violence are bad” doesn’t play as revolutionary anymore. Indeed, The Wild Bunch can be enjoyed as an action movie — there’s the opening and closing set pieces I’ve already mentioned, plus an excellent train robbery and ensuing chase in the middle too, and a couple of other bits. That said, the film has more on its mind than just adrenaline-generating thrills, and so (based on comments I’ve read elsewhere online) if you are watching just for action it can feel like a bit of a slog. While I wouldn’t be that critical, I did find it a bit slow at times. The original distributors must’ve felt the same, as the film was cut by ten minutes for its US release. (The version widely available today is the original 145-minute director’s cut. I watched a PAL copy, hence the 4% shorter running time.)

    4 out of 5

    The Wild Bunch was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

    2018 #115a
    Paul Seydor | 33 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

    This film came to exist because someone found 72 minutes of silent black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of The Wild Bunch. No one knows why it was filmed — this was a long time before the era of EPKs and DVD special features. And, indeed, if it had been discovered just a couple of years later then a DVD special feature is exactly what it would’ve become; but, being just ahead of that, it ended up as a short film — an Oscar-nominated one at that, going up for the Best Documentary Short prize in 1997. Naturally, it has since found its rightful home as a special feature on DVD and Blu-ray releases of its subject matter.

    The silent film footage is accompanied by voice over of first-hand accounts from the people involved, either taken from recorded interviews (people like screenwriter Walon Green and actors Edmond O’Brien and Ernest Borgnine represent themselves) or actors reading out comments (Ed Harris is the voice of Sam Peckinpah, for example). From this we get not only making-of trivia and tales, but also discussion of the filmmakers’ intent and the film’s meaning. More material along the lines of the latter would’ve interested me.

    As it is, An Album in Montage feels very much at home in its current situation as a DVD extra. Fans of the film will certainly get something out of it, but I don’t think it’s insightful enough to stand independently. It’s by no means a bad little featurette, but it’s not worth seeking out outside of the context of the film itself.

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

    2018 #123
    Walter Hill | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Warriors

    In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.IMDb

    And that’s all you need to know, because The Warriors’ plot is really simple and straightforward, but that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t need dressing up; it’s got an almost an elegant directness, and it thrives off that. The action sequences feel unchoreographed, with a bruising realism in spite of their sometimes elaborate setups (duelling baseball bats!), and yet they carry an energy and impact that is wholly in keeping with something carefully designed and constructed. The characters are simply drawn, revealed through their actions rather than telegraphed Character Moments or heartfelt speeches. Similarly, the kind-of-romance between the Warriors’ leader and the girl they run into on the streets is so well handled — okay, there are some scenes where they almost talk about it directly, but mostly it’s just moments or lines that indicate a world of feeling. The way this character stuff is sketched in — subtly, sometimes in the background — is quite masterful, actually.

    Such skill extends throughout the film’s technical side. For all the film’s ’70s grit, there’s some beautiful stuff in the editing and shot choices, especially at the end on the beach. It’s not just beauty in an attractive sense, but meaningful, effective imagery, in a way that impresses without being slick or pretty. The music choices are bang-on too. The film intercuts to a radio station that functions like some kind of Greek chorus, linking the action and helping to create a heightened atmosphere — one that’s there in the whole film, incidentally, with its colourful gangs and detached police presence — without ever shattering the down-to-earth, gritty, almost-real feel the whole thing has.

    Gang wars

    I loved The Warriors, and I think that last point is a big part of why: it sits at an almost inexplicable point where it feels incredibly grounded, gritty and realistic, but at the same time a heightened fantasy kind of world. Here I’m trying to describe why I adored the film bu breaking it down into these constituent parts, but there’s something more to it than that — a kind of magic where it just… works.

    All of that said, it seems I was lucky to catch the original version (via Now TV / Sky Cinema), rather than the so-called Director’s Cut that seems to be the only version available on Blu-ray. Looking at the changes, they don’t seem particularly in keeping with the tone of the movie, smacking of decades-later revisionism. Apparently there’s also a TV version that includes 12 minutes of additional scenes, none of which are included on the film’s disc releases. I wish Paramount would license this out to someone like Arrow to do it properly…

    5 out of 5

    The Warriors placed 11th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

    2018 #126
    Dean Israelite | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Canada & New Zealand / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Power Rangers

    High school outcasts stumble upon an old alien ship, where they acquire superpowers and are dubbed the Power Rangers. Learning that an old enemy of the previous generation has returned to exact vengeance, the group must harness their powers and use them to work together and save the world.IMDb

    Far from the cheesy TV series of old, this Power Rangers reboot clearly wants to be a somewhat gritty, largely realistic, socially conscious take on the concept. But it’s like it was written by people behind the original, because it’s still full of clunky dialogue, earnest characters (with a thin veneer of outsider ‘cool’), and nods to serious issues without having the time or interest to actually engage with them. Like, one of the kids is the sole carer for his sick mother, or another is on the autistic spectrum, but, beyond spending a line or two to tell us these things, those issues have no bearing on the plot or the characterisation. Plus, it can’t overcome some of the fundamental cheesiness of the original. And when it tries to give in to it, like by playing the Power Rangers theme the first time the giant “dinocars” run into action, it’s too late for such shenanigans and the tones clash horrendously. It wants to escape the tackiness of the original series, but simple can’t.

