The 100-Week Roundup XIII

Horror, comedy, romance, and singing Nazis in this week’s roundup…

  • TiMER (2009)
  • Suspiria (1977)
  • Matinee (1993)
  • The Producers (1967)


    TiMER
    (2009)

    2018 #210
    Jac Schaeffer | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    TiMER

    The debut feature of writer-director Jac Schaeffer (who hasn’t helmed a feature since, but is now the showrunner of Marvel’s WandaVision) is a sci-fi romcom that doesn’t sell out its high concept to make its romance work. Said concept is that you can buy an implant that will count down to the day when you meet your soulmate. So, there’s the usual romcom “will they/won’t they” shenanigans, but with this added SF complication.

    As a sci-fi fan, I thought the concept was very well done indeed. At it’s core it’s quite a simple idea — I mean, such a device is hardly something that would change the entire world, but it would certainly affect our attitude to relationships and dating. The writing has thought through those effects, the way it would modify people’s reactions and behaviour and so on, and applied all of that to its story in a natural way; that is to say, it influences what happens, rather than the plot being little more than an exercise in exploring the permutations of the concept. Couple that with a solid romcom element, and you have a likeable little film.

    4 out of 5

    Suspiria
    (1977)

    2018 #211
    Dario Argento | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy / English | 18

    Suspiria

    Perhaps horror maestro Dario Argento’s best-known movie, Suspiria is the story of American ballet dancer Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who travels to Germany to train at a prestigious dance academy, where she instead uncovers many creepy goings-on.

    There’s a bit more to the story than that, but, really, Suspiria is more about its unnerving atmosphere, creepy scares, and strikingly brutal murders than emphasising a traditional narrative. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, “film scholar L. Andrew Cooper notes ‘aesthetic experience is arguably the ultimate source of ‘meaning’ in all of Argento’s films’,” and that was certainly my main takeaway here — as I wrote in my year-end summary, it’s a masterpiece of uneasy atmosphere, with striking colours and music.

    There’s a lot more that could be written about Suspiria (and, of course, has been written in the 43 since its release), but if you were expecting deep-dive insight in a roundup column, you’re in the wrong place.

    5 out of 5

    Suspiria placed 16th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2018.

    Matinee
    (1993)

    2018 #213
    Joe Dante | 99 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Matinee

    I confess I’d not even heard of Matinee before Arrow put out a Blu-ray a few years back, but it seems to be something of a cult favourite — it’s laden with high-scoring reviews on Letterboxd nowadays. It’s about a producer of horror B-movies (modelled on William Castle) who attempts to promote his latest piece of monstrous schlock, Mant, to a military-base town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thematically, it’s a tribute to and evocation of the magic of the movies, which probably explains its popularity on a movie-logging website. That’s definitely its strongest aspect, with John Goodman getting to deliver some nice speeches about the wonder of going to the pictures. Shame today’s cinema managers and employees don’t seem to share his romanticism for the experience…

    Other than that, I thought it was a bit something and nothing. The movie-within-a-movie is a lot of fun, and setting a good chunk of the film during its premiere screening is a neat bit of structure, but overall the antics get a bit daft.

    There’s a bit of unintended mirroring in the inclusion of a school drill for the atomic bomb about to drop, with safety precautions that would be fundamentally useless were it to actually happen — it calls to mind how today US schools do drills for school shooting situations, again with virtually useless advice (or so I’ve heard). You could possibly draw out some commentary on the changing nature of threats to US citizens (it used to be from without, now it’s from within), but Matinee was made in 1993, so the chances of it being intentional are nil.

    3 out of 5

    The Producers
    (1967)

    2018 #216
    Mel Brooks | 86 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Producers

    Writer-director Mel Brooks is best known for his fourth-wall-breaking movie parodies like Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but his debut feature is a different kettle of fish. It takes place in (broadly speaking) the real world, where failing Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and accountant Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder) come up with a moneymaking scam that involves putting on a show so terrible that it closes on opening night.

    Cue a mix of black humour (the play they settle upon is called Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden) and slapstick, with scenes and moments indicating the direction Brooks’ style would later take (like an aside about another character being delivered direct to camera, or someone answering a comforting “there, there” with “where, where?”).

