The Secret Life of Pets 1&2

Imaginatively-titled sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today, so what better time for me to finally get round to reviewing both that film and its predecessor? (Unfortunately, the first one isn’t currently available on any subscription streaming service.)

The Secret Life of Pets
(2016)

2019 #73
Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

The Secret Life of Pets

In a Manhattan apartment, terrier Max’s quiet life as favourite pet is upended when his owner brings home stray Duke. But they must put their quarrels aside when they get lost in the city and discover that abandoned magician’s bunny Snowball is building an army of lost pets, determined to wreak their revenge. — adapted from IMDb

Make your main character a cute little terrier-like dog and you’ve basically halfway sold me on your movie already (see: Hotel for Dogs; Benji). It works best with a real cute little dog, of course, but The Secret Life of Pets is proof the effect can carry over to animation, at least somewhat. It helps that the behaviour of the various animals in the film is all quite well observed — heightened, obviously, but there are many reasonable riffs on pet behaviour… that is until the revolutionary group led by a bunny, who’s followed by a tattooed pig and a lizard, hijack an animal control van. That’s a bit silly.

From the trailers, I thought the animation style looked a bit flat — presumably a deliberate choice, almost like it was going for a Peanuts Movie kinda style — but watching it in 3D adds some pleasing depth and shapeliness, especially as I don’t think flatness actually was the intended effect for the whole movie.

The Secret Life of Pets mostly reheats, remixes, and recombines stuff you’ve seen done in other movies (although as it came out around the same time as Finding Dory, it’s really a toss up as to who can claim that “animals in control of a human vehicle” climax), but it manages just enough charm to tick over as entertaining rather than irritatingly derivative.

3 out of 5

The Secret Life of Pets 2
(2019)

2020 #81
Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Max faces some major changes after his owner gets married and has a child. On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets farm dog Rooster and attempts to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget tries to rescue Max’s favourite toy from a cat-packed apartment; and Snowball sets off on a mission to free a white tiger from a circus. — adapted from IMDb

As the above plot description goes some way to indicating, The Secret Life of Pets 2 feels like watching three episodes of a Secret Life of Pets TV series strung together: for most of its running time, it cuts back and forth between three completely unrelated storylines, seemingly just so that every major character from the last movie has something to do. Things do tie together in the final quarter-hour for an all-action climax, but that doesn’t stop them being entirely disconnected until that point.

The only thing that really elevates it above TV-level is the visuals, which show off suitably expensive and slick animation, especially in 3D. At this point it almost goes without saying that computer-animated movies look fantastic in 3D, but it’s still pleasing.

None of which is to say The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an outright bad movie. It’s a step down from the first (as things have panned out, I’ve given them both the same score, but the first one is kind of a 3+), but it has its moments — like the opening five minutes, where Max bonds with his owner’s new kid, which are sweet and cute; or the casting of Harrison Ford as a take-no-bullshit farm-dog, which is perfect. If you liked the first movie, this one passes some time amiably.

3 out of 5

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

The 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

This week’s selection includes a few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIII

    Regular readers will remember that I started 2021 on the back foot with these 100-week roundups, being about a month behind. Well, after some effort the past few weeks, I’m pleased to report I’ve now caught up — which, if you think about it, only means I’ve caught up to being just 100 weeks behind. Hurrah?

    Anyway, as always, this roundup covers films I still hadn’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes the final film from February and the first from March 2019

  • Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
  • Swimming with Men (2018)


    Sherlock Gnomes
    (2018)

    2019 #22
    John Stevenson | 86 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

    Sherlock Gnomes

    As if the idea of making a children’s animated movie based on Romeo & Juliet but starring garden gnomes and the music of Elton John wasn’t barmy enough, here we have a sequel that riffs off another classic of English literature, Sherlock Holmes.

