The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

Featured

2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Advertisements

Witness (1985)

2018 #74
Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Witness

Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

Witness protection

Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2019)

2019 #98
Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shaft (2019)

I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

Still a sex machine to all the chicks

This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

Shaft cubed

So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

3 out of 5

Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

Shaft (2000)

2019 #37
John Singleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 18 / R

Shaft (2000)

With there now being another ‘reboot’ for the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks (released a couple of weeks ago in the US, and available on Netflix today in the rest of the world), I thought it was about time I got round to the first ‘reboot’ (I saw the original yonks ago, long before this blog existed). I’ve put ‘reboot’ in inverted commas both times there because, despite the unadorned titles of both the 2000 and 2019 films, both are actually continuations of the ’70s original: Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft II, the nephew of the original Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who pops by for a cameo here. Jackson and Roundtree reprise their roles again in Shaft 2019-flavour, alongside Jessie Usher as John Shaft III.

(Would it’ve been cool if they’d actually called this Shaft 2000? I feel like it would’ve. Maybe by the year 2000 the idea of sticking 2000 on a title to make it cool/futuristic was over, I dunno, but I feel like it would’ve worked. And because they didn’t, we’ve now got three movies called simply Shaft that all exist in the same continuity. Madness.)

Anyway, back to the first time they rebooted-but-didn’t Shaft. Jackson’s character isn’t actually a private dick, but a proper copper… that is until sleazy rich-kid Walter Wade Jr (a hot-off-American Psycho Christian Bale) literally gets away with murder, prompting Shaft Jr to go freelance to catch his man.

A black cop frisking a rich white guy? What is this, a sci-fi movie?

This Shaft is almost 20 years old now (obviously), and yet all the white privilege bullshit that drives its story makes it feel like it could’ve been made yesterday. (Why are you so enable to evolve societally, America?) Other than that apparently-eternal timeliness, it’s a pretty standard kinda thriller, with most of its charm coming via an array of likeable performances. As well as the reliably cool Jackson and reliably psychopathic Bale, there are memorable early-career turns from Jeffrey Wright and Toni Collette, plus Vanessa Williams as Shaft’s cop colleague who lends a hand even after he leaves the force.

The original Shaft spawned two big-screen sequels and seven more TV movies, but there was no such future for the new incarnation: Jackson’s disappointment with the film, plus a box office performance that was regarded as mediocre (although it opened at #1 and returned over $100 million off its $46 million budget), was enough to scupper a planned follow-up… at least until this year’s reboot-that-isn’t. Reportedly that’s not so great either (with a 31% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6th place opening in the US, and of course going directly to Netflix everywhere else), but, given the series’ history, I wouldn’t write Shaft off just yet. After the 29-year gap between Shaft Mk.I and Shaft Mk.II, and then 19 years between Shaft Mk.II and Shaft Mk.III, maybe in 2028 we’ll be treated to a film about child detective John Shaft IV. Naturally, the film itself will just be called Shaft.

3 out of 5

True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

The Happytime Murders (2018)

2019 #9
Brian Henson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

The Happytime Murders

The Muppets meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets an R rating in this black comedy murder mystery from director Brian “son of Jim” Henson. Set in a world where Muppet-esque (but not actual Muppets, because IP rights) puppets co-exist alongside humans, disgraced puppet cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta, which, let’s be honest, is a better name for a comedy private eye than the one they’ve actually used) stumbles onto a spate of connected puppet murders, and must reluctantly team up with his former partner, human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to crack the case.

The mystery that drives the plot isn’t too bad, including a neat twist/reveal that’s perhaps guessable but not terribly so. It does hew closely to the tropes and clichés of the noir genre, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as it’s not a straight crime movie I don’t think it’s a problem for it to recycle all those things when it has fresh comedy to hang off them, or if it’s somehow riffing off familiar elements but with the puppet stuff, but often it isn’t that clever.

Women and puppets in blue

Nonetheless, there are some legitimately funny bits along the way, often found among the riffs on the puppet thing (for example: one of the victims is drowned, and before bagging the body they ring him out). Unfortunately it isn’t funny as often as it should be, too often relying on worn or lacklustre humour. I mean, it tries to run with the old playground favourite “idiots say what?” as a running gag. It also leans on puppets being lewd and crude as the extent of the gag, which simply isn’t that funny in itself, partly because it isn’t as original as the film seems to think it is (cf. Team America, Avenue Q).

While The Happytime Murders isn’t close to the echelons of quality where you’d find Roger Rabbit or the best of the Muppets, it’s also not a total washout. From behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve read it sounds like a lot of effort was expended on filming it, making sure the puppets could interact with the humans and so on, and those technical aspects are first rate. It’s just a shame the same level of innovation wasn’t poured into screenplay. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t live up to its potential either.

3 out of 5

The Happytime Murders is available on Netflix UK from today.

Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • BlacKkKlansman (2018)

    2019 #86
    Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    BlacKkKlansman

    Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
    6 nominations — 1 win

    Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

    “A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

    Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

    Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

    Spot the black man

    The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

    If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

    Black power

    I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

    5 out of 5

    BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Highwaymen (2019)

    2019 #48
    John Lee Hancock | 132 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Highwaymen

    There’s a fair chance you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde thanks to the acclaimed 1967 movie (or the 2013 miniseries, or one of the other fictional depictions, or just their general notoriety), but what about the story of the guys who got ’em? For all the Robin Hood-esque heroism that was conveyed upon them by the media at the time and then cemented in subsequent fictional retellings, they were still murder-happy criminals. The Highwaymen sets out to do its part in rectifying this by introducing us to Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), a pair of retired Texas Rangers who were reinstated in early 1934 to track down Bonnie and Clyde and put an end to their crime spree.