    Although originally opening to mixed reviews, the film was a box office hit, earnt Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor for Wilder) and wins (Best Screenplay for Brooks), and was eventually adapted into an actual Broadway musical (you couldn’t make this up) which was then (re)made as another film (you really couldn’t make this up) and as recently as 2016 was used as the basis for a spoof of Trump (sadly, he’s not made up either). That, I think, speaks to the enduring hilarity of the original.

    4 out of 5

  • Bill & Ted’s Double-Bill

    As Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) slightly belatedly face the music in UK cinemas, now seemed a good time to review their first excellent adventure and second bogus journey

    Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
    (1989)

    2020 #91
    Stephen Herek | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

    I’ve written before about how my childhood film viewing involved a lot of catching up on the family-friendly blockbusters of the ’80s — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, etc — but Bill & Ted was one of the ones that passed me by. Maybe if I’d seen it at the time I’d now put it on a pedestal with those others; or maybe I missed it back then because it simply isn’t as good.

    The titular duo are a pair of slackers and aspiring rock musicians, but they’re struggling to complete a high school History presentation and, if they fail, they’ll be separated forever. Fortunately, help arrives in the form of Rufus (George Carlin), a time traveller from the year 2688, when mankind lives in a utopian society thanks to the music of Bill and Ted — but only if they pass this project. So he lends them his phone-booth-shaped time machine, and off they go into the past to roundup some real historical figures.

    Where Back to the Future was a sci-fi/comedy that took its sci-fi relatively seriously (applying proper scientific theories of time travel’s possible effects to provide jeopardy for our hero), Bill & Ted is an outright comedy. It revels in its silliness, which makes for fun, laidback viewing, but it’s at the expense of any tension or suspense in the plot. Ostensibly they must race against the clock to get their presentation together (thanks to some half-arsed gubbins about time still progressing in the present even while they’re gadding about in a time machine), and the phone booth gets broken and stuff like that, but it never really feels like there’s a hurry, or that things might not work out. I mean, it’s a daft comedy, so of course we know they’re going to pull it off, but the film seems to use that inevitability as an excuse to not even try.

    If I seem overly critical, it’s only because expectations are high. The film has a marked cult following, and the fact there’s another 1980s comedy about a time travelling high schooler is an unavoidable point of comparison. It’s not Bill & Ted’s fault that Back to the Future is a fundamentally perfect movie, whereas this is just an easygoing 90 minutes of frivolity. It’s not all it could be, but it’s likeable enough to squeak up to 4 stars.

    4 out of 5

    Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
    (1991)

    2020 #96
    Pete Hewitt | 94 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

    In the run up to Face the Music, I’ve observed a trend on Twitter for people, who consider themselves connoisseurs, to declare Bogus Journey better than Excellent Adventure. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but that’s one I definitely disagree with. So too, I guess, would Excellent Adventure director Stephen Herek, who declined to return for this sequel because he thought it was “almost a parody of a movie that was already a parody”.

    Originally titled Bill & Ted Go to Hell (until that was vetoed by typically puritanical Yanks), the plot sees Bill and Ted, um, go to Hell. They’re killed by evil robot replicas of themselves, sent back in time by a future terrorist who wants to disrupt the utopia they created. While the robot doubles set about destroying their reputations, the real Bill and Ted are stuck in the afterlife, where they must convince Death (William Sadler) to restore them to life.

    Apparently the first idea for the sequel was to have our slacker heroes struggling with an English assignment, which would lead to them entering classic works of literature. That storyline appeals to me (well, I do have an English degree), but it does sound like a mere do-over of the first movie’s plot. It’s to Bogus Journey’s credit that it’s not merely a rehash, but it doesn’t feel like there was a solid concept to go in its place. Excellent Adventure had a driving idea (“use time travel to do a History project”), but Bogus Journey feels like the result of a forced search for something else to do with the same characters. Heck, it even switches genres, from sci-fi to fantasy. That kinda doesn’t matter when they’re just silly comedies, but it didn’t sit right with me.

