Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

2020 #153
David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

And a man in a hamster wheel

Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

Lion of Love

The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.

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

  • The 100-Week Roundup IV

    When I started my 100-Week Roundup project, I thought I’d be posting a lot of unedited notes and/or summary paragraphs skirting across multiple films (like I did in my FilmBath shorts roundup, for example). Instead, I’ve mostly still been writing full, albeit short, reviews. Well, that continues here, although these reviews often stop dead rather than being fully-formed pieces.

    Today’s roundup contains the remainder of my unreviewed films from June 2018, with one exception: A Thousand and One Nights, the first film in the Animerama trilogy, which I intend to review along with its two brethren. I watched the second of those in 2019 and the third just this month, so that’ll come up in due course.

    As for what’s still here, if these weren’t linked by the theme of when I watched them, maybe I’d’ve bundled them together for having the same star rating. They are…

  • Doubt (2008)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • The Florida Project (2017)
  • Swingers (1996)
  • Amadeus: Director’s Cut (1984/2002)
  • Becoming Bond (2017)


    Doubt
    (2008)

    2018 #133
    John Patrick Shanley | 104 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Doubt

    It’s funny how time can change perspective. For instance: Doubt is a drama starring three widely acclaimed powerhouse actors, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams… except Adams doesn’t get above-the-title billing, which, yeah, is a bit of an inside technicality for people who are aware of these kind of things, but does remind you that this came out just a year after Enchanted helped propel her to mainstream awareness. But at least she makes the poster, unlike Viola Davis.

    All four stars earnt Oscar nominations (Adams and Davis went up against each other for Supporting Actress, which was instead won by Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona), which only seems fair. The film may set itself up as a mystery (did this priest abuse a child?), but the film’s real qualities lie not in the investigation, but in the people involved — the confrontations, the act-offs, between these great players, all of whom give powerful, nuanced performances,

    This is a film that leans on ambiguity in almost every regard. I mean, we know what it’s about, and yet no one ever even outright says what they suspect the priest of, they just intimate it. It’s also there in the morality, which moves in shades of grey, something such emotive subject matter could easily lose in lesser hands. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley earnt the film’s fifth and final Oscar nomination for the screenplay he wrote based on his own play (losing to the ubiquitous Slumdog Millionaire), and that also seems well deserved.

    4 out of 5

    Gaslight
    (1944)

    2018 #134
    George Cukor | 109 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Gaslight

    In modern parlance, “gaslighting” is when you manipulate someone into disbelieving something they (correctly) believed was true, which has come up an awful lot in the past few years thanks to the actions of politicians in particular. It’s a bit of a random term, but that’s because it stems back to the plot of this film (and/or the 1938 play it’s adapted from, or the 1940 British film that inspired MGM to buy the remake rights to produce this version, which was originally titled The Murder in Thornton Square in the UK to avoid confusion). The connection comes because it stars Ingrid Bergman in an an Oscar-winning turn as Paula, whose new husband messes with her sanity to cover up his criminal activities.

    Leaving aside its cultural importance, as a tale in its own right this version of Gaslight is well performed and directed, but Evil Husband’s scheming is so damned obvious from very early on (at least to modern eyes_ that it becomes a bit of a finger-tapping exercise in waiting for someone, anyone, to do anything about it. I guess part of the point is that it’s a long, slow game of convincing her she’s mad, but it still felt like it needed to get a wriggle on to me. We know what he’s doing and how he’s doing it — how it will be undone and saved is what we’re left waiting (and waiting) for.

    At least it’s worth the wait, with a helluva climactic scene where Paula turns all her husband’s lies back against him. What it lacks in suspense it makes up for with a fantastically committed performance from Bergman, which evolves gradually and believably over the course of the film, and gets some excellent showcase moments too, not least the aforementioned confrontation. As her husband, Charles Boyer makes for a suitably sneering villain — too suitable, in a way, in that it’s almost hard to believe Paula would ever fall for him.

    4 out of 5

    The Florida Project
    (2017)

    2018 #136
    Sean Baker | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Florida Project

    A story of life on the poverty line in modern America, about a young single mother and her six-year-old daughter struggling to make ends meet in Kissimmee, Florida. You’d be forgiven for not having heard of the city, unless you’ve visited its neighbouring tourist magnet: Walt Disney World.