    And somehow it gets worse as it goes on. The early character stuff is derivative but alright. Then you begin to realise how shallow it is. You’re waiting for the super-suits to show up and the action to start. Then you have to wait some more while it works through plot beats so stale it can’t even be bothered to play them out fully. Then, when the suits finally arrive and the action starts, turns out it’s the worst part of the movie. Almost entirely CGI, under-choreographed, a mess of nothingness with little correlation from shot to shot, no sense of rhythm or construction. When their dinocars all merge into one giant dinocar, the villain screams “how?!”, and you will feel the same.

    Bryan Cranston (yes, Bryan Cranston is in this) tries to inject some character into his role, but it’s too underwritten and his screen time too slight to let him do much with his supposed arc. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is barely in it and has no arc whatsoever, but she chews scenery like a pro. She seems to be aware it’s all stupid and over the top and plays it appropriately.

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

    2018 #127
    Martin McDonagh | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.IMDb

    As well as being as deathly serious and sometimes horrifying as the subject matter deserves, Three Billboards is also as funny as you’d expect from the writer-director of In Bruges. Not to the extent — the subject matter is far too serious for it to be an outright comedy like that — but in subplots and interludes it’s hilarious.

    It’s got a helluva cast, and all of the performances are excellent. Frances McDormand is so fucking good that she even manages to make talking to a badly CGI’d deer incredibly emotional. Apparently some people had a massive problem with the film’s treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, I think because he was a bad guy who got redeemed. But, really, imagine thinking people who once did bad things can never turn themselves around and be better people. What a pessimistic way to view the world. And yet I guess that’s what today’s “cancel culture” is all about.

    Two outta three ain't bad

    It’s nicely shot by DP Ben Davis (except for that deer), while Carter Burwell’s Western-esque score has some really cool bits. It really emphasises the film’s formal overtures at being a revenge Western, even if the way it goes down in the end doesn’t necessarily support such a reading.

    There was a huge backlash to the film at some point; bring it up online and you’re likely to come across people who assume everyone hates it… but it’s got 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is still ranked the 150th best film of all time on IMDb, so I think we know where the majority stand. I’m happy to stand with them.

    5 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri placed 14th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

  • Zatoichi at Large (1972)

    aka Zatôichi goyôtabi

    2019 #118
    Kazuo Mori | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi at Large

    I never thought doing a good deed for someone would end up making me a demon.

    The 23rd film in the Zatoichi series is also the worst according to Letterboxd users, who rate it below even the ’00s spinoff, Ichi. But as with all things in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, there are those who disagree: The Digital Bits give it a B+, which puts it in the series’ top half (to be precise, it makes it =7th, but with seven other films). You can add me to that (very short) list. It’s not an exceptional Zatoichi film by any means, but it is a middle-of-the-range entry, and a long way from the worst the series has to offer.

    Between how reviled it is by Letterboxd users and the cartoonish art Criterion chose for it, I assumed this was going to be another woeful attempt at comedy like Doomed Man (which is, in my opinion, by far one of the series’ worst films). It’s quite the opposite: a tragic film, where good and bad alike are faced with impossible choices, or misinterpret evidence that leads them to make rash, fatal decisions. At one point Ichi is captured, tied up, teased and beaten until he’s bruised and bloody — it’s very unpleasant. If the unpleasantness was why it was so disliked then I could see where people were coming from, but criticism seems to hinge mainly on the familiarity of the plot.

    Well, it begins with Ichi stumbling across a dying pregnant woman. He delivers her baby, and her dying wish is that he takes the child to her husband in a nearby village. Naturally, Ichi complies, followed all the way by a young boy who won’t stop throwing stones at him. With the help of the village’s old but honourable constable, Tobei, he locates the baby’s aunt, Oyae. But then the yakuza arrive, demanding taxes from local performers and threatening to force Oyae into prostitution, and once again it’s up to Ichi to save the day.

    Saving the day

    Yes, anyone familiar with Ichi’s adventures can see how that’s a pretty standard storyline. The devil is in the detail, and At Large offers a few interesting characters and subplots. For starters, there’s Tobei — a non-corrupt official is a rarity in this series, but that doesn’t make him dull. He gains depth from both how he treats Ichi (when he finds out the truth about our hero’s past, he doesn’t arrest him) and his relationship with his wayward son, who’s a conman. Their relationship is quite poignant. It’s only when his father finally hits him that the son realises he cares, which makes him happy… but then things take a turn for the worse, leading the former good-for-nothing to set out as an avenger of honour.

    As the villain, yakuza boss Tetsugoro, there’s an interesting performance by Rentarô Mikuni (who previously appeared in Zatoichi the Outlaw, and is also great in the samurai classic Harakiri). He choose to play Tetsugoro as constantly bored, or world-weary, barely interested by or caring about what’s going. For example, he’s been paying everyone 1 ryo to kill Ichi, but when someone demands 50 ryo he does no more than hand-wave his approval. All of which might sound like a criticism, but it’s a surprisingly effective portrayal of disinterested everyday evil. Nothing he does brings him pleasure; nothing that happens causes frustration or surprise — he just exists, doing the only things he knows. Well, that is until he observes Ichi being tortured — then he smiles and laughs. And when he finally kills Tobei — the most moral man around — then he laughs again. Ooh, he’s a nasty piece of work and no mistake!

    Zatoichi tortured

    There are various other bits and pieces that work nicely. Ichi gets to show off, as usual, but it’s always fun. The filmmaking gets a bit of ’70s verve, with a score that is at times very contemporary-pop, and supplementing the series’ normal visual style with some handheld closeup stuff. And the final one-on-one duel is not the usual big showpiece: oddly exposed, almost silent, flash-edited, and over in seconds, with a hard cut to a “the end” card. Depending on your point of view, this is either “almost comically tacked on” (DVD Talk) or “one of the most badass final thirty seconds of any film in this series” (The Digital Bits). I don’t know if I’d go as far as the latter, but it’s certainly a change of pace.