    The plot naturally takes the form of a whodunnit, with Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) recruiting Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp, for some reason) and his assistant, Dr Gnome Watson (what creative renaming), to investigate the disappearance of their garden ornament friends. Don’t worry too much about the plot, though: I guessed the twist in the very first scene. (Fortunately, there is another twist beyond that.) Instead, treat it as a bright and breezy kids’ adventure. It’s not particularly clever or funny, but much of it is perfectly fine, with the occasional bit that’s quite good, like a Flushed Away-esque sewer scene or a hound of the Baskervilles gag, plus some creative use of animation to render things like Sherlock’s visions or Romeo’s escape plan.

    The Elton John songs are even more incongruously shoehorned in than they were last time — I know he’s a producer, or it’s made by his company or whatever, but, other than that, they have absolutely no reason to be here. Worst of all is a new number, written by Elton and regular collaborator Bernie Taupin but sung by Mary J. Blige. At least it makes the rest of the John back catalogue on the soundtrack seem less objectionable.

    3 out of 5

    Swimming with Men
    (2018)

    2019 #29
    Oliver Parker | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

    Swimming with Men

    Here’s a sort of aquatic riff on The Full Monty, as a man suffering a midlife crisis (Rob Brydon) joins an all-male amateur synchronised swimming team, mostly made up of other mostly-middle-aged British character actors: Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, Adeel Akhtar, and Thomas Turgoose. It seems like your typical Britcom setup, but it’s actually based on a true story — the Swedish team it’s about play themselves in the film — which has been filmed several other times now: in Sweden as The Swimsuit Issue; in France as Sink or Swim; plus a documentary about the real team, Men Who Swim. I haven’t seen any of those to compare, but the British variant holds up pretty well by itself, with enough gentle amusement and heartwarming camaraderie to make for a pleasant watch.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing. This week’s collection includes three more feature films and one short from February 2019

  • Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Leave No Trace (2018)
  • Inception: The Cobol Job (2010)
  • Fences (2016)


    Hacksaw Ridge
    (2016)

    2019 #17
    Mel Gibson | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Hacksaw Ridge

    Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), an American who believed that World War II was justified — so he joined the army to serve his country — but also that killing was wrong — so he refused to carry a weapon. Serving as a combat medic, Doss ended up at the bloody Battle of Okinawa, where he saved the lives of 75 men without firing a shot, and became the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor.

    It’s an extraordinary true story — the kind of thing that would seem ludicrous if someone made it up — so it earns its place on the screen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the best way to tell it was by letting Mel Gibson carve it from a block of cheese. When the film’s not wasting time on clichéd bootcamp stuff, it’s earnestly indulging in its subject matter to an eye-rolling degree. Indulgence is also the name of the game when it comes to the war, too: for a movie about a guy who wouldn’t kill, it certainly revels in its gory depictions of combat. Handled the right way, such grotesquery could have supported the point that Desmond is right, but Gibson seems to be enjoying the slaughter too much.

    And yet for all of Gibson’s amping it up, some of the real-life stories are even more incredible than what’s in the film — there are stories in IMDb’s Trivia section (here and here, for example) that stretch credulity so far it was decided to leave them out because audiences would never believe it. Considering how OTT the stuff left in is, it seems a shame to have left out something that could be backed up as a true account.

    3 out of 5

    Leave No Trace
    (2018)

    2019 #18
    Debra Granik | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG

    Leave No Trace

    Traumatised military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived in isolation for years in a public park outside Portland, Oregon, only occasionally venturing in to the city for food and supplies. But when they’re spotted by a jogger, they’re arrested and put into social services. Tom finally gets a sense of what it might be like to integrate with society, but Will clashes with his new surroundings, and soon they set off on a harrowing journey back to the wild. — adapted from IMDb

    I don’t like summarising too much of a film’s storyline at the start of a review, but Leave No Trace is one of those films where the character work is more important than the shifts of the plot. It’s a double portrait: that of a damaged man who can’t cope with society, and his loving daughter who he’s taken on the same path, for good or ill. Will’s lifestyle and parenting methods are entirely at odds with what’s seen as acceptable by society (hence the arrest and being placed in care), but does that make him wrong? The pair’s life in the woods is a “back to nature” approach, detached from technology and the hum of modernity, which many profess to strive for — he’s just actually gone and lived it. But Tom, as just a young teenager, has had this life thrust upon her — it’s what her dad wants, but she’s never known anything else to have the choice.