    Perhaps that’s simply because I didn’t think it worked. The whole film is much scrappier and less inspired than the first. There are good bits — Sadler is quite fun as the Grim Reaper, and some of the Hell stuff is inventive — but it’s mostly a whole load of mediocrity, lacking the spark that enlivened the original. The climax even reminded me of a Doctor Who spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death. Okay, that came eight years after this, but it did the same gag better.

    Bogus Journey is definitely barmy, like they were allowed to do whatever they wanted and went crazy with it. I kind of admire that, even as I didn’t think the result was particularly entertaining. In fact, I found it annoying rather than funny.

    2 out of 5

    Bill & Ted Face the Music is in UK cinemas from today.

    Safety Last! (1923)

    2020 #172
    Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

    Safety Last!

    I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

    The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

    What a way to make a living

    My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

    But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

    This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

    Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

    And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

    The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

    5 out of 5

    The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

    The 100-Week Roundup XII

    In the interests of catching up, this roundup combines two separate weeks.

    The first contains two of the most acclaimed films of all time (both feature on numerous “greatest ever” lists, including those from IMDb, Letterboxd, TSPDT, and Empire), which happen to be my final reviews from September 2018.

    The second is a pair of movies I watched back-to-back in October 2018 that share an obvious pregnancy theme — but, oh, they could hardly handle it more differently.

    This week’s films are…

  • Network (1976)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Prevenge (2016)
  • Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)


    Network
    (1976)

    2018 #201
    Sidney Lumet | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Network

    no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.

    So wrote Aaron Sorkin, who has cited Network’s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major inspiration on his own writing; he even cited the man when accepting his Oscar for The Social Network; and Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom feels like it could’ve been called Network: The Series.

    Well, maybe not. The first half-hour or so of Network feels like The Newsroom (which was a series very much aimed at being realistic, to the extent that it was set in the recent past and mostly used real news stories for its plots), whereas Network spirals off into its own level of satirical craziness, far beyond what Sorkin’s series attempted.

    But whereas The Newsroom looked to the recent past and real events, Network is as indicative of the future as Sorkin said in that opening quote. The film may be 44 years old, but I’m pretty sure you could Chayefsky’s this screenplay, change only a couple of minor specific words, and film it as being set today. It forecasts the future of TV news as angry men ranting as if they were prophets (this was 20 years before Fox News launched), as well as commentating on the place of terrorism in driving TV ratings.

    It’s cynical and ultimately bleak, but, worst of all, it’s entirely accurate.

    5 out of 5

    Network placed 21st on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Ran
    (1985)

    2018 #203
    Akira Kurosawa | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan & France / Japanese | 12 / R

    Ran

    Akira Kurosawa returns to Shakespeare (after Throne of Blood quite closely adapted Macbeth and The Bad Sleep Well may or may not have been based on Hamlet) for an adaptation of King Lear, relocated to feudal Japan. At the time, it was speculated to be his final film. It wasn’t — he made three more — but this was his last large-scale work.

    The title translates roughly as “chaos”, “pandemonium”, or “turmoil” — I guess they didn’t bother retitling it for the West because the original is a nice, simple word we can understand. But the original meaning is clearly apt, because the film depicts the mayhem that ensues when a warlord abdicates and tries to divide his kingdom between his three sons.

    It’s testament to Kurosawa’s greatness that he can make a movie this magnificent and I wouldn’t even put it in his top five. That might be my failing, though — this is a longer and more complex work than, say, Throne of Blood or Sanjuro. I need to revisit all of Kurosawa’s movies, but none more so than this.

    5 out of 5

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

    Prevenge
    (2016)

    2018 #208
    Alice Lowe | 88 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Prevenge

    Seven-months-pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe, who also writes and directs) believes she can hear the voice of her unborn baby, and it’s telling her to kill people. Why is a mystery… unless you read the Wikipedia entry, which just tells you upfront. (Don’t read the Wikipedia entry.)

    The behind-the-scenes story of Prevenge is impressive: it was made while Lowe herself was pregnant; she wrote it in just four days, and shot it in just 11. Speed is no indicator of quality, either positively nor negatively, but Prevenge is very good. The premise is obviously absurd, but it leans into that by being darkly funny. As a horror movie, it’s not scary, more kind of creepy, although not even quite that — it’s not playing on those kind of thrills.