    It’s a slice-of-life kind of film — relatively light on plot, more about showing the difficulties of the characters’ lives. Some viewers will (indeed, have) lose patience with it for that, and at times it does feel a little long in the tooth. It’s worth sticking with, but paring it back by 10 or even 20 minutes would help.

    It’s mostly shown from the kid’s point of view, but there’s enough there that, as adults, we can see the struggles and choices the adults are dealing with. That these kids’ hand-to-mouth make-your-own-fun lives exists in the shadow of expensive, hyper-consumerised Disney World would seem like a contrivance were it not a truth, and the film acknowledges the juxtaposition (it’s hard not to — Disney is everywhere over there) without leaning into it too heavily (although the film’s title is a reference to how Disney referred to the park while it was in development).

    It’s a portrait that’s sympathetic to these people and their lives. How objective is it? It doesn’t blame them for the situation, but also shows it isn’t right, especially in their (limited) interactions with the authorities — maybe if there was different, better help offered earlier, the actions they eventually have to take wouldn’t be necessary.

    The film’s final sequence sits weirdly with the rest of the movie, which provokes some to write if off. The contrast is clearly a deliberate choice, but I’m not sure how I feel about it — it smacks of not knowing how to end the movie, or wanting to put a more upbeat capstone on something that’s become too depressing. It’s certainly striking, at least.

    4 out of 5

    Swingers
    (1996)

    2018 #141
    Doug Liman | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Swingers

    To be honest, this is one I watched more out of box-ticking (of Doug Liman films) and vague curiosity (it’s sometimes (though decreasingly, I feel) mentioned as a key work of ’90s indie cinema), but I wound up genuinely enjoying it. It’s not what I expected from the posters and blurb — I thought it’d be all about slick operators and The Scene, but really it’s about some jobbing twentysomething mates just living and trying to have fun during the swing revival in ’90s Hollywood. In other words, it’s a lot less obnoxious than I’d feared. In fact, it has a kind of sweet positivity. That even extends to Vince Vaughn, who’s playing kind of a dick as usual, but he’s kinda likeable anyway. That said, if you cringe and squirm at people making fools of themselves in social situations (as I do), oh boy, this film has some examples that are more uncomfortable than any horror movie.

    It feels typically ’90s in so many ways, but then as it’s about the ’90s lifestyle, that’s wholly apt. One aspect of this is its cinematic literacy. For example, the characters debate whether Tarantino is copying or homaging Scorsese, and then later the film both homages (or copies) Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas. And like Tarantino, the film came to be an influence on the ’90s itself, through catchphrases like “you’re so money” and “Vegas, baby!”, and popularising the term “wingman”. There’s probably a whole book to be written on the self-referential-ness of ’90s culture as an expression of angst at the forthcoming millennium, or something like that.

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus:
    Director’s Cut

    (1984/2002)

    2018 #142
    Miloš Forman | 180 mins | download | 2.40:1 | USA, France & Czechoslovakia / English | PG / R

    Amadeus

    The story of the one-sided rivalry between court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and wunderkind Mozart, aka Wolfgang, aka Wolfy (to his wife) — who also had the middle name Amadeus, of course, which for some reason lends itself as the title. (As per IMDb Trivia, “an important theme of movie is the change of Salieri’s belief in God. That might have been the reason for the title Amadeus, which means ‘love of God’.”)

    Amadeus‘s reputation places it as a 10-out-of-10 absolute-classic kind of Great Movie, including ranking in the top 100 of IMDb’s Top 250, the top 200 of Letterboxd’s equivalent, and placing on various other lists, like the 1,000 Greatest Films. I wouldn’t go that far, personally, although I did think it was good. There are very strong performances (amusingly, Tom Hulce studied the temperamental behaviour of John McEnroe to help inform his interpretation of Mozart). There are great depictions of music and its creation. The production values are strikingly high, including sumptuous sets, locations, and costumes; nice camerawork (apparently the entire film was shot with natural light, which makes the cinematography even more impressive); and some spots of excellent editing.