    So the film rests on the two lead performances. Ben Foster is reliably superb as a father doing his best for his daughter — and, actually, not doing a bad job — but struggling with his own issues and traumas. But the star is Thomasin McKenzie, in what’s proven (rightly) to be a breakout role (she quickly followed this with another leading role in Jojo Rabbit, and will next be seen in new movies from Edgar Wright, M. Night Shyamalan, and Jane Campion). She was just 17 when the film was shot, but is entirely convincing as a 13-year-old, and yet the character also seems old for her age. It’s a weird dichotomy, that. It never crossed my mind that the actress was any older than the character — it’s not just that she looks young, it’s a quality in the performance — and yet she also conveys that sense of being “wise beyond her years”. As if that wasn’t enough, the film’s emotional crux lies with her, delivered in a single emotional gut-punch of a line that’s liable to make you choke up just remembering it.

    4 out of 5

    Inception: The Cobol Job
    (2010)

    2019 #20a
    Ian Kirby | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Inception: The Cobol Job

    Remember motion comics? They were a brief fad where comic books were adapted into movies/series by simply adding movement and sound to the original artwork. (I say “brief fad”, they may still make them for all I know, but there was a rash of them about ten years ago that seems to have abated.) That’s what this animated prequel to Christopher Nolan’s Inception is: a moving version of the one-shot comic (originally published online, but also included in print with some releases of the movie), written by Jordan Goldberg with art by Long Vo, Joe Ng, and Crystal Reid of Udon.

    As motion comics go, the animation here isn’t bad. It’s still clearly derived from a comic book rather than being born into animated form, but it’s got a decent amount of movement and dynamism. But its main fault is not having any voice actors. There’s music (taken from Hans Zimmer’s score for the feature) and sound effects, which complement the atmosphere and help connect it to the film proper, but having to read speech and thought bubbles really keeps it in “motion comic” rather than “animated short” territory. Were the producers at Warner really so cheap that they couldn’t’ve afforded a couple of voice actors for an afternoon’s work?

    As for the story, it’s a nice little prequel to Inception, more-or-less tonally in-keeping with Nolan’s work. It sets up the backstory behind the film’s opening heist and some of its subplots… though, kinda ironically, The Cobol Job also begins in media res, so you could do a prequel to the prequel to explain how they got there. Stories within stories within stories? How very Inception.

    3 out of 5

    Fences
    (2016)

    2019 #21
    Denzel Washington | 139 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fences

    Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a working-class African-American in 1950s Pittsburgh, doing his best to provide for his family: wife Rose (Viola Davis), teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his son from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s mentally impaired brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). But this seemingly-happy dynamic is tried when Troy’s secrets are forced to come to light, and his bitterness at the hand life dealt him threatens his family’s dreams. — adapted from IMDb

    Fences is adapted from a 1985 play by August Wilson, which was revived on Broadway in 2010, and many of the lead cast members from that award-winning production transfer to this film version, not least star (and now director, too) Denzel Washington. Perhaps that’s why the end result is so very stagey.

    It’s not just the limited locations or talky screenplay that give that away — there’s no reason you can’t make a film that’s set in limited locations or heavily based around dialogue, so it goes beyond that. The stage roots show through partly in that so much important stuff is kept offscreen and we’re only told about it through dialogue — I don’t think you’d tell this story this way if it originated for the screen, or indeed as a novel. Then there’s the way the actors move around, the way they come and go from the ‘stage’, the way scenes are blocked — it feels like it’s been lifted off a stage set, plonked on an equivalent real location, then filmed. Then there’s the style of the dialogue — it has a certain kind of familiar theatricality, which I can’t quite define but I always know when I hear it.