    Netflix has self-described the film as “The Untouchables meets Public Enemies” (they’re doing the job of reviewers for us!), and, while I’ve only seen one of those movies, I don’t think they’re far wrong. Netflix are well known for commissioning projects that are similar to other stuff people like (reportedly their first-ever original, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and produced/directed by David Fincher, came about because statistics showed viewers liked to watch the original BBC series, movies starring Spacey, and movies directed by Fincher), but this feels like one of the most blatant examples I’ve personally seen. Movies like Live by Night and Road to Perdition also came to my mind whilst watching, but it’s not limited to specific examples — it just feels like other movies set in about the same period about the same kind of thing. Well, we might blame Netflix’s data-centric thinking for that, but it’s actually nothing new in Hollywood.

    Men of the highway

    As a work in its own right, The Highwaymen is a solid period investigative thriller. It’s distinctly lacking the youthful verve and excitement of the ’67 film, which matched the youthfulness of its killer couple, replacing it instead with a slow-ish, world-weary methodicalness, which again matches its central pairing. That could be deliberate, or it could just be another instance of the recurring problem that Netflix-originated content is slower than it needs to be. When police procedurals are slow because they’re focusing on the exacting, gradual accumulation of evidence and data that leads to the downfall of the bad guys, that can be a good thing, and there’s an element of that here; but at other times it just feels a bit tardy. What it lacks is a sense of urgency, which you’d think the hunt for ceaseless murderers would have. We’re told these villains need to be stopped ASAP, and we see them continue to commit crimes as our heroes are still hunting for them, but we never really feel any sense of desperation to get the job done. Hamer and Gault kinda toddle along, as if they know it’s going to take two hours of movie-time to complete their mission so why rush?

    It’s not helped by a seeming indecisiveness about what the movie wants to focus on. It’s torn between being a portrait of aged lawmen who may be past their time and a straight-up recounting of the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. The former is a theme it only touches on in fits and spurts, often in scenes that feel shoehorned in just to address that subject. I’m not sure it had much to say about it either. It doesn’t come to the conclusion that the old ways are the best, or that they’re not relevant anymore; or that these guys still have their skills, or that they don’t anymore (early on there’s a scene where Costner realises he isn’t as accurate with a pistol as he used to be; that never comes up again) — they’re old, they’re tired, and… that’s it. As for the investigation, I presume it’s been depicted fairly accurately — the film has the feel of a story that’s been structured and paced this way because it’s based on truth. Of course, as we know from many other “true story” films, that’s a foolhardy assumption to make. Still, the final ambush was staged exactly where it really occurred out of a desire for historical accuracy, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to suggest that extends to the rest of the film.

    Gunning for Bonnie and Clyde

    One fascinating aspect of this particular case is how much the public were on the side of the criminals, and have been since (when The Highwaymen’s trailer debuted, I saw plenty of comments from disgruntled viewers hoping the film would acknowledge how underhanded the cops were in how they finally got Bonnie and Clyde! As if it somehow wasn’t fair to just shoot dead these crooks who had killed multiple other law enforcement officers, and innocent civilians, without similar fair warning). Perhaps unavoidable, the outlaws’ celebrity is another theme the film touches on, but only loosely. The populous should probably have been terrified of this viciously violent gang, but that they instead exalted them had a lot to do with the social situation at the time, i.e. the Great Depression, where the banks were the enemy, and Bonnie and Clyde did rob banks. Unfortunately, it’s again a thread that’s not fully unravelled; another facet the film notes is interesting but doesn’t bother to do a whole lot with.

    Visually, there’s nothing to complain about here. It’s handsomely shot by John Schwartzman, with suitably open vistas that in themselves evoke a less urbanised time, where outlaws might still be hiding in the back of beyond. There are also scenes in towns and cities that clearly had enough budget to create a large-scale feel for the period. The film reportedly cost just under $50 million, the kind of budget movie studios don’t assign anymore, but it shows why it can pay off: this doesn’t need to be a $100 million blockbuster, but it does need enough cash to dress streets and extras for the setting. Netflix are one of the few still prepared to put money into such endeavours, and it is welcome.

    Elsewhere, the film’s musical score was one of the main things that reminded me of Road to Perdition, so I was amused when I saw it credited to Thomas Newman, who also composed Perdition. I’ve commented before how I sometimes like his music but other times think he sounds a bit to similar to, well, himself (his work on Skyfall distracted me by sounding like what he did for A Series of Unfortunate Events), so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise.

    On the road to somewhere. Probably Perdition.

    Despite all those niggles I’ve listed, The Highwaymen is actually a solid viewing experience. It may not do anything original or execute elements as well as it could have, but Costner and Harrelson are engaging performers to follow around, and the story is inherently interesting enough to hold attention — it may’ve been slower than necessary, but I was never bored. The film has been described in some circles as a “dad movie”, a phrase that was also bandied around about another Netflix original earlier this month, Triple Frontier. I guess it’s being used in a reductive and dismissive sense, but, well, so what? I’m not a dad, nor of the age range being intimated by the expression, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a decent men-on-a-mission movie either.

    3 out of 5

    The Highwaymen is available on Netflix now.

    You Were Never Really Here (2017)

    2019 #45
    Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

    You Were Never Really Here

    Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

    The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

    Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

    Much to think about alone

    Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

    Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

    Much to think about together

    Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

    In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

    4 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.