Memories of Murder (2003)

aka Salinui chueok

2019 #15
Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Memories of Murder

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

Investigators

A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

5 out of 5

Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

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

  • The Equalizer 2 (2018)

    2020 #25
    Antoine Fuqua | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Turkish & French | 15 / R

    The Equalizer 2

    Now we’re equalised, bitch.

    Sadly, that is not a line Denzel actually says in this movie. The film would be about 50% better if he did. Instead, what we get is an action-thriller where both the action and thrills are, literally, few and far between.

    For those who skipped the first film, Denzel is playing Robert McCall, a former Marine and intelligence agent who retired to a life of inconspicuous normality, but has been tempted back into righting some of the wrongs of the world — or “equalizing” them, I guess. This time, an array of subplots eventually gives way to a story in which McCall sets out to avenge the murder of a friend.

    I mention the subplots there because they’re the film’s biggest problem. As a result of them, it’s… so… slow… To start with, the subplots are a couple of small ‘cases’ introduced in the first half-hour, presumably to try to liven the film up because the main storyline is crawling along. Neither works. I’m not here for a pleasant drama about a Lyft driver who does kindly things for others — I want to see Denzel Washington kicking the asses of nasty buggers. The first film was noteworthy for investing more time in its supporting characters than is typical for the action-thriller genre, but this one takes that notion to extremes.

    Even when the main plot does get moving, it takes over an hour to get to a ‘twist’ that’s obvious just from reading the cast list. At least it doesn’t try to save it for the end, I guess. That reveal leads to a wannabe-Taken-phone-speech declaration from Denzel, which should’ve come a lot earlier. It’s not as memorable as the Taken one (though the final line lands), but at least it’s a moment of drama and the film perks up after it — but by then we’re well over an hour in to a less-than-two-hours movie.

    A rare moment of almost-action

    From there it’s a short hop, skip and jump to a climax set amidst a horrendous storm in an abandoned seaside town. It’s a nice concept and it’s solidly executed, but it’s an at-most 20-minute sequence and it’s not exceptional, just a lot more engaging than the film’s other 100 minutes, so it doesn’t really justify sitting through the rest of the movie. However, I did not realise that flour could be explosive, but turns out it can, so in that sense at least this was educational for me.

    (FYI, the film was cut in the UK to get a 15 certificate, removing some of the more extreme gore (insides hanging out, a spine being severed, etc). The 4K Blu-ray release is uncut and rated 18 (presumably so they could just port the disc rather than having to faff with edits/a new transfer). On Netflix it has an 18 icon, so I guess it’s also the uncut version, should that concern you either way.)

    The Equalizer 2 isn’t a terrible film, but it is quite a boring one. Not just slow paced — genuinely boring. A raft of subplots don’t really go anywhere or serve any purpose, the main story is incredibly thin, and the limited action sequences do little to balance the books.

    2 out of 5

    The Equalizer 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup VII

    If I were being slavishly accurate about weeks, there should be seven films in this roundup. But that seemed a bit much, so — as the next one of these wasn’t due until the end of the month — I’ve split it in two.

    In this roundup, the final films I watched in July 2018.…

  • The Garden of Words (2013)
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
  • Paul (2011)
  • The Way of the Gun (2000)


    The Garden of Words
    (2013)

    aka Koto no ha no niwa

    2018 #170
    Makoto Shinkai | 46 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    The Garden of Words

    If the only anime director’s name you know is Hayao Miyazaki, you could do worse than familiarise yourself with Makoto Shinkai, director of recent popular hits Your Name and Weathering with You. He’d already been gaining attention with the films he made before those, which include short feature The Garden of Words.

    It revolves around two individuals: a 15-year-old schoolboy who aspires to be a shoemaker, and a 27-year-old woman. They meet one day in a park during a rainstorm and develop a connection. According to Shinkai, the film is a love story between two people “who feel lonely or incomplete in their social relations, but who don’t feel that they need to fix this loneliness.” That’s an interesting perspective, because while there’s undoubtedly a significant element of loneliness in the film, it’s accompanied by an element of depression; that these two characters seem unfilled. Without wanting to spoil anything, it seems to be the connection between the two that ‘saves’ them and elevates their lives — i.e. they did need to fix their loneliness. Perhaps it’s a disconnect between intention and execution that led me note that “where it ends up going isn’t as good as where it begins”. Nonetheless, the characters are engaging, and their emotional turmoil and connection are affecting. It also leaves room for personal interpretation with an open ending — it does reach a conclusion of sorts, but there’s clearly space the viewer to imagine what comes next.