    All of which serves as a distraction from whatever Fences is meant to be about. And, frankly, it goes on a bit, with many scenes feeling in need of a massive tighten. It’s not that it’s bad, but it feels very worthy; very self consciously important. Perhaps for some people it is.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XVI

    Right: after a bit of a Christmas break, it’s time to get stuck back in to what I said I was going to do — specifically, wrap up my reviews from 2018 before the end of 2020.* So, that means I’ve got nine reviews to cram into the next 3 days, starting with this handful from November 2018

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
  • Redline (2009)


    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
    (2018)

    2018 #238
    Joel & Ethan Coen | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

    Nowadays, almost everyone who’s anyone has made a movie for Netflix; but, back in November 2018, the latest big-name directors to take the streaming plunge were cinephile favourites the Coen brothers. Their contribution was a Western full of whimsy and violence — Coens gotta Coen, I guess.

    The film is really a collection of shorts, coming in six segments: first, the one that also gives the feature its overall title, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; followed by Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon (based on a story by Jack London), The Gal Who Got Rattled (inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White), and finishing up with The Mortal Remains. The connection between these disparate narratives? Um… And why is the whole collection named after the first one? Err…

    To expand on my ums and errs, in reverse order, I can see no reason at all why Buster Scruggs was chosen as the umbrella title. If anything, it’s misleading: you expect the character to come back somehow later on (he doesn’t). It’s not even that the segment is typical or representative of the other five that follow. Maybe they thought it was the most evocative moniker? Maybe they thought it was the best of the six? Personally, I’d’ve come up with something else.

    As for why these six tales are bundled together, I couldn’t tell you that, either. There’s little discernible connection between them, not even stylistically: the first is almost a musical cartoon, with a hyper-skilled gunslinger prone to warbling a tune and breaking the fourth wall — elements that don’t even vaguely factor into the next two shorts, the first of which is concerned with a kind of cosmic irony, the second with brutal reality (of the entertainment business — you could almost class it as an allegorical satire). The only common thread I could ascertain is that (spoiler alert!) they all end in death. Hardly a remarkable feature in a Western, though, is it?

    Comments that have stood out to me from other reviews include the likes of “Coen Brothers 101”, or “a great introduction to their world for the uninitiated”, and that “each vignette showcases their different different talents” — that’s not bad as a kind of summary. But also, “the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts”, with which I’d agree — I’m not really sure what these six short films gain from being watched together (other than wider distribution and attention than shorts, even by renowned directors, normally achieve).

    4 out of 5

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
    (2013)

    aka Kaguyahime no monogatari

    2018 #239
    Isao Takahata | 131 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

    The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

    This film from the other Ghibli director, Isao Takahata, is perhaps the studio’s biggest breakout success that wasn’t directed by its most famous name (i.e. Hayao Miyazaki). Based on a story from 10th-century Japanese folklore, it tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot, who he takes to raise with his wife. The cutter also finds riches in the same bamboo grove and, as the girl quickly grows into a young lady, he sets about transforming her into a princess.

    The most obvious thing to say about Princess Kaguya is that it has beautiful animation — but it really does; a sketchy-but-precise, watercolour-ish style, quite unlike anything else we’re used to seeing from any kind of animation. But “ooh, isn’t it pretty?” won’t sustain a film with a running time of over two hours; and, indeed, I felt Kaguya was a bit overlong — not excessively slow (though it certainly isn’t a fast-paced tale), but a couple of bits do go round in circles over the same points. It’s clearly a parable, possibly about not controlling others, although I didn’t think the ending really married up to that. It does have a point about happiness in freedom vs the restrictions of class and so-called “good people”, although there’s also an element of romanticising peasant life, which is always an iffy position to take (it’s easy to long for simpler time and ways when you don’t have to actually struggle with them).

    Perhaps I’m just overthinking it. As a gorgeously-realised fairytale, Princess Kaguya is more than equal to the many (many) examples of the same from the Western animation canon.

    4 out of 5

    Redline
    (2009)

    2018 #240
    Takeshi Koike | 98 mins | TV | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15

    Redline

    Redline stands in stark contrast to Kaguya‘s delicate lyricism. It’s a senseless cacophony of unfollowable action — visual diarrhoea.