    Perhaps this means it fails to satisfy “horror fans”, thus explaining its fairly low score on IMDb, which I think is unwarranted. But it’s also not what people have started to call “elevated horror” (i.e. horror that is acceptable as a Quality Movie too), because it’s too transgressive for that. Perhaps it is best taken as an exceptionally black comedy.

    4 out of 5

    Bridget Jones’s Baby
    (2016)

    2018 #209
    Sharon Maguire | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, France & China / English | 15 / R

    Bridget Jones's Baby

    I first and last watched the original Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, The Edge of Reason, many years ago (probably close to when they were originally released, in 2001 and 2004 respectively; certainly well before this blog existed). I didn’t dislike them, but all I can really remember about them is broad-sweep stuff, including barely anything from the second one. So I didn’t come to this belated third movie as an all-read-up fan; but, just like the first two, I didn’t dislike it… and, 100 weeks later, can barely remember any details about it. (I read the detailed plot description on Wikipedia and some of it came back to me.)

    The storyline is mostly pretty obvious — it’s a recycle of the previous films’ love triangle thing, now with the added complexity of a pregnancy — which means the over-two-hours running time feels somewhat excessive (I continue to believe all comedies should be about 90 minutes). In spite of that, it’s often pretty funny. Some of the riffs on modern media and whatnot are a bit tired (“those young people, just posting photos of their food on Instagram!”), but other gags land well enough.

    In the earlier movies, Renée Zellweger attracted praise for her ability to inhabit a British lass. It feels like she’s forgotten how to do the accent in the 12 year gap; or maybe it’s just thanks to the work she’s obviously had done on her face… At least she’s helped by a supporting cast so stuffed with quality performers from UK comedies that some literally just appear in the back of shot (presumably there were deleted scenes).

    Reasonably successful at what it sets out to do, then; enough so that there’s been talk of a fourth one.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XI

    This week: an underrated crime thriller based on the same true-life story as a Hitchcock classic; an investigation of the trauma left by conflict in a film I’ve nicknamed “Gulf War Rashomon”; and a test of this “just post my notes already” roundup format with one of my favourite films I watched in 2018.

    They are…

  • Compulsion (1959)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Courage Under Fire (1996)


    Compulsion
    (1959)

    2018 #194
    Richard Fleischer | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

    Compulsion

    Based on a novel that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (which has also been the inspiration for various other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Compulsion is the story of two students who think their intellectual superiority will allow them to get away with the perfect murder.

    Playing the students, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are both fantastic. They’re two different types of well-to-do prodigies: Dillman charming and cocksure; Stockwell both awkward and supremely confident of his own exceptionalness. Their performances keep things compelling, even as the events unfolding are a foregone conclusion. You should and will hate them — even if they weren’t murderers, they’d be insufferable pricks (they sound like any number of modern-day politicians, don’t they?); that they’re cold-blooded killers just makes them worse. But even though you’ll never root for them, they’re still addictively watchable. Also, bearing in mind when the film was made, there’s a strong undercurrent of their homosexuality. It disappears as the film goes on, becoming more concerned with the case than the relationship between the two guys, but it’s discernibly there at the start.

    And then Orson Welles turns up. Despite getting top billing, he has more of a third act cameo that turns into the film’s most grandstanding moment: his closing speech at the trial; a real tour de force against capital punishment. Apparently it was issued on vinyl, it’s that good. The three stars got and get all the recognition (they shared Best Actor at Cannes that year), but there are also fine supporting performances from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi as a couple of fellow students who get caught up in the case in different ways; and E.G. Marshall is very good as DA Horn, the man who eventually catches the guys and therefore becomes Welles’ courtroom nemesis. He’s particularly understated during Welles’ big speech, gradually shifting from annoyance and hatred to agreement, ultimately rising to his feet at the end as if in a silent standing ovation.

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

    Aside from that obvious Big Scene, there are several other memorable ones: Dillman calmly talking to his teddy bear while Stockwell frantically searches for misplaced glasses, for example; or the cat-and-mouse scenes where the DA interviews the lads separately. Much of it is fantastically shot, too. There’s an occasional showy bit (like focusing on glasses on a nightstand as it gets dark outside, then showing the culprit and investigator reflected one in each lens), but also a general level of quality that often helps emphasise the darkness in the lads’ souls.