    The animation is simply stunning — both beautiful in itself, and in its technical accomplishment. For that reason, if given the choice, it might be tempting to opt for an English dub, but I’d advise to stick with the original Japanese. I’ve written before about how I’m regularly conflicted when watching anime about whether to go for the original Japanese or an English dub, and I do often I go for the latter — I must admit I’m swayed by the recognisable voice casts on Ghibli films, for example; and, generally speaking, it allows you to appreciate the visuals more when you’re not having to read a lot of subtitles. Nonetheless, this time I chose the Japanese audio, and I’m glad I did: it’s subtle and calm, like the film itself, and the quietness and gentle pace mean there’s not an overabundance of distracting reading (unlike in Your Name, for example). I popped on a bit of the American dub afterwards and it felt all wrong by comparison — somehow brash and decidedly inauthentic. On the bright side, either track sounds luscious in 5.1, with the rain falling all around you, which serves to really immerse the viewer in the situation alongside the characters.

    4 out of 5

    The Secret in Their Eyes
    (2009)

    aka El secreto de sus ojos

    2018 #171
    Juan José Campanella | 129 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Argentina & Spain / Spanish | 18 / R

    The Secret in Their Eyes

    A surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010 (it beat A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery, two very different love stories, and a musing on the nature of justice, especially within a corrupt system.

    Primarily, it’s a procedural thriller about a decades-old unsolved case that one of the original investigators is revisiting in the hopes of finding closure. As that, I thought the film was probably a bit too long — despite some solid thematic weight, the unnecessarily slow pace at times make it feel a smidge self-important for what is fundamentally a crime thriller. That said, those other facets that have been added to supplement the storyline — the romance side; the passage of time (how do people deal with such life-changing events over the ensuing decades?) — do bring something to the film, elevating it beyond standard police procedural fare.

    Even as ‘just’ that, it pulls off some spectacular feats: the famous single-take at the football match really is an all-timer, and the final twist is unexpected and a perfect capper. I was this close to giving it full marks, and maybe when I revisit it someday I will.

    4 out of 5

    Paul
    Extended Edition
    (2011)

    2018 #172
    Greg Mottle | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Klingon | 15

    Paul

    On a post-ComicCon road trip around the US’s UFO heartland, a pair of British geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) bump into an actual alien, the eponymous Paul (Seth Rogen), who’s on the run from a government facility. Cue a kind of “E.T. for grownups” as the trio — and a widening assortment of supporting characters — endeavour to evade the authorities and get Paul home.

    Mistaken by some for the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (thanks to it starring Pegg and Frost, but it’s missing the vital ingredient of director Edgar Wright, who was committed to Scott Pilgrim), Paul lacks the sharpness of that trilogy at its best. However, it’s full of likeability — in the characters, and of course the humour — to the point where it actually manages to get a bit emotional at the end. It’s also chock full of references and quotes for fellow geeks to spot, some of which are incredibly well-timed to have fantastic impact.

    As for the extended cut, there’s a comparison here. As usual, the theatrical cut was R-rated in the US but the extended one is unrated there, but (also as usually) I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t pass at R. The running time difference is about five-and-a-half minutes, but there are 41 differences crammed into that time. It seems like some fairly memorable jokes were cut and others added back — nothing earth shattering, but enough to call the extended cut the preferable one.

    4 out of 5

    The Way of the Gun
    (2000)

    2018 #173
    Christopher McQuarrie | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Way of the Gun

    The debut directorial feature from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who made his name penning the likes of The Usual Suspects and more recently has found success as the regular writer-director of the Mission: Impossible movies), is one of those ’90s crime comedy-dramas — you know, the kind of thing we describe as “Tarantino-esque”, for good reason. It has its fans, but McQuarrie tends to refer to it disparagingly on social media, no doubt in part because it landed him in “director jail” for over a decade. Personally, I agree with McQuarrie (I usually do): it’s not a failure, but it’s not much of a success either.

    My main problem with it is that it’s over-long and over-complicated. Both of those are thanks to too many characters with too many motivations. It’s possible to get your head round it all in the end, but there’s a stretch in the middle where it feels like work. But rather than slow things down and spell it out, it might be better if it moved through them all quicker — at least then it would be pacy. It’s also rather dully shot by Dick Pope, who was later Oscar-nominated for the likes of The Illusionist and Mr. Turner, but has plied most of his trade in the grounded world of Mike Leigh movies, which perhaps explains that. There are still two or three good shots, plus a neat oner that indicates the direction McQ’s style would head.