    The version released theatrically in 1984 was cut down to 160 minutes because, according to Forman, it was the era of MTV: a long movie about classical music was already a risk, so it was decided to limit the running time. 2 hours 40 minutes is hardly shot, though, is it? Anyway, come 2002 and the DVD release, Forman felt they may as well recreate the film as written, leading to the longer cut, which has since become the standard version (it’s even the one shown on TV, which is by no means guaranteed with director’s cuts, I find). Forman says the shorter version was created by ditching every scene not directly related to the plot, though I’m not sure how much I buy that. Having read what was added back, I’m sure an awful lot more could’ve gone without impacting the story a great deal, if that was indeed their goal. One thing the longer cut did achieve was up its US certification from a PG to an R, thanks to a brief appearance by boobies. Oh, you prudish Americans!

    The film also inspired the song Rock Me Amadeus. Now that’s something I might give five stars.

    4 out of 5

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

    Becoming Bond
    (2017)

    2018 #144
    Josh Greenbaum | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

    Becoming Bond

    A documentary about the life of George Lazenby, most famous — or, rather, only famous — for replacing Sean Connery as James Bond for the sum total of one film. The blurb tries to spin it as “a unique documentary/narrative hybrid”, but it’s just a docudrama — i.e. a documentary with some scenes dramatised by actors. In fact, it’s basically just an interview with Lazenby that’s been dressed up with reenactments.

    Lazenby comes across as likeable and it’s a helluva story, and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve had a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun with how the recreations are done (swearing, sex, nudity, hanging boots off erections…) It’s mostly a “mad, true story” kinda thing, but it pulls out some surprisingly heartfelt, emotional stuff later on, including regret of opportunities missed (and not just Bond ones). The only significant downside comes from being a British viewer, because the dramatisations were all clearly shot in the US with American actors: most of the British and Australian accents are terrible; their idea of the exterior of a British pub is questionable; frankly, I’m amazed they even bothered to use right-hand drive cars (err, most of the time).

    (Bit of an aside, but just think: there’s an alternate universe somewhere in which Lazenby didn’t behave like an idiot and instead starred in Diamonds Are Forever, and therefore probably carried on into Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, and maybe The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker too… And I guess in that universe Roger Moore never played Bond (because surely they wouldn’t’ve cast him for the first time when he was over 50, would they?) Funny to think about, isn’t it?)

    There’s an interview clip included where David Frost asks Lazenby if he carries on the James Bond thing in real life, and Lazenby says no, it’s just a movie, no one could carry on like that in real life — which is funny because we’ve just been hearing all about how Lazenby basically did lead Bond’s life (minus, you know, the spying and killing). Whether that’s actually a desirable way to lead an entire life… you be the judge.

    4 out of 5

  • 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.

  • Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

    2019 #120
    Quentin Tarantino | 161 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 18 / R

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino follows the fortunes of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt) over a couple of days in Los Angeles, 1969, when they were next-door neighbours to one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…

    I haven’t reviewed Once Upon a Time until now because I didn’t have much to say about it (even my Letterboxd ‘review’ was just a comment on its variable title presentation). Even after reflecting on it, and reading other’s critical reactions, then reflecting on it some more (for over eight months at this point), I didn’t have much to contribute. Why was that? And I’ve kind of realised it’s because the film didn’t make me feel very much.

    Sure, there are moments where it did. There are plenty of scenes that are amusing, to varying degrees. The tension as Cliff explores the house of an old friend that’s been occupied by a bunch of hippies. The catharsis and humour of the ultra-violent climax, and the attendant cognitive dissonance of whether we should be revelling so in this historically-revisionist execution of real people — not to mention the factors that further complicate that (you know what they are by now).

    And overall I didn’t dislike the film. I wasn’t bored, despite the length; if anything, that helps suck you into the world of 1969. You can certainly feel Tarantino’s love for the era, his desire to recreate — and, indeed, improve — it. (It’s also clear that he really wants to make another Western. The excerpted scenes from Rick’s TV pilot go on for ages, ultimately contributing nothing to the overall story, other than getting to hang out in a ’60s TV Western.) The three main performances are all very good, DiCaprio and Pitt great both as a double act and in their own storylines, and Robbie off in her own little world in a role that arguably offers little on the page but she breathes so much life into.

    “Don’t cry, man. It’s only one blogger's opinion.”