    I don’t think Compulsion is widely discussed anymore (it has fewer ratings on IMDb than Love on a Leash!), but I thought it was a brilliant film; one that can withstand comparison to more-acclaimed versions of the same story. It’s definitely underrated today.

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

    2018 #196
    Michael Lehmann | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Heathers

    Heathers was one of my favourite films I watched in 2018 (it placed 5th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018), but I didn’t make any notes on it at the time, and (obviously) it’s now two years since I watched it. Oh dear.

    So, in the spirit of the point of these roundups (to clear old unreviewed films, regardless of how much or little I have to say about them), we’ll have to make do with repeating my brief summary from the aforementioned “best of” list. Though I’ll also add that I watched this on Arrow’s then-new Blu-ray edition, which comes from a 4K restoration and looks absolutely fantastic.

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

    2018 #197
    Edward Zwick | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Courage Under Fire

    It’s “Gulf War Rashomon” when a traumatised tank commander (Denzel Washington) encounters conflicting accounts of what happened while he investigates whether a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) deserves to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which would make her the first woman to receive it. As higher-ups put pressure on him to just push the honour through, he remains committed to uncovering the truth…

    The mystery of what really went on is not as clever or engrossing as the film thinks it is, but it still works as a meditation on how we acknowledge wartime heroism and the place of truth in doing so. It’s also a consideration of how many people are affected, in different ways, by the sacrifices of war.

    There are some decent performances along the way: Washington is always good value, and a before-he-was-famous Matt Damon demonstrates his commitment to the profession by losing a ton of weight between filming the flashback and “present day” scenes (endangering his health in the process) to portray a medical specialist indelibly affected by what went on ‘over there’. Apparently Mark Kermode said the casting of Meg Ryan as a chopper pilot was “the benchmark for a casting decision so ludicrous that it takes the viewer out of the film,” but I suspect that says more about how she was regarded at the time (best known for romcoms) than her actual performance (she’s no standout, but she’s fine).

    3 out of 5

  • Love on a Leash (2011)

    2020 #173
    Fen Tian | 86 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Love on a Leash

    Love on a Leash first gained a degree of notoriety when some YouTuber happened upon it on Amazon Prime and made a video about it, in which he instructed his followers to rate it 10-out-of-10 on IMDb. Enough of them did that it apparently resulted in his account being banned. (At time of writing, it has a score of 9.2 from almost 6,500 ratings.) I came across it more recently on Letterboxd, where it was featured on a list of divisive films. You only have to look at its ratings spread to see why:

    Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

    Are the 1,504 people who’ve rated it 5 stars in on the same joke as those YouTuber’s fans who rated it 10 on IMDb? Or is there in fact something to this movie that makes some people think “this is worth full marks”? You might be surprised to learn that, actually, I think it’s the latter.

    The film tells the story of Prince, a golden retriever who is actually a man turned into a dog (and whose human name may have been Alvin Flang. Or maybe not — I feel like the dog is an unreliable narrator). How has this happened? Why? Who knows? Who cares? (The film has a lot of random shots of ducks for no obvious reason (it’s almost Lynchian), so my guess is they did it to him. Still don’t know why, though.) Prince learns (from a magic rock-pool) that he can only return to human form by finding the true love of a woman. Enter unlucky-in-love shopgirl Lisa (Jana Camp), who meets Prince in a park and eventually takes him home. What unfolds is not as straightforward as the Beauty and the Beast narrative you might imagine, but to describe any more of the craziness would be to ruin half the fun. The plot’s constant twists and developments beggar belief — it’s genuinely imaginative, in its own way. By which I mean I don’t think you’ll have ever see anything else quite like this.

    Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

    I give full credit to Love on a Leash for just going for it. It’s hard to pigeonhole what genre it was even aiming for. The poster and basic concept suggest a cheesy kids’ film or Hallmark movie; the way it initially plays, you kinda assume it wants to be a romcom; but then it gets so fucking dark (suicide attempt! abusive coworkers! dead dog!), and there’s so much fantastical strange stuff… it’s so much weirder, wilder, and more unique than you can imagine. That’s without even mentioning the bizarre production quirks, like the fact Lisa only wears green clothes and lives in a green house with a green phone and green mugs and green plates… Or that it’s shot with a kind of documentary realism… um, maybe; or maybe it was just done quickly on digital video. There’s definitely no music, though. Like, at all. Even though there’s a composer credited.