    There are flashes of McQuarrie’s brilliance elsewhere too, including some nice bits of dialogue and a couple of good sequences. The action scenes, in particular, demonstrate he had a strong skill there from the start. They feel very grounded and real — just the way the characters move; that they’re constantly reloading; how it ends when everyone’s out of bullets. McQuarrie’s brother, a Navy SEAL, was the technical advisor for these scenes, which explains their accuracy. The final shoot-out, with all of that going on, is the best bit of the movie. Well, at least it ends on a high.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VI

    Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

    In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

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

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup V

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

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

    In this week’s roundup…

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


    Muppet Treasure Island
    (1996)

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

    Muppet Treasure Island

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    Blade of the Immortal
    (2017)

    aka Mugen no jûnin

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

    Blade of the Immortal

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Cash on Demand
    (1961)

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

    Cash on Demand

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Free Enterprise
    (1998)

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

    Free Enterprise

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Iron Monkey
    (1993)

    aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau

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

    Iron Monkey

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup III

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

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


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

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

    The Wild Bunch

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

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

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

    Bad boys

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

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

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

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

    The Warriors

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

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

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

    Gang wars

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

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

    Power Rangers

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

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

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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

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

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

    Two outta three ain't bad

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

  • The 100-Week Roundup II

    I had a nice little introduction written for this post when T2 3D was going to be part of it, but then that got too long and I posted it separately. So, anyway, here are three other films I watched almost two years ago but haven’t reviewed yet…

    Laura
    (1944)

    2018 #93
    Otto Preminger | 85 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Laura

    This classic film noir stars Dana Andrews as a New York detective investigating the murder of an advertising exec and society girl played by Gene Tierney, the eponymous Laura. And there’s a good twist halfway through that completely turns the film on its head, so I’ll keep this vague. (We can debate the merits or otherwise of openly discussing plot points from 75-year-old films another time. Heck, go on Twitter — I’m sure someone’ll be ranting about it from one side or the other right now.)

    As a murder investigation, Laura is a decent little mystery — there aren’t a huge number of suspects, but enough to keep you guessing; though I did eventually wonder if it actually hangs together 100% as a case. But that doesn’t matter when everything else about the film plays out so well. For starters, it’s noticeably well directed by Otto Preminger, with some nice shot construction and editing. Then the screenplay (based on a novel by Vera Caspary, and penned by three credited writers and one uncredited, as per the interweb) boasts lots of great dialogue. It’s rarely show-off-ily snappy, but it is effective and sometimes witty. That’s only appropriate considering one of the characters (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker) has a rep as a wordsmith — that wouldn’t fly if he didn’t have plenty of bons mots to offer.

    The rest of the cast are similarly noteworthy. Tierney is very plausible as the kind of gal everyone would fall in love with, and Andrews is equally so as the solid copper. A key supporting role is filled by a young-ish Vincent Price. (Can we call 33 “young”? As someone who was born in 1986, I’m going to go with “yes”.) It’s an accident of history how effective his casting is — not that his performance is bad in and of itself, but his later reputation brings certain expectations about how things might pan out. Is that warranted? Well, you’ll have to watch it to see…

    5 out of 5

    Jigsaw
    (2017)

    2018 #104
    The Spierig Brothers | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Jigsaw

    After seven films between 2004 and 2010, the Saw series seemed well and truly done. But nothing once-popular can stay dead for long in Hollywood, and so 2017 saw this revival (and this year will see another, pandemic permitting). It seemed to go down quite poorly, and I’m curious as to why. It’s a Saw film through and through — if you don’t like the series, there’s no reason you should like this — so, I mean, why would you want or expect a Saw film to not be a Saw film? Maybe it’s just people who don’t actually liking Saw films all that much but chose to watch an eighth one anyway? Well, it’s up to them how they choose to spend their time…

    Anyhow, as a Saw film, I thought it was one of the better ones. Not the very best (that’s still the first), but definitely top end. I liked the final reveal, which is a big part of these films’ appeal — what twist they’re going to pull in the final moments. Sure, I’d guessed part of it well in advance, but it still had some neat aspects. (I do wonder how many people were fooled into thinking Jigsaw was still alive, somehow? He died many, many films ago; he’s not coming back.) In terms of the whole series, it does raise a load of questions — but digging into them is really getting navel-gazing about the series’ continuity. I’m not sure it’s worth worrying about.