    Zatoichi at Large may just be a remix of various plot bits we’ve seen before, but they’re done with a seriousness and darkness that works. There’s a bit of comedic stuff early on that’s a nonstarter, but once that’s out the way it’s a decent, if fundamentally unoriginal, adventure for Ichi. Indeed, it’s that lack of originality that hurts it most. In itself it’s a perfectly good Zatoichi movie, but we’ve seen almost all of it before. At Large (re)does it all solidly, but it doesn’t do much to improve on previous versions. If more people watched the films out of sequence and came to this earlier, perhaps it would be better liked.

    4 out of 5

    Men in Black: International (2019)

    2020 #85
    F. Gary Gray | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Men in Black: International

    When Men in Black: International* hit cinemas last summer, many, many, many critics used a neuralyzer-related pun prominently in their review. (Someone did a Twitter thread compiling all the near-identical jokes. It reached 120 examples.**) For those unfamiliar with the MIB franchise, the neuralyzer is a small device that can wipe people’s memories, used by the MIB to keep their activities secret. The repetitive and inevitable joke was that International is so bad you’ll want to be neuralzyed afterwards. Now, I swear the film itself is trying to get in on the gag: the only photo printed on its disc is of a neuralyzer, as if the Blu-ray itself is going to wipe your memory when you take it out of your player. If only it did…

    International is essentially a spin-off from the previous trilogy of MIB movies: whereas they followed Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) on adventures in New York, this time we follow newbie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) as she’s relocated to London and paired with hot-shot-agent-gone-off-the-boil H (Chris Hemsworth) on a globetrotting adventure to unearth a mole in MIB.

    Reinvigorating the franchise with new blood isn’t a bad idea. The third film was a marked improvement on the second, but neither recaptured the glories of the first, and K and J’s story was pretty well played out. Hemsworth and Thompson are good picks for the leads, too, given he displayed noteworthy comedic chops in the Ghostbusters reboot and the pair had clear chemistry in the well-liked Thor: Ragnarok.

    Back in black

    But clear-eyed plans alone don’t make a good movie, as Men in Black: International proves. It’s not that the movie is bad per se, it’s just mediocre; bland; uninspired. It’s devoid of wit or charm — which, considering the cast, is kind of remarkable. I mean, it’s not just Hemsworth and Thompson — two appealing, capable leads. There’s also Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson pops up (I didn’t even know she was in it ’til she did), and there’s Rafe Spall (limited by having to be a blatant red herring), and the voice of Kumail Nanjiani. Whoever’s your favourite out of that talented cast, they’re wasted. Neeson is a particular bit of miscasting. Calling the head of London branch “High T” is a perfectly adequate joke, playing on Britishness and poshness… until you cast a guy with a pronounced Northern Irish accent, which just kills the gag dead. Nanjiani fares best as the voice of a little CGI creature, who’s probably meant to be cute but errs more towards annoying, though I didn’t hate him.

    Of course I didn’t hate him — nothing in this movie is emotive enough to be hate-worthy. But by being so bland, it becomes objectionable. MIB2 wasn’t great, but at least it was kind of entertaining in its poorness. International is playing it so safe that you can’t even groan at it, or be delighted when something half-decent emerges from the mire, or be amused by it in spite of itself.

    I guess this is what happens when you hire a primarily action director to helm a movie that should primarily be a comedy. F. Gary Gray did start off his career with a comedy, Friday, but that was 25 years ago. He’s better known for the likes of The Negotiator, the Italian Job remake, Law Abiding Citizen, and The Fate of the Furious. He hasn’t turned this into a straight-up action movie — it does still try to be amusing — but it’s clear the focus is in a different place to before. It’s partly because it’s far too long and lacking in pace. It’s always stick in my mind that the director of the previous MIBs, Barry Sonnenfeld, once said he’s the only director whose Director’s Cut would be shorter than the original film because he’s always looking to strip things back. I suspect that may be part of why the previous movies worked, and it feels like International could really benefit from the same approach.

    Cute and/or annoying CGI creature? Check

    It certainly seemed to me like it was several more drafts away from completion. The twist is so obvious you can guess it just from looking at the cast list, underscored by a prologue that fades to white before it resolves and so may as well scream “what happened next is not what you’ll think”. More vitally, why is M a rookie agent? You’d think it would give an obvious and easy character arc, but that’s not really played. Instead, there are loads of times throughout the film where she Knows Stuff, so they have to explain it with “it says it in the handbook” or something similarly hand-wavy. The fact she managed to find the MIB, rather than them choosing to recruit her, is a cute origin but then has nothing to do with anything. It would’ve been better if she was a desk jockey forced out onto her first field assignment. Sure, that’s a tired characterisation too, but at least it’d be something a bit different for the franchise, and a bit more in keeping with how the movie wants to use her.

    At one point it was mooted that this would be an MIB / Jump Street crossover movie, which was a barmy idea; but with MIB in need of a fresh start and Jump Street already being pretty immune to the fourth wall, it could’ve been great. At least it would’ve been different — even if it hadn’t’ve worked, they’d’ve tried something bold. Instead, they went for the much safer option of a straightforward soft reboot, and everything about International screams “safe”. Earlier I said it wasn’t bad, but by being so dull, well, it kinda is.