    Well, except for a couple of songs the dog sings. Prince is constantly chatting away to himself in voiceover, and sometimes sings little childish ditties too (I suspect they weren’t actually composed by anyone). He can be a right snarky little bugger (he describes the love of his life as a “pizza-faced cinder block”), to the point that I suspect it may all have been improvised by the voice actor in post-production — he seems to be taking the piss out of what’s going on as often as we are.

    Love on a Leash was written and directed by Fen Tian, a 64-year-old Chinese woman who came to America in her 40s “with fifty dollars in her pocket, and not one word of English in her possession,” according to her production bio. It asserts that the screenplay won an award and funding from the Taiwan government, and at one point she took an American cast and crew to China to shoot it but funding fell through. After decades of trying, the film was eventually produced “with barely enough money to cover craft services”, and during post-production she “slept on the couches of her editors, dragging around her blanket, toothbrush, pillow and thirty-nine DV cam reels” and “spoiled” her team by “cooking up huge feasts of homemade Chinese food, and fixing her crew’s love lives with a motherly heart and some Chinese wisdom.” I feel like this deserves a Disaster Artist-type biopic…

    What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes...

    So, we come to the issue I touched on at the start: how do you rate a film like this? As an exercise in moviemaking, it’s a 1. The storyline is borderline nonsensical; it’s shot like an amateur using a camcorder for the first time; the sound mix is so unfinished I’m not sure it was ever started… And yet it’s constantly enjoyable, partly through a “so bad it’s good” hilarity (see the aforementioned terrible filmmaking), but also for the barminess with which it conducts itself, the relentless forward momentum of the storyline leading us in unpredictable narrative directions. Like famous cult favourite The Room, it transcends its amateur awfulness to be an artistic experience all of its own. In fact, it achieves a higher level of genuine artistry than The Room for me, because Wisseau’s film sometimes mires itself in wannabe-seriousness and runs out of stuff to laugh at, whereas Love on a Leash is restless in its creativity and consequently almost non-stop entertaining. It transcends its obvious awfulness through a kind of perverse innovation; a commitment to not hewing to any recognisable conventions. And it’s really funny — sometimes deliberately, often not.

    With reservations duly noted, then, I honestly and unequivocally give Love on a Leash full marks.

    5 out of 5

    Ready or Not (2019)

    2020 #90
    Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Ready or Not

    In my review of Get Out, I took issue with the fact that some people labelled it a “comedy horror”, because it wasn’t particularly funny. I mention that because Ready or Not takes a broadly similar premise to Get Out (albeit with white people and no commentary on racial issues) but does take things in a comedic direction.

    The similarity comes in that it’s about bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time at their wedding. On the wedding night, she’s introduced to an odd family ritual: she must select a card from a puzzle box and they play whatever game is on the card. Unfortunately for her, Grace gets “hide and seek”, which in this case is not just regular hide and seek: while she hides, the family arm themselves to hunt and kill her. Hilarity ensues.

    Badass bride

    Well, okay, maybe not hilarity per se, but this is definitely a comedy-horror, with more laughs than scares and an appropriate amount of gore. It obviously owes a debt to other movies, or at least has points of similarity (You’re Next particularly comes to mind), but it also has a few nice subversions and doesn’t always go the way you’d think — and when it subverts things that have already been subverted, like some kind of triple-cross of subversion, then you know it’s not as dumb a movie as some people think. Its biggest failing for me was the photography, too much of which is caked in over-graded green. The final shot is fab, though; indeed, the whole climax is an all-timer.

    There were times I wanted a bit more from Ready or Not to push it over into classic status, but even without that final extra something, if you enjoy your horror-thrillers laced with laughs, it’s an exceptionally fun time.