    It’s all these successes that mean I do consider Once Upon a Time to be a very good film. But at the same time, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling moved or wowed. I expected the history-changing ending ever since the film’s plot was announced, that expectation only cemented further as I learnt of Tarantino’s love for Tate, so I certainly didn’t leave feeling surprised. It ended, and that was that, and I went home.

    Tarantino has talked in the past about how Jackie Brown is a “hangout movie”, where the point is not the story but spending time with the characters, and getting to re-spend that time when you watch the movie again, so that you enjoy it more and more with each viewing. I didn’t really get that feeling from Jackie Brown (I didn’t dislike it, but I was underwhelmed and in no rush to revisit it), but I wonder if that’s how Once Upon a Time will work best. The way it wanders through its loose narrative, before arriving at a climax that is, really, only tangentially related to everything else we’ve been watching, does suggest that’s the goal Tarantino had in mind. I can certainly believe he would like to just hang out in the world of Hollywood, 1969. I suspect that’s the driving factor behind why he even made this movie — getting to imagine an alternate history and career for his characters (I’ve seen interviews where he fills in way more backstory than is actually in the film), and using his clout to literally recreate that time and place in real-life rather than through CGI fill-ins.

    So, it’s a movie I’ll surely revisit at some point, which is more than can be said for many a film. Perhaps then I’ll have something to say about it.

    5 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

    The Lunchbox (2013)

    2020 #94
    Ritesh Batra | 99 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | India, France, Germany & USA / Hindi & English | PG / PG

    The Lunchbox

    Yesterday the world heard the sad news that the actor Irrfan Khan had passed away aged just 53. An award-winning film star in India, Khan also had a noteworthy presence as a supporting actor in Western films — the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire; the owner of the eponymous park in Jurassic World; the adult version of the main character in Life of Pi; not to mention The Darjeeling Limited, The Amazing Spider-Man, Inferno, and more. I’d seen all of those films and noted Khan’s presence — he’s the kind of actor who turns up and elevates the film almost just by being there, bringing a depth and interest to even the smallest roles. But I’d never seen any of the many films (he has 151 acting credits on IMDb) in which he played the lead, so it seemed appropriate to turn to one of the most internationally acclaimed of his films, The Lunchbox, in tribute.

    Khan plays Saajan, an office worker who receives his lunch every day via the dabbawala service. It’s a remarkable network that delivers 200,000 lunches daily across Mumbai with unerring accuracy. Indeed, their precision is so famed that one of the major criticisms of this film in some quarters was that its premise is too far-fetched — that being that, due to a continued mixup, Saajan begins to receive the lunches Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has prepared for her husband, rather than the ones he ordered from a local restaurant. He’s so impressed with the quality of the food, when the lunchbox is returned Ila observes that it looks to have been licked clean. This is good news, because she was trying to up the quality of her lunches as a way to reignite her stagnant marriage; but when her husband returns home still disinterested, with only thin praise for something she hadn’t even included in his lunch, she realises the delivery mistake immediately. But politeness compels her to send lunch again, this time with a note explaining the mixup. After a rocky start, soon Saajan and Ila are in daily communication through short letters passed back and forth in the lunchbox.

    Saajan

    Both are characters desperately in need of that connection. Ila’s loveless marriage, and young daughter who spends most of the day at school, means her primary human contact comes in shouted conversations with her upstairs neighbour. Saajan, meanwhile, is taking early retirement, but first must train Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the overeager new recruit appointed to replace him. He tries to duck even this level of interaction; at home, he tells off kids for playing in the road outside his house, refusing to return their ball. We could infer Saajan is a misanthrope, and the impression is given that his colleagues do (they share a story that he once kicked a cat in front of a bus then casually walked away), but the film affords us more insight than that, primarily through Khan’s performance. It’s the underlying sadness in his eyes that first give the clue to his true loneliness, and the way his demeanour begins to brighten as the relationship with Ila brings a spark back into his life.