    2 out of 5

    Men in Black: International is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    * Don’t get me started on that colon in the title. I could practically write an essay just about that choice. ^
    ** Most of the critics took it well, apparently. ^

    Review Roundup: Superman Sequels

    Superman: The Movie is one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, perhaps even the greatest. Its sequels… not so much.

    It took three movies to get there, but through them you’ll believe a franchise can die…

    Superman II
    (1980)

    2018 #128
    Richard Lester | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Superman II

    I feel like I must’ve seen Superman II as a kid — I know I saw Superman and enjoyed it, so why wouldn’t I have seen the sequel? But all the things people go on about from it (“kneel before Zod!”) I only know because other people go on about them, not from any memory of my own, so maybe I never saw it? Well, sitting down to watch it now, I didn’t remember any part of it. But that doesn’t mean I definitely didn’t see it because, frankly, I didn’t find Superman II particularly worthy of being remembered. I know some people love it — heck, James Gunn even included it in a list of “sequels that are better than the original” the other day. But James Gunn is wrong.

    For me, the film breaks down into a few simple and distinct sections. First, it begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. That’s… long. And largely unnecessary. I mean, when it bothers to include the telephone booth gag but omits the turning-the-world-backwards climax of the movie, you get the impression it’s not there to get you properly up to speed on the plot.

    Next, Lois and Clark spend most of the first hour titting about at Niagara Falls investigating a honeymoon hotel scam (a what now?!), while evil Kryptonian General Zod and his gang veeery slooowly make their way to somewhere significant. Then there’s half-an-hour of Lois and Clark being too self-absorbed to notice Zod take over the world. Not-so-super, Superman. Then, finally, the all-action last half-hour actually gives us some Superman stuff. Hurrah!

    Who's kneeling now, bitch?

    The humour quotient is waaay upped from the first movie. Based on his previous work, I guess much of that was the influence of replacement director Richard Lester. He wasn’t a good choice all round: Margot Kidder disliked working with him; Gene Hackman didn’t return (all his scenes are either footage previously shot or done with a lookalike and impersonator); John Williams walked off the film after seeing Lester’s footage. He reshot a bunch of stuff original director Richard Donner had already filmed, partly to get a sole director credit, partly because he didn’t approve of the epic visual style Donner had chosen. Instead, Lester aimed for a visually flat “comic book” style. Ugh.

    25 years after Superman II’s release, Warner Bros relented and let Donner complete his original cut of the movie, released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. Maybe that version’s better — I haven’t watched it yet, but it does have a much higher score on IMDb. But how anyone could genuinely love the originally-released version, I don’t understand. It’s not outright bad, it’s just mediocre, and not a patch on its predecessor.

    3 out of 5

    Superman III
    (1983)

    2018 #161
    Richard Lester | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman III

    If you said “imagine a Superman film by a director who won the Palme d’Or”, you wouldn’t picture Superman: The Slapstick Comedy… and yet here we are.

    The director in question is Richard Lester, returning after Superman II, a movie he inherited, so I guess it’s only here that he’s really allowed to show what he thinks a comic book movie ought to be. Turns out, that’s more like Airplane or a Jacques Tati film than the David Lean influence he felt Richard Donner was aiming for on Superman: The Movie. He even lets the title card even appears over the epic superhero imagery of… three phone boxes having been knocked over dominoes-style by a hot dog cart. Wow.

    Ironically, almost all of the film is humour-focused apart from the scenes starring comedian Richard Pryor (who thought the screenplay was terrible, but did like the $5 million salary). Concurrently, the technological and scientific parts of the plot make absolutely no sense. Like, a weather monitoring satellite can be accessed from a small-town wheat firm and then be reprogrammed to control the weather. And that same satellite can then use its lasers to analyse rocks millions of miles away to find out what elements make up another element, which just… Ugh. It so doesn’t make sense that it’s too much effort to explain why it doesn’t make sense.

    With Gene Hackman presumably only too happy to be rid of this franchise, the villain is now Robert Vaughn, who has an entourage that feels like a blatant attempt to emulate Lex Luther & co from the previous films. There’s also an all-powerful supercomputer, which Superman defeats with what appears to be a bubbling-over pot of strawberry jam.

    That's Larry Lamb on the left, would you believe

    The story also involves Superman going bad — you can tell because he’s grown a five o’clock shadow, developed bags under his eyes, and started wearing a suit with a colour scheme more suited to a Zack Snyder interpretation of the character. And he begins to do really terrible things, like… straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, and… blowing out the Olympic flame. Ooh, edgy. Why does he do it? God, I don’t know. There’s no logic in this. There’s a fight between good Superman and bad Superman, which some think is brilliant; “a highlight of the series”, said one comment I read. Maybe it’s just because Evil Superman is so damn cartoonish, but I didn’t particularly care for it.

    It did inspire the original title of the movie, though, which was Superman vs. Superman, and that in turn led to a bit of trivia more batshit insane than anything in the film itself: that original title was dropped after legal action was threatened by… the producers of Kramer vs. Kramer. What in the fucking what now?! I know America is famed for spurious lawsuits, but c’mon!

    Of course, if you take the whole film at the face value of its tone, it doesn’t really matter — it’s just a daft comedy. But it shouldn’t be, should it? This isn’t the Superman the first film promised us.

    2 out of 5

    Superman IV:
    The Quest for Peace

    (1987)

    2020 #79
    Sidney J. Furie | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

    At one point in this movie, a young character calls Superman “the Dude of Steel”. Yeah, we’re down with the kids now! Superman (okay, Clark Kent) even does aerobics. Hip and happening!