    It’s billed as a sports movie, but there’s so much other crap going on that the fact it’s a race (or supposedly a race) is barely relevant. It’s not like you can actually follow who’s in the lead or who’s in competition or what tactics anyone’s using or any of the other things you’d expect from a proper sports film. There’s a meaningless flashback-driven romance subplot, just to make things more annoying, and some gratuitous nudity to boot. Well, pretty much everything about the film is gratuitous — the designs, the story, the villains… you name it, it’s OTT and/or uncalled for.

    Apparently it used over 100,000 hand-made drawings and no CGI whatsoever, so at least it looks good… in its own way. I wasn’t a huge fan of the overall style — it looks like an extreme 2000 AD strip brought to life (albeit one crossed with manga, natch) — but 3D CGI in otherwise-2D anime often sticks out like a sore thumb, so it avoids that pitfall, at least.

    2 out of 5

    * There’s actually one 2018 review that’s going to remain hanging, because it’s part of a trilogy I’ll bundle together someday. But if I can get the other nine reviews ticked off, I’ll be happy. ^

  • The 100-Week Roundup XV

    I’ve fallen terribly behind with these 100-Week Roundups — I should be on to films from 2019 by now (because 100 weeks is c.23 months), but I still have 17 reviews from 2018 to go. I considered trying to cram more into each roundup, but that just takes longer to compile, so my aim is to post a more-than-average number of roundups in the next fortnight with the goal of at least completing 2018 before 2020 ends. We’ll see how that goes.

    For now, we’re in November 2018 and looking at…

  • The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
  • Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
  • Paper Moon (1973)
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)


    The Other Side of the Wind
    (2018)

    2018 #226
    Orson Welles | 122 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 | France, Iran & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Other Side of the Wind

    One of my draft intros for The Other Side of the Wind was to talk about how it feels like “a 2018 film” because it’s different; innovative; unique — modern. But then to note that, of course, it was all shot in the 1970s, but never completed for financial and legal reasons. That’s only partially true, though, because while it does feel modern in some ways, it still looks and feels very ’70s; and while it’s no doubt experimental and avant-garde, it’s in a very ’70s way. And the look of the film stock is very ’70s. It’s a strange, undoubtedly compromised movie — but so are many of the films Orson Welles managed to complete while he was alive, thanks to studio interference, so it’s hardly a sore thumb in that regard.

    The film tells the story of the final days of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a film director working on his comeback movie (you’ve gotta think there’s some autobiography in here, then, right?) It’s a portrait of the man’s final hours, supposedly assembled from dozens of sources that were shooting him at the time — Welles prefiguring the ‘found footage’ genre by a decade or two. But this isn’t a horror movie… well, not in the traditional sense: in my notes I described it as “a frantically-cut display of pompous self-declared intellectuals pontificating about something and nothing in a battle of pretentiousness. That perhaps explains why, at a time when Netflix movies routinely ‘break out’, the flash of interest the film’s release provoked has not resulted in any kind of sustained wide admiration.

    Whatever your thoughts on the final film (and it’s clearly one for cineastes and completists rather than general audiences), it seems remarkable that it took so long for anyone to be willing to fund the completion of a film by The Great Orson Welles. But that’s actually a story unto itself, told in the accompanying documentary A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making (which is hidden in the film’s “Trailers & More” section, but is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested). Among the revelations there are that Welles shot almost 100 hours of footage, spread across 1,083 film elements, all of which had to be fully inventoried. Matching it up was a problem that would have been insurmountable even ten years ago; it’s only possible now thanks to digital techniques and algorithms — and, of course, a big chunk of change from Netflix. Welles had only cut together about 45 minutes, with the rest completed based on the style of those parts, his notes and letters, and recordings of some of his direction that was retained on the sound reels.

    Was the effort worth it? It’s certainly a fascinating project to see brought to some kind of fruition. In the end, I’m not sure what it all signified. The story is pretty straightforward, but it’s jumbled in amongst a lot of hyperactive editing, as well as a bizarre film-within-a-film. There are things here which still feel ahead of their time even now, and things that were certainly ahead of their time when shot in the early ’70s (even if other people have done them since), which is always exciting. Combine that with Welles’s status and this is unquestionably a fascinating, must-see movie for cinephiles.