    Lest you think this is all somewhat dour, the way it plays is uplifting. Saajan and Ila may be miserable at the start, and continue to confront problems in their lives throughout the film, but their connection injects a measure of happiness into both their lives, the mutual support helping them through. Plus there’s a strong vein of humour, at first from the faltering beginnings of our leads’ relationship, then from the antics of Siddiqui’s junior employee. This isn’t the kind of broad comedy you might expect from a Bollywood movie, but something more grounded and closer to reality. At first Shaikh seems as irritating to us as he is to Saajan, but soon the latter’s growing empathy leads him to become a father figure to the younger man, and we too begin to see the truth underneath his cheery facade.

    Ila

    While that subplot is a bonus, the film really comes down to Saajan and Ila, and consequently the performances of Khan and Kaur. That’s particularly important because so much of the story occurs in the form of letters, and so the characters’ true reactions come across in doleful expressions, or changes in posture or behaviour; subtle, human indicators that leave us in no doubt what they’re feeling, and only strengthen our own connection to and investment in these characters. This pair of deeply-felt performances carefully steer The Lunchbox into being a heartfelt, quietly affecting film.

    5 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. ^

    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.

    Yesterday (2019)

    2020 #21
    Danny Boyle | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, China & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Yesterday

    Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring — and failing — musician. He’s unlucky in love too, although that’s also his own fault, because he’s missed the blatant fact his friend-cum-manager Ellie (Lily James) has fancied him for the past couple of decades. One day there’s a weird blackout thing across the world, and (long story short) Jack is apparently the only person who remember the Beatles exist. Shocked that the world has been deprived of this amazing, culture-defining music, Jack begins to perform and record it… with zero success. Clearly, there’s more to it than just the music and lyrics. And he’s still none the wiser to Ellie’s obvious affections. Maybe Jack is just one of life’s losers?

    Ooh, that all sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, this is a Richard Curtis movie — things pick up. Because of course someone notices the music Jack’s now playing is amazing, and of course that leads him to global success. Curtis is a massive Beatles fan — I believe that’s how the concept for the movie came about in the first place — so there’s no way he’s going to let what he believes is the wondrousness of their music go unnoticed. We know that as well, I think, so the bit where Jack still fails, despite now having good material, is a nice little plot red herring.

    It’s welcome, too, because the plot doesn’t have a whole lot else surprising going for it. (Well, there’s a subplot about the song Wonderwall that is such a plot structure red herring as to seem like a plot structure mistake, but I’m not sure it counts as a surprise when it’s only likely to be noticed by film buffs who incorrectly predict where it’s going.) It’s one of those films where the one-line premise is more interesting than what the film actually does with it. “What if only one man remembered the Beatles?” sounds like a neat idea for a story, but where is there to go with it? For the sake of there being any story at all, he has to be able to perform these songs that only he can remember. Then he either has to be a success or not, as discussed. It all feels inevitable, the only real question being what’s the ‘out’ — how does this end? Well, I shan’t spoil it.

    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

    To add more bulk, there’s a romance storyline. Of course there is, it’s a Richard Curtis movie. But a romcom is hardly more original, is it? No, this is a very comfortable movie — you’re rarely going to be surprised about where it chooses to go. That said, I liked this side of the film more. In fact, I feel like the film would actually have been better without the whole Beatles thing — just a movie about a struggling wannabe musician realising he doesn’t really love music, he loves Lily James. As it is, at one point he has to choose between his lifelong dream of pop music mega-stardom or being with Lily James, and he choose the dream, which is wholly implausible because Lily James.

    But for all its predictability, there are some really nice bits along the way. (Proper spoilers follow.) It turns out there are two other people who remember the Beatles, and they begin to stalk Jack as he has success… but it turns out they’re just glad this music is back in the world. Neat twist. The surprise-cameo John Lennon scene is another unexpected moment heavy with emotion. The closing montage not being to any ‘big’ Beatles song, but to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (well, life does go on). Ed Sheeran ruining one of the greatest songs ever written. That one’s not so much nice as “funny because it’s true”, but I’ll take it. (If you thought Ed Sheeran was bad in his Game of Thrones cameo, just wait ’til you see him try to act as, er, himself. The role is very convincingly written, mind.)

    Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it’s not only the Beatles that have disappeared in this alternate world. Oasis have gone too, which, as Jack observes, “makes sense” — though the film doesn’t go very far in this regard. It’s based on the notion that the Beatles’ music was The Best Ever, but what has removing them from history actually changed about pop culture? As far as we can see, all it means is that Oasis don’t exist. Is that really the sum total of the Beatles’ influence? Anyway, my point was that other stuff has disappeared too, including Coca Cola, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Live (although that’s just become Thursday Night Live for some reason), and smoking. So this isn’t just “a reality without the Beatles”, it’s a subtly different world entirely. That’s an interesting creative choice. It’s basically just used as a source of humour — an easy go-to gag — but it still provokes the question: why has this random selection of things disappeared? What else has gone that Jack doesn’t notice?

    Hey Dude

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because this is a comedy like Groundhog Day or Sliding Doors in that the sci-fi/fantasy aspect is a means to an end, not a thing to be queried in itself. But in those films the change only affected our hero: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is the only one in the time loop; in Sliding Doors, it’s only Gwyneth Paltrow’s life that’s significantly different (and none of the characters are even aware there are two versions of events). In Yesterday, Jack isn’t the only person this happened to, which emphasises the “what happened?” question. Why did it affect most people, but not these few? Why is so much of the world the same, but random things are missing? The film doesn’t care — it’s not about that — but, with the narrative choices the storytellers have made, it invites these kinds of wonderings.

    That is, unless you just switch off and let it be a pleasant bit of fluff about a guy becoming famous with borrowed music while finally realising that the girl who’s wasted her life waiting for him to realise she loves him, er, loves him (Jack doesn’t deserve Lily James). Yeah, it’s mostly predictable, but that’s part of the comfort factor. There’s some good music, some likeable performances, and a general amiability to its tone. Let it be, indeed.

    3 out of 5

    Yesterday is available on Sky Cinema from today. (Maybe I should’ve reviewed it tomorrow…)

    Hustlers (2019)

    2020 #39
    Lorene Scafaria | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Hustlers

    A struggling stripper (Constance Wu) is taken under the wing of an older pro (Jennifer Lopez) at a club frequented by super-rich Wall Street types. The going is good… until the 2008 financial crash happens, knocking out their clientele and, in turn, them. Of course, the Wall Street guys got away scot-free after that debacle, even as others floundered — including our stripper friends. That is, until J.Lo and co come up with a scheme to rip the bastards off.

    Crime movies are sometimes criticised for glamourising the illegal acts of their characters. Sometimes that’s people misreading the film (in the case of many a Scorsese movie, for instance). Sometimes it’s true (the many rip-offs by people who misread Scorsese movies, for instance). Sometimes it’s unavoidable, because we’re going to be on the criminals’ side however you present it — and I think that’s the case here. Those fuckers had it coming, and these girls brought it to them. Not all heroes wear capes clothes.

    Even more satisfyingly, it’s based on a true story. Director Lorene Scafaria leans into the story’s caper movie parallels just the right amount, giving the movie a great tone — funny without turning it into an outright comedy; heartfelt without getting schmaltzy; a crime drama without getting self-consciously Gritty. Her direction is fantastic, with exciting shot choices, editing tricks, sound design, and fitting needle drops. But among the razzmatazz she doesn’t lose sight of the point: it’s about these women and their relationships as much as it is about the scam they pulled.

    Every day they're hustlin'

    And so the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Wu and Lopez, but they’re both strong enough to carry it. Wu gets the bigger arc — from nervous newbie to confident co-conspirator to a frustrated “only adult in the room” position when others begin to push things too far. We also see her in framing flash forwards, where she’s in a different position again. Normally I hold little truck with this kind of framing device, because it’s often a lazy shortcut through the story or gives away too much of where thing are going. Here, though, it’s just tantalising enough to make you wonder where exactly she’s ended up, and therefore how exactly she got there. J.Lo’s performance has attracted plenty of praise (there was widespread disappointment when she didn’t get an Oscar nom), and she is wholly convincing as an outwardly glamorous and successful woman with a steely survivor’s core.

    “Strippers rip off rich businessmen” sounds like the setup for an exploitation movie, and in other hands it probably would’ve been. But without a leering gaze, and with a true-story basis that remembers these women are human beings, there’s a dimension of reality that elevates proceedings — even as it’s still fun seeing the underdog pull a fast one on schmucks who deserved it.

    4 out of 5

    Hustlers is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.