    After Superman III tried its damnedest to turn Superman into a comedy, Superman IV swings the other way and turns it into a polemic. It’s like an 8-year-old was asked to write an anti-nuclear weapons essay and chose to do it in the form of a Superman story. It seems like a mercy that it only runs 90 minutes, although that’s part of the problem: the original final cut was 134 minutes, but the producers chopped out 45 minutes of material. No wonder it grows increasingly nonsensical as it goes on. But then so did Superman III and they had no such excuse, so there’s no saying the longer cut would’ve been better.

    Indeed, on the evidence of what’s left, I think we can assume it wouldn’t have been. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is back (goodness knows how they talked him into it), but his plan involves creating a physical adversary for Superman: Nuclear Man! Nuclear Man has many of Supes’ powers and strengths, but none of his brains, as he stomps around just roaring at people. He flies around the world basically just being a vandal, and Superman follows along to clean up after him, like some kind of super-powered babysitter. Then he punches Supes once and… he loses all his powers? And then Nuclear Man sees a woman on a cover of a newspaper and suddenly getting her is his only motivation; and Superman’s back, thanks to a magic crystal, and he somehow knows exactly what/who Nuclear Man is after; and so Superman defeats him by… tricking him into an elevator… which he drops off on the Moon; but not the dark side, so the sun’s rays revitalise Nuclear Man… when the sun rises. On the Moon. Jesus wept.

    The Moon isn't made of cheese, but this film...

    There are some good ideas in Superman IV. As co-writer Mark Rosenthal discusses on his audio commentary, the idea had been to explore the age-old question of “if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there still suffering” — because, with all his powers, Superman is basically a mythological God; so why doesn’t he just get rid of all those nasty nukes? The answer, of course, is that he’s not real. And so in the fictional world of the fictional film, the fictional hero gets rid of the nukes, which is nice for the fictional people but not so much use to the rest of us.

    Because Lois Lane is in love with Superman but not so much Clark Kent, they decided to give Clark a love interest, which I’m not sure quite understands the characters or their dynamic properly, but whatever. It did inspire one fun idea, though: a double date between Superman & Lois and Clark & new-lady. The idea was for a quick-paced farce of a scene, with Clark and Supes coming and going at speed, like something out of a Cary Grant screwball romantic comedy. I guess no one told the director, because the scene as filmed lacks the quick pace needed to make it work. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the skills to execute them properly, it’s worthless.

    Apparently it was really Christopher Reeve who fought to make the movie happen, and everyone involved had good intentions and didn’t want to let him down. Well, they did. The returning cast are the only people who emerge unscathed from this mess — Reeve is as wonderful as ever as Superman; just perfect. His chemistry with Margot Kidder is great, and Gene Hackman is still managing to have fun as Lex. But why suffer through the rest of this terrible movie for those scant bright spots when you could just watch the first Superman instead?

    1 out of 5

    19 years later, after a couple of decades relegated to various TV incarnations, they attempted to return the Man of Steel to the silver screen in big-budget style with Superman Returns, which was conceived as a continuation of the Christopher Reeve series. My original review of that movie is here.

    The Avengers (1998)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    The Avengers

    Saving the World in Style.

    Also Known As:
    Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (France — Bowler Hat and Leather Boots)
    Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone (Germany — With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat)

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 89 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 13th August 1998 (Israel)
    UK Release: 14th August 1998
    Budget: $60 million
    Worldwide Gross: $48.6 million

    Stars
    Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Harry Potter)
    Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
    Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

    Director
    Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon)

    Screenwriter
    Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners, The Gunman)

    Based on
    The Avengers, a ’60s British TV series created by Sydney Newman.


    The Story
    After the UK’s weather control project is destroyed, apparently by one of its own scientists, Ministry agent John Steed is assigned to investigate. Teaming up with that scientist, Mrs Emma Peel, they uncover a plot to hold the world’s governments to ransom…

    Our Heroes
    Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged by agents extraordinary: John Steed: traditional, stylish, reserved, lethal. Emma Peel: doctor, atomic scientist, poet, meteorologist, physicist, marksman.

    Our Villain
    A former agent of the Ministry, Sir August de Wynter is now head of BROLLY, the British Royal Organization for Lasting Liquid Years, who have developed the technology to control the weather and now seek to put it to nefarious ends.

    Best Supporting Character
    Machine-gun firing granny Alice. Eileen Atkins was offered the role of the Ministry’s deputy leader, Father, but thought the part of Alice sounded more fun, so they re-wrote to enlarge it for her.

    Memorable Quote
    “Now is the winter of your discontent!” — Sir August de Wynter

    Memorable Scene
    Instructed to meet Steed at his gentleman’s club, Mrs Peel waltzes into the place, despite the objections of the receptionist. She marches through the building, shocking the patrons, until she finds Steed in the steam room — naked but for the newspaper he’s reading. “Please, don’t get up.” “I was about to throw in the towel.”

    Memorable Music
    Michael Kamen was originally hired to score the film, but eventually quit after being constantly given revised cuts of the movie to work with. His replacement, Joel McNeely, had to turn something round in short notice, and I’ve seen his score described as clearly rushed, dull and uninspired. But at least the TV series’ classic theme is in there, and fairly well used — once right at the start (although there’s an ever-so-’90s X-Files-y number over the main credits), and then again perfectly as a farewell over the final scene. Rumour has it Kamen’s score was darker and more atmospheric, with a greater and more interesting use of the original theme. Given the general disregard for the movie, I don’t imagine it’ll ever be unearthed for us to find out for ourselves.