    3 out of 5

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
    (1998)

    2018 #227
    Boyd Kirkland | 67 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

    It’s now so ingrained in Bat-canon that it’s easy to forget, but Batman: The Animated Series actually invented Mr Freeze’s backstory about his dead wife, etc. It was so successful that the episode (Heart of Ice) won an Emmy, the character was brought back to life in the comics (complete with this new backstory), and just a few years later it was used in Batman & Robin (which, considering how much that film was happy to ignore about other characters, e.g. Bane, just goes to show… something).

    So, with The Animated Series responsible for such a major revival of the character, it kinda makes sense they’d choose him to star in their second animated feature — although another version of events is he was chosen to tie-in with Batman & Robin, but then SubZero was pushed back after the live-action film was a critical flop. That makes sense, because while Heart of Ice is fantastic and influential, none of Freeze’s other Animated Series appearances have a great deal to offer. TV episode Deep Freeze is sci-fi B-movie gubbins featuring Freeze as a cog in the plot rather than its driving force; and, after all the effort to humanise him, in Cold Comfort he’s just a villain doing villainous things with incredibly thin motivation.

    SubZero is, at least, a step above those. It doesn’t withstand comparison to its predecessor movie, the genuine classic Mask of the Phantasm — that had entertainment value for kids, but was also a thoughtful, mature story about what drives Bruce Wayne to be Batman. SubZero, on the other hand, is just an action-adventure ride. It’s not bad for what it is (there’s a pretty great car chase halfway through, and the explosive climax aboard an abandoned oil derrick going up in flames is rather good), but no more than that. At least it finally provides a neat end to Freeze’s story… even if it is kinda hurried in a last-minute news report.

    3 out of 5

    Paper Moon
    (1973)

    2018 #235
    Peter Bogdanovich | 98 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Paper Moon

    I do try to avoid this situation arising in a ‘review’, but I watched Paper Moon over two years ago and didn’t make any significant notes on it, so I’m afraid I can’t say much of my own opinion. What I can tell you is that I happened to spot it in the TV schedule and decided to watch it primarily to tick it off the IMDb Top 250, thinking it was a bit of an also-ran on that list (based on iCheckMovies, it’s not very widely regarded outside of IMDb; indeed, it’s not even on the Top 250 anymore). But that was serendipitous, because I wound up really enjoying it.

    Sticking with IMDb, here are some interesting points of trivia:

    “At 1 hour, 6 minutes, 58 seconds, Tatum O’Neal’s performance is the longest to ever win an Academy Award in a supporting acting category.” I guess category fraud isn’t a recent phenomena: O’Neal’s a lead — the lead, even — but I bet that supporting award was an easier win, especially as she was a child. Which also ties to this item: “some Hollywood insiders suspected that O’Neal’s performance was ‘manufactured’ by director Peter Bogdanovich. It was revealed that the director had gone to great lengths, sometimes requiring as many as 50 takes, to capture the ‘effortless’ natural quality for which Tatum was critically praised.” But I’ll add a big “hmm” to that point, because I think it’s very much a point of view thing. Every performance in a movie is “manufactured”, in the sense that multiple takes are done and the director and editor later make selections — is requiring 50 takes for a child actor to nail it any different than Kubrick or Fincher putting adult actors through 100 or more takes until they get what they want?

    On a more positive note, “Orson Welles, a close friend of Bogdanovich, did some uncredited consulting on the cinematography. It was Welles who suggested shooting black and white photography through a red filter, adding higher contrast to the images.” Good idea, Orson, because the film does look rather gorgeous.