    4 out of 5

    Ready or Not is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Yes, God, Yes (2019)

    2020 #191
    Karen Maine | 78 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Yes, God, Yes

    It’s the early 2000s, and Alice (Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) is a pupil at an ultra-Christian high school (“in America” goes without saying there, right?) But Alice is feeling conflicted. In morality class, she’s being taught about the wrongs of sex, while at home she likes to rewind the Titanic VHS to rewatch the sex scene. One day, a chat on AOL turns naughty, and Alice finds herself putting her hand down her skirt and… well… Of course, for a good indoctrinated little Christian girl, access to pleasure is not an instant revelation, and soon she’s off to her school’s weekend camp to learn to connect with Jesus, or something. Instead, she’ll learn a little something about the hypocrisy of those around her.

    It would be easy to label Yes, God, Yes a “cumming of age movie” (such a pun is certainly not below my level of humour), but it would feel slightly inaccurate. Put another way, if you’ve come to see Nancy Wheeler cum, you’ll be disappointed. There is, perhaps, a whole analysis of the film to be written from the starting point that Alice doesn’t seem to reach orgasm — I mean, the film already (comically) touches on the difference between men and women in this regard; but also, Alice only needs to touch herself to feel sinful and transgressive, so how would she feel if she got ‘all the way’? But I am not necessarily best placed to write such an analysis of the depiction of female self-pleasure. It could be as simple as the fact the film has a female writer-director and didn’t want to show that moment on screen, for any number of reasons.

    A touching moment

    Indeed, despite it providing the plot hook and title, wanking is only one part of the film’s exposure of religious hypocrisy when it comes to sex. Alice’s desire to go to camp is as much provoked by a nasty rumour doing the rounds at school as it is by her personal discoveries. Said rumour is that, at a party, Alice “tossed the salad” of a classmate. She has no idea what this means; everyone else seems to know (if you don’t know either, don’t worry, the film has a dictionary definition at the start). Alice may go to an ultra-conservative school that teaches repressive values, but it’s clear her classmates are still learning about the wider world from elsewhere, while she believes everything she’s being taught and remains naïve. Ironically, the camp does teach her something about herself, just not what was intended. It’s the realisation of Christianity’s hypocrisy, more so than of the power of touching herself, that prompts Alice’s personal development by the end of the film.

    Throughout all this personal revelation, the film leans heavily on Natalia Dyer’s ability to convey confused inner thoughts with just her face, and fortunately she’s up to the task. Indeed, it feels like overkill on the handful of occasions when it resorts to underlining a point via a kind of flashback-audio. We get what Alice is thinking when she looks at a microwave, we don’t need the soundtrack to repeat the Father’s microwave/oven analogy. Nonetheless, such moments are relatively rare, and instead we’re left to identify with the shy, wary, quiet Alice — something I’m sure a lot of us can relate to from our own adolescence. And if your own adolescence occurred around the turn of the millennium, boy does this film have you pinned down: playing Snake on a Nokia phone; AOL chatrooms… Small incidental details that very much specify the time (and place — AOL wasn’t such a thing here in the UK, but we had our alternatives).

    Christian 'teaching'

    I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far in the review without calling up Saved!, a film to which Yes, God, Yes bears more than a passing resemblance. For those who’ve not seen it (why not? It was on my list of 100 Favourites over four years ago!), Saved is about a girl at an ultra-Christian high school in the early ’00s who discovers religious hypocrisy after a sex-related revelation. Both films criticise that hypocrisy through humour and satire. The main difference is that Saved is an outright comedy, whereas Yes, God, Yes is a comedy-drama, where its laughs come more from wry observations grounded in real-life rather than outright comedic bits, which is perhaps the result of it being semi-autobiographical by writer-director Karen Maine. Others have compared it to Lady Bird, another semi-autobiographical early-’00s-set coming-of-age drama about a girl at a Christian high school, including her first experiences with sex.

    But let’s not lean too heavily on the fact there have been other films a bit like this, because Yes, God, Yes is still its own beast — more grounded than Saved; hornier than Lady Bird. If it seems more focused, or even niche, than some other coming-of-age movies, is that a bad thing? Part of the point about recent calls to enable more women and people of colour to make films is that we get to hear new stories and different perspectives, and Yes, God, Yes is an example of exactly that.

    4 out of 5

    Yes, God, Yes is available to rent and buy digitally in the UK as of yesterday.

    Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

    2020 #78
    Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Jumanji: The Next Level

    The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

    Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

    For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

    Snow wonder it's better

    That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

    I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

    There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

    4 out of 5

    Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup IX

    I’ve not been doing too well with reviews lately — this is my first for over a fortnight, having missed self-imposed deadlines for the likes of Knives Out (on Amazon Prime), The Peanut Butter Falcon (on Netflix), Joker (on Sky Cinema), and Spaceship Earth (on DVD & Blu-ray). I’ve also slipped on these 100-week updates — this one should really have been at the end of July, and there should’ve already been another in August, with a third due soon. Oh dear.

    So, it’s catchup time, and it begins with my final reviews from August 2018

  • The Most Unknown (2018)
  • Zorro (1975)


    The Most Unknown
    (2018)

    2018 #185
    Ian Cheney | 92 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

    The Most Unknown

    This film is an experiment. Nine scientists meet for the first time in a chain of encounters around the world. It begins under a mountain, and ends on a monkey island.

    In this documentary, nine scientists working on some of the hardest problems across all fields (the “most unknowns”) meet each other in a daisy chain of one-on-one interviews / lab tours. It not only touches on the basics of what the unknowns they’re investigating are, but also how they go about investigating or discovering these things — the day-to-day realities of actually “doing” Science. Alongside that, it reveals the scientific mindset; what motivates them. The nine individuals are very different people working on very different problems in very different fields, but the film draws out the similarities in their natures that drive them to explore the unknown.

    If you’re concerned it might be all a bit “inside baseball” if you’re not a science geek, don’t be. These people work in vastly different fields — to us laypeople they’re all “scientists”, but to each other their specialities make them as different from one another as we are from them. This, arguably, is an insight in itself. It feels kind of obvious — of course a physicist and a microbiologist are completely different types of scientist — but I do think we have a tendency to lump all scientists together. Think of news reports: it’s not “chemists have discovered” or “psychologists have discovered”, it’s “scientists have discovered”.

    Science, innit

    It also reminds you that scientists are humans too, via little incidental details. For example, the equipment that vibrates samples to sheer out the DNA is labelled, “My name is Bond, James Bond. I like things shaken, not stirred.” Or the woman who plays Pokémon Go on her remote research island, because the lack of visitors means you find really good Pokémon there.

    You might also learn something about movies. The last scientist, a cognitive psychologist, talks about how people assess the quality of movies. Turns out, rather than considering their overall experience, they tend to focus on two points: the peak of how good it was, and how it ended. Pleasantly, this kinda confirms my long-held theory that an awful lot of movies are judged primarily on the quality of their third act. (My exception to this “rule” has always been films that lose you early on and put themselves on a hiding to nothing. Well, science can’t explain everything, I guess.)

    Plus, as a film, it’s beautifully shot. A lot of this science is taking place in extreme locations, which bring with them a beauty and wonder of their own.

    4 out of 5

    The Most Unknown is currently available on YouTube from its production company, split into nine instalments. (It used to be on Netflix, but was removed just the other day. If I’d published this review on time…)

    Zorro
    (1975)

    2018 #186
    Duccio Tessari | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy & France / English | PG / G

    Zorro

    This Italian-French version of the adventures of the famous masked vigilante (played by the great Alain Delon) is tonally similar to Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers: genuine swashbuckling (including some elaborate stunt-filled sequences) mixed with plenty of humour and daftness. Plus, being set in 19th century California but filmed in Spain, it also has more than a dash of the Spaghetti Western in its DNA. The whole mix makes it a lot of fun.

    Of particular note is the final sword fight, an epic duel for the ages. It sees Zorro and chief villain Colonel Huerta pursue each other around the castle, clashing blades at every turn, at first accompanied by a crowd of spectators but, as their fight moves higher and higher, ending atop the bell tower, each with a rapier in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, thrashing their weapons at each other with all the vigour and vitriol of men who really, really want to kill each other.

    Another highlight is, arguably, the cheesy main theme. On the one hand it’s slathered all over the film inappropriately; on the other, it underlines the light, silly, comic tone. Plus it’s sung by someone called Oliver Onions. Can’t beat that.

    4 out of 5