    Letting the Side Down
    The teddy-bear meeting, where the participants are kept anonymous by wearing giant teddy-bear costumes. It’s an attempt at emulating the whimsy of the TV series, but an empty one — as the series’ regular writer Brian Clemens once commented, if the plot’s about controlling the weather then the meeting should’ve been weather-themed somehow.

    Some people would say there’s a lot more wrong with the film than just that one scene, but there’s more to it than that…

    Making of
    When Warner Bros execs saw the first cut of the movie, it was not what they were expecting. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I guess not something so tongue-in-cheek, whimsical, and camp. Apparently the first test screening in Phoenix, Arizona, was to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience — hardly the film’s target market, and unsurprisingly they hated it. The studio forced cuts and reshoots, taking the movie from 115 minutes to a sprightly 89, sacrificing plot coherence for the sake of speed. And so a true disaster was born.

    Previously on…
    This is a reboot rather than continuation of the original TV series — it shows how Steed and Mrs Peel met for the first time. I don’t know if the TV series actually covered that (I really should watch it all one of these days), but I don’t imagine it went like this.

    Next time…
    The Avengers ultimately became a massively successful multi-film franchise under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Oh, no, wait, that’s some other thing. No, after suffering atrocious reviews (it’s sometimes cited as one of the worst movies of all time), the ’98 Avengers slinked off into relative obscurity (it’s probably better remembered here than in the US thanks to the TV series connection, but Marvel’s super-friends are gradually replacing it in the consciousness, sadly). Still, the world of the TV series lives on in occasional comic books and audio dramas.

    Awards
    1 Razzie (Worst Remake or Sequel (tied with Godzilla and Psycho))
    8 Razzie nominations (Worst Picture, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Uma Thurman), Screen Couple (Fiennes & Thurman), Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Director, Screenplay, Original Song (Storm by Grace Jones))

    Verdict

    I was one of the half-dozen people who actually saw The Avengers at the cinema in 1998. I don’t remember disliking it, but then I was all of 12 so what would I have known? Its poor reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so I wasn’t expecting to think much of it as a more critically sophisticated adult. But, much to my surprise, I kind of loved it.

    I guess in ’98 people were expecting some kind of serious-minded thriller, probably in the Bond mould — this was just after GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies had relaunched that series to much acclaim and box office success, of course, and The Avengers was another hallmark of ’60s British spy-fi. But The Avengers and Bond were never the same tonally, and the film embraces the mannered, quirky tone of the TV series, then turns it up to eleven. Personally I think it’s a tonne of fun, with arch performances, ripe dialogue, and a deliciously camp air.

    If it wasn’t for WB’s post-production fiddling, which has left the plot feeling a bit janky and spasmodic, I reckon this would be a cult classic by now. They really ought to have a bad reputation for that kind of fiddling at this point — Batman Forever, Suicide Squad, and Justice League come to mind. But never mind the Snyder cut, I want them to #ReleaseTheChechikCut. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

    Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

    2020 #49
    Jon Watts | 129 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Spider-Man: Far from Home

    For those not keeping track (who can blame you?), Far from Home is the third Spider-Man 2. It follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 from 2004, widely regarded as one of the topmost examples of the superhero genre, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from 2014, widely regarded as one of the poorest examples of the superhero genre. (As you can see, they’ve ditched the numbers. Probably wise at this point.) Personally, while I agree with the accepted view of Raimi’s film, I actually rather enjoyed Webb’s sequel. That’s important to know when I say that I think Far from Home is my least favourite Spider-Man 2 so far.

    This one is the sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming… except Spidey’s in the MCU now, so it’s also a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And that’s not just a checklist of “other Spider-Man appearances”, either: the events of Endgame are absolutely vital to the storyline of this movie. It may be another Spider-Man 2, but more than that it’s Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XXIII.

    Some people criticised Homecoming for having too much Iron Man and going too far in making Spider-Man into Iron Man Jr. I felt they got the balance about right, all things considered — it’s not very true to comic book canon, but, as the third big-screen iteration of Spidey in the modern era, it made a reasonable change. Far from Home is where it becomes overpowering. It has to lean heavily on the overall continuity of the MCU, which means all the business of The Blip (as what we call The Snap is called in-universe) and Iron Man’s death is front-loaded into the movie. The former is waived away as quickly as they can; the latter weighs heavy on the entire rest of the plot.

    We'll always have Venice

    Meanwhile, Nick Fury is trying to get in touch with Peter Parker, who isn’t interested in the big world-saving antics that implies. He’s more concerned with going on a school summer trip around Europe. How a poor kid from Queens is supposed to afford a weeks-long vacation around Europe isn’t even one of my issues with the film, but if you’re a Spidey devotee it might be. But go on this vacation he does, only to have it interrupted in Venice by a giant water man/monster thing, which is battled by a new hero Peter’s classmates reckon is a cross between Iron Man and Thor, and name Mysterio. Turns out he’s working with Fury, and Fury wants Mysterio and Spider-Man to team up to fight the possibly world-ending threat. But Peter doesn’t want to because he’s on holiday goddammit and he has a plan to woo MJ.

    So far, so Spider-Man — the conflict between his personal and ‘professional’ life is a regular feature of the character. But it’s the way this story unspools that didn’t work for me, as it drags its heels through every storyline it’s got going at once, indulging in comedic asides from a whole range of characters. Having a comic relief character or double act is fine, but four or five of them? It just eats up screen time. The lack of focus robs the film of impetus or tension, as the characters and plot both meander around Europe and from set piece to set piece.