    5 out of 5

    Hitchcock/Truffaut
    (2015)

    2018 #236
    Kent Jones | 77 mins | TV | 16:9 | France & USA / English, French & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

    Hitchcock/Truffaut

    In 1962, film directors Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut locked themselves away in Hollywood for a week to excavate the secrets behind the mise-en-scène in cinema. Based on the original recordings of this meeting — used to produce the mythical book Hitchcock/Truffaut — this film illustrates the greatest cinema lesson of all time… Hitchcock’s incredibly modern art is elucidated and explained by today’s leading filmmakers, who discuss how Truffaut’s book influenced their work. — adapted from IMDb

    This film version of Hitchcock/Truffaut is about so much at once. On balance, it’s mostly about analysing Hitchcock’s films; but it’s also about the interview itself; and the importance and impact of the book, both on the general critical perception of Hitchcock and how it influenced specific directors; but it’s also about how Hitchcock’s actual films have influenced those directors; and there’s also insights into directing from those directors; and also some bits on Truffaut’s films, and the differences between him and Hitchcock as filmmakers. Whew!

    It’s a funny film, really: it acknowledges the book’s influence, but doesn’t really dig into it; it analyses some of Hitch’s obsessions and films (most especially Vertigo and Psycho), but not comprehensively. Some have said it feels like a companion piece to the book; I’ve not read the book, but I can believe that — if the book were a movie, this would be a special feature on the DVD. Less kindly, you could call it a feature-length advert — certainly, I really want to get the book now. (I got it as a Christmas present not long after. I’ve not read it yet.)

    That said, here’s an iInteresting counterpoint from a Letterboxd review: “One of the things (just one) that makes the book so essential is that it’s a discussion of the craft of filmmaking from two (very different) filmmakers. In adding commentary from a wide variety of other directors, Jones highlights that element of the book while widening and updating its focus: it isn’t just a conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut, but between those two men and David Fincher, and James Gray and Kyoshi Kurosawa and Arnaud Desplechin, etc. Rather than a mere supplement to the book, a video essay adding moving pictures to the book’s conversations, Jones’s film builds something new and on-going upon it.”

    I didn’t think Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) was all it could be; and yet, thanks to the topics discussed and people interviewed, it’s still a must-see for any fan of Hitchcock, or just movies in general.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XIV

    I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

    While I’ve been busy with FilmBath and AMPLIFY!, a lot of review dates I intended to hit have flown by, which naturally brought to mind the Douglas Adams quote above. All those reviews that would’ve tied in to something now won’t, but they’ll find a home here someday.

    In the meantime, I’m far behind on my 100-week roundups, which is why I’ve put some energy into this little lot. They finish up my reviews from October 2018, as well as dipping a toe into the waters of November 2018. It’s a mixed bag in every sense: very different genres; very different styles; very different ratings…

    The films in question are…

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
  • The Lives of Others (2006)
  • Jennifer’s Body (2009)
  • Going for Golden Eye (2017)


    It’s Such a Beautiful Day
    (2012)

    2018 #218
    Don Hertzfeldt | 62 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English

    It's Such a Beautiful Day

    In 2014, when Time Out New York ranked It’s Such a Beautiful Day 16th on their list of the 100 Best Animated Movies Ever Made, critic Tom Huddleston described it as “one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad.” That’s a description I’m about to singularly fail to better.

    Animator Don Hertzfeldt enjoys a cult following — you might never have heard of him (though chances you heard about his Simpsons couch gag, if nothing else), but if you have, well, you have. After releasing numerous shorts, It’s Such a Beautiful Day was his first feature — and, indeed, it was first released as a trilogy of short films between 2006 and 2011. Hence my notes break down into three parts, which I shall now share unedited…

    Part 1, Everything Will Be OK. Okay, so, this is weird. Interesting depiction of some kind of mental collapse (I guess we’re meant to infer it’s a brain tumour). Odd everyday events — what does it mean? Maybe that’s the point — Bill [the central character] is pondering what it all means too, after all.

    Part 2, I Am So Proud of You, is like, “you thought that was weird? Get a load of this!” A lot of it seems to be weird — what some people would describe as “disturbed — just for the sake of it. But at other times, it’s almost casually profound. There’s something interesting about its relationship to time and the order of events, or at least the presentation of the order of events.

    Part 3, It’s Such a Beautiful Day. See above. It’s interesting that it was three short films, made over a period of six years, because it really does feel of a piece. Maybe it was just easier to fund/produce shorts rather than a feature, and this was always the end goal.

    Well, there you go. This is not an animated movie for everyone (if you think “animated movie” means “Disney musical”… hahaha), but it’s certainly something unique and special.

    4 out of 5

    The Lives of Others
    (2006)

    aka Das Leben der Anderen

    2018 #220
    Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany / German | 15 / R

    The Lives of Others

    In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.IMDb

    This German movie won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and BAFTA (as well as a host of other similar awards), and is currently ranked as the 59th best film of all time on IMDb. It lives up to its accolades. It’s tense and thrilling like a spy movie; emotionally and politically loaded like an art house drama.

    Of particular note is Ulrich Mühe, superb as the increasingly-conflicted Stasi agent. He conveys so much with so little — the character’s massive ideological change is all portrayed as inner conflict. I was wondering why we hadn’t seen a lot more of him since, but sadly he passed away the year after the film came out, aged just 54.

    As the film focuses so much on him, it might be easy to underrate the technical merits, especially because they’re unobtrusive; but it’s perfectly shot by Hagen Bogdanski, with crisp, cold, precise photography. As for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, his followup was infamous Johnny Depp / Angelina Jolie vehicle The Tourst, a film so maligned it seems to have derailed his career. Shame.

    5 out of 5

    The Lives of Others placed 24th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Jennifer’s Body
    (2009)

    2018 #222
    Karyn Kusama | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jennifer's Body

    Jennifer’s Body didn’t go down well on its original release, but the past few years have seen it develop a cult following, with people regularly recommending it on social media as an under-appreciated horror flick. I didn’t dislike it, but I’m not ready to join their ranks.

    You can see what they were going for, in some respects — it’s trying to be a very feminist horror movie, with the female friendship at the core and so on. And yet, despite the female writer and female director and female stars, chunks of it feel so very male fantasy. I mean, Megan Fox goes skinny dipping for no reason. We don’t see anything explicit, but I’d wager that has more to do with Fox’s contract than authorial intent. Later, there’s a lingering kiss between the two girls that looks like it’s trying its hardest to best the famous one from Cruel Intentions. And talking of references, the whole film sounds like it’s trying really, really hard to be Heathers, with an overload of slang ‘n’ shit. It’s a bit, well, try-hard.

    Megan Fox is surprisingly good though, and there are some neat bits of direction, like the intercut murder/virginity-losing scene. It’s just a shame the whole film doesn’t show that kind of consistency. It did grow on me as it went on (I’m not sure if it took me time to settle into its rhythm or if it just had a clunky start), though exactly how much is debatable: it ends up being a moderately entertaining comedy-horror, but one that’s never really scary and rarely that funny.

    3 out of 5

    Going for Golden Eye
    (2017)

    2018 #224
    Jim Miskell | 60 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

    Going for Golden Eye

    According to IMDb trivia, this is “the first video game mockumentary”. Well, you’re not going to mistake it for a real documentary — the acting is uniformly amateurish, which is one of the film’s biggest hindrances (it certainly gets in the way of selling the documentary conceit).

    Making allowances for such amateur roots, the film does manage some decently amusing bits, although just as many that don’t land. Very little about it will surprise or delight, but more forgiving or nostalgic viewers may be tickled at times. Plus, you have to have a certain amount of admiration for zero-budget filmmakers who managed to produce and get distribution for their film. Even if there’s an occasional for-friends-and-family feel to parts of it, they’ve still completed something many wannabes only dream of.

    Outside of aforementioned relatives, this is only really going to appeal to people with nostalgia for playing GoldenEye on N64 back in the day. In a way, the best part of the whole film is the opening montage about how GoldenEye was unexpectedly great, bucking expectations of both movie tie-in games and first-person shooters. A genuine well-made documentary about the game — why it was so important; what made it so popular — would be interesting…

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup X

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

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

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


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

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

    Lost in Space

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

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

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

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

    1 out of 5

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

    Skyline
    (2010)

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

    Skyline

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

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

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

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

    1 out of 5

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

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

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

    April and the Extraordinary World

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

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

    I Kill Giants

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5