    At least some of those set pieces are quite good. The Venice one is a nice change of pace, because Mysterio is off doing the main fighting bit, so Spidey’s left to tidy up around him. It’s something a bit different in a blockbuster action sequence. The real highlight, though, is an illusion trap Spidey endures, which is imaginative and creatively realised. Tom Holland gives the title role his all, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the standout as Mysterio, waltzing into the film and stealing it out from under everyone else’s noses. His real-life alter ego, Quentin Beck, has a really nice relationship with Peter, pitched as a kind of mentoring, older brother type role, admiring of the kid’s ability but not blind to his flaws. Even better, if you watch the gag reel you get the impression Gyllenhaal is kinda treating Holland like Beck treats Parker, which is… amusing.

    Super friends

    Like every other MCU film, Far from Home is competently made with occasional flashes of inspiration, so manages to dodge being an outright disaster. But, speaking as someone who thinks Homecoming is pretty great and saw a lot of promise in this sequel’s trailers, I was disappointed by the end result. Future Spidey appearances in the MCU are assured (naturally there’s a post-credits tease for them), so I hope they can recapture more of that Homecoming spark next time.

    3 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Far from Home is available on Sky Cinema from this weekend.

    As Far from Home is officially the final film of the Infinity Saga (I guess it works as an epilogue; or perhaps the saga’s very own feature-length post-credit tease), here are links to my reviews of every other MCU film so far… except for one, which this has reminded me I’ve forgotten to write.

    1. Iron Man
    2. The Incredible Hulk
    3. Iron Man 2
    4. Thor
    5. Captain America: The First Avenger
    6. Avengers Assemble
    7. Iron Man 3
    8. Thor: The Dark World
    9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    10. Guardians of the Galaxy
    11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
    12. Ant-Man
    13. Captain America: Civil War
    14. Doctor Strange
    15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
    16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
    17. Thor: Ragnarok
    18. Black Panther
    19. Avengers: Infinity War
    20. Ant-Man and the Wasp
    21. Captain Marvel
    22. Avengers: Endgame
    23. this one!

    I’ve also reviewed a bunch of the shorts and (sorta-)tie-in TV series, but I’ll let you track those down if you’re interested.

    …and, in keeping with the style of the MCU, here’s a surprise post-‘credits’ mini-review!

    Peter’s To-Do List
    (2019)

    2020 #49a
    Jon Watts | 3 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    Peter's To-Do List

    Sony chose to bill this as a short film on Far from Home‘s Blu-ray release, so I’m going to treat it like one and review it. Let’s begin with a dictionary definition (from, er, a very real dictionary, honest) of “short film”…

    short film
    noun

    1. an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. “The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short film.”

    2. a deleted scene long enough that someone thought they could get away with pretending it was conceived and created as an original motion picture. “The Spider-Man: Far from Home Blu-ray includes a short film called Peter’s To-Do List.”

    That pretty much sums up my reaction to this — it’s a glorified deleted scene. To be precise, it’s several deleted scenes, so really it’s a deleted sequence — Peter running various errands before his trip to Europe. If you watched any of Far from Home‘s trailers then you’ll have seen almost all of this already because it’s footage that was used extensively to advertise the movie. I believe they also did some kind of special re-release of Far from Home with this bit cut back into the feature (an option not available on the home release).

    So, it’s not a short film, but it is a fun-enough deleted scene. It wouldn’t’ve been out of place left in the movie, but considering the first act is already too long and a trudge as it is, I see why they wanted to lose some stuff.

    3 out of 5

    Never Say Never Again (1983)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Never Say Never Again

    Sean Connery is James Bond 007

    Country: UK, USA & West Germany
    Language: English
    Runtime: 134 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 7th October 1983 (USA)
    UK Release: 15th December 1983
    Budget: $36 million
    Worldwide Gross: $138 million

    Stars
    Sean Connery (Thunderball, Highlander)
    Klaus Maria Brandauer (Mephisto, Out of Africa)
    Kim Basinger (Mother Lode, Batman)
    Barbara Carrera (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Lone Wolf McQuade)
    Max von Sydow (The Exorcist, Minority Report)

    Director
    Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2)

    Screenwriter
    Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Papillon, Flash Gordon)

    Based on
    An original James Bond story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham and Ian Fleming, which Fleming later novelised as Thunderball.


    The Story
    Ageing secret agent James Bond is sent to a health spa to get back into shape, but therein stumbles upon part a plot to hijack nuclear warheads and hold the world to ransom. With the theft successful, it falls to Bond to retrieve the weapons before it’s too late.

    Our Hero
    Bond, James Bond, British secret agent 007. He’s played by Sean Connery — already the first and third actor to play James Bond on the big screen (in a serious movie), here he becomes the fifth too. Unlike the official Bond films, which carried on regardless as Roger Moore began to look more like an OAP than a capable secret agent, Never Say Never Again acknowledges that Bond is getting on a bit. That’s because Connery was 53 at the time, and this is from back in the days when 53 was old, especially for an action star — not like today.

    Our Villains
    Billionaire businessman Maximilian Largo is actually the highest-ranking agent of SPECTRE, a global criminal organisation masterminded by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. With Blofeld merely pulling the strings behind the scenes, it’s Largo and his lackeys that Bond must defeat to save the world.

    Best Supporting Character
    Rowan Atkinson’s cameo-sized role as inexperienced local bureaucrat Nigel Small-Fawcett is actually quite amusing, and therefore probably the best thing about the film.

    Memorable Quote
    Largo: “Do you lose as gracefully as you win?”
    Bond: “I don’t know, I’ve never lost.”

    Memorable Scene
    At a charity event hosted by Largo, Bond comes face-to-face with his adversary for the first time, where he’s challenged to play Domination, a 3D computer game. It couldn’t be more ’80s if it tried.

    Memorable Music
    James Bond films have a very distinct musical style… but not when they’re unofficial productions they don’t. Without access to familiar themes, Never Say Never Again finds itself having to reach for something different… and fails: the title song is bland and the jazzy score is forgettable.

    Letting the Side Down
    Where to begin? Well, let’s pick on perhaps my least favourite bit of the whole endeavour: henchwoman Fatima Blush; and, more specifically, how the film ends up handling her. First, there’s a truly terrible sex scene between her and Bond, but it only gets worse later: the self-espoused feminist becomes monomaniacally concerned that Bond should think she’s the greatest shag he ever had, which distracts her to the point that he gets the opportunity to kill her… which he does with an explosive bullet that just leaves her smoking high heels behind. No, seriously. And for this performance Barbara Carrera received a Golden Globe nomination! If you told me she’d been nominated for an award and asked me to guess which, I’d’ve been certain it was a Razzie.

    Making of
    “So how did an unofficial James Bond film come about anyway?,” I hear you ask. Well, the story starts in the early ’60s, after the Bond novels had become popular but before the film series began. Creator Ian Fleming worked with independent producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham on a script for a potential Bond film titled Longitude 78 West, but this was abandoned due to costs. Fleming then adapted the screenplay into a Bond novel, Thunderball, but without credit for either McClory or Whittingham. McClory sued for breach of copyright, and the matter was settled by Fleming giving McClory all rights to the screenplay. By this time the official Bond film series was underway, and Eon Productions made a deal for McClory to coproduce their adaptation of Thunderball, an agreement which forbade him from making any further films of the novel for another decade. That lands us in the mid-’70s, when Bond was still very popular. As McClory began attempting to get a new adaptation off the ground, Eon put legal obstacles in his path, accusing his new script of breaking copyright restrictions by going beyond the confines of Thunderball. Eventually McClory and other producers managed to clear these hurdles and, after rewrites to make Connery happy (which were undertaken by British TV writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who went uncredited due to Writers Guild of America restrictions, despite much of the final script being their work), the remake finally went before the cameras — with a new title, suggested by Connery’s wife, referring to his vow that he would “never” play Bond again.

    Previously on…
    James Bond had starred in 13 official movies by the time this came along. It’s kind of ironic that Never Say Never Again’s unofficial status means it can’t acknowledge any of that, while also tacitly acknowledging it with Connery’s very presence in the lead role. Though if it had been able to acknowledge it, the fact this film is a straight-up remake of Thunderball might’ve led to some awkwardness.

    Next time…
    Early in 1984, producer Kevin McClory announced a sequel, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. It never happened. He spent most of the rest of his life trying to pursue further James Bond projects: he tried to remake the same story again in 1989 as Atomic Warfare starring Pierce Brosnan, and again in the early ’90s as Warhead 2000 AD starring Timothy Dalton. In 1997 he sold the rights to Sony, who already held the rights to Casino Royale and hoped to use that to launch its own Bond series. MGM sued and the matter was settled out of court, with Sony giving up all claims on Bond. (Perhaps this explains why Sony have been so keen on acquiring/retaining the series’ distribution rights in recent decades.) And so we’re left with just one James Bond series, which has mostly gone from strength to strength.

    Awards
    1 Golden Globes nomination (Supporting Actress (Barbara Carrera))
    2 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Special Effects)

    Verdict

    Between this and the state of the official Moore-starring films at the time, it must’ve sucked to be a Bond fan in the early- to mid-’80s. Maybe some thought Connery returning to the role he’d defined would be a boon, but it didn’t turn out that way: in just about every respect, Never Say Never Again plays like a weak imitation of a Bond film… which I suppose is exactly what it is, really.

    As an unofficial production, it’s missing a bunch of the identifying features of the Bond films: the gun barrel, the title sequence, the musical stylings, and, most conspicuously, the famous theme. There’s more to Bond than these tropes, of course, and a really good Bond movie can survive without them, but their absence contributes to the feel of this being a low-rent wannabe, when it needs all the help it can get. The stuff it can include isn’t great either. The one-liners and innuendos are particularly bad. The action is rather dated (although the chase between a souped-up Q-bike and the henchwoman’s tacky little ‘80s car is more exciting than the notoriously underpowered car chase in Spectre, which says more about Spectre than Never Say Never Again). Then there’s the sex scene I mentioned above.

    One critic retrospectively described the film as “successful only as a portrait of an over-the-hill superhero,” which is true… up to a point. I mean, most of the stuff about Bond being past his best seems designed to explain Connery’s grey hair and lined face — Bond is still irresistible to literally every woman he meets, and has no problem at all doing any of the action stuff. Connery’s performance isn’t bad either, although it didn’t quite feel like Bond to me. I’m not sure why. It’s not that he seems bored or like he’s only going through the motions (a sensation that definitely comes across in some of his original performances as the character), but he no longer seems to have quite the panache you expect from 007.

    And yet, for all that, it’s not as irredeemably terrible as I’d remembered. For all the glaring faults, it actually ticks along with a decent level of entertainment value. So is it, in fact, unfairly maligned? It’s nowhere near the best of Bond, but it doesn’t descend into outright silliness like some of the official ones do (well, apart from those smoking shoes), and it even has a couple of pretty good bits. It would definitely be a lesser Bond — if it counted, which it doesn’t — but, as a couple of hours of off-brand Bondian fun, it could actually be a lot worse.