    3 out of 5

    Inferno
    (1953)

    2018 #107
    Roy Baker | 84 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG

    Inferno

    3D and film noir aren’t things you readily associate with each other, but there are a couple of them — see here for a few. Some might count Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, too. Inferno here is another borderline case. The plot definitely has a whiff of noir — a husband left for dead by his wife and her lover, which cause her moral quandaries but him not so much — but the telling is more of an Adventure movie, some might even say a Western, with the husband struggling through an arid wilderness. Plus it’s all shot in brightly-lit Technicolor.

    Whether you count it as noir or not, it’s most noteworthy for its 3D. It was one of the last films made in the format during the fleeting ’50s experiment, especially as its studio, Fox, were backing CinemaScope as a TV-beater instead (well, I guess they were right). It doesn’t make blatant use of its 3D — there’s no stuff poking at the camera (until the punch-up finale) — but it often brings a nice sense of depth often, including to the wide-open desert vistas. It was well received, too, with the New York Times saying it was where “3-D comes of age”, and others comparing it favourably to other movies of the era, which treated 3D as no more than a gimmick and squandered its potential. All of that said, a climactic fight does indulge in all the in-your-face aspects we associate with classic 3D movies — but it was a late addition forced on the film by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to see more overt 3D action. In summary up, director Roy Ward Baker commented, “the critics gave it unanimous applause, largely because it has a good story to which the process contributed greatly, as opposed to the usual stereo films which were simply exploitation stunts. However, we did include a few of the cliches, at the behest of DFZ. I guess he was right at that.”

    It is a pretty good tale. Baker wanted to make a film in which “the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says.” Nonetheless, we’re given a voiceover narration from the hero, which gets a bit twee, albeit with an enjoyable dry wit now and then, and an interesting pragmatism about his situation. There’s some neat editing to juxtapose his situation with that of his condemners, too: when he’s starving it cuts to wifey enjoying a lavish meal; as he digs in the desperate hope of water it cuts to her lover casually fixing himself a drink. Said wifey is played by Rhonda Fleming, who apparently was known as “the Queen of Technicolor” because of her complexion and vibrant red hair. Everyone in the film is in love with her — even the cops who’ve just met her comment on it — and, yeah, I buy that. There’s an amusing bit where her lover is desperate to throw caution to the wind and visit her room that night simply because it’s “been four days”, wink wink nudge nudge. Men, eh?

    4 out of 5

    Hustlers (2019)

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

    Hustlers

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

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

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

    Every day they're hustlin'

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

    2019 #127
    Chad Stahelski | 131 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English* | 15 / R

    John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

    The action-man with the second most quotable line about being back is, er, back — again — for the third chapter in the ongoing saga of what happens if you kill a man’s dog. Basically, lots of people die. Quite right too.

    Chapter 3 begins exactly where Chapter 2 left off: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been made “excommunicado” from the organisation that controls the criminal underworld, the High Table, and he has just an hour’s grace before every assassin in the world will be out to claim his life. He’s just one man, with a $14 million bounty on his head, in a New York City where about 50% of the population seem to be highly trained killers — as Winston (Ian McShane) says, his odds are “about even”.

    And so the first half-hour is basically nonstop action, first as Wick desperately tries to prepare for the all-out assault coming his way, and then as he faces it. The series’ reputation is built on its lengthy, stylish, inventive action sequences, and Chapter 3 does not disappoint, with some of its best material coming right out the gate. I feel like they could’ve expanded this first half-hour into an entire movie (i.e. John on the run, fighting endless assassins, until he finds some way out of his bind) and I’d’ve been happy with that — it would’ve mirrored the simplicity of the first one. But the previous film’s cliffhanger is not so simply resolved, because what John did to earn his excommunicado status cuts deep into the mythology of this world — oh so very deep — and the fallout of his actions, well, that’s the plot of the movie. And not just for John himself, because a High Table Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) rocks up to decide the fate of any person or organisation who might’ve given John a helping hand when they really shouldn’t, including Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and the Director (Anjelica Houston).

    Adjudgement day

    The first John Wick had a bit of fun introducing us to a rule-driven shadow-world of assassins. The first sequel put a lot of stock in extending that mythology. Now, the third chapter thrives on it. The first film’s plot was a straightforward revenge thriller with some extravagant flourishes; for the third, we’re (to borrow a phrase from Reeves’ other major action franchise) right down the rabbit hole. Just like the famed action sequences, if you’re onboard with it then there’s a ton of fun to be had; but if that kind of thing bores you, there’s little respite from it. Extravagant brutal action and gradually-unveiled ever-deepening mythology: these are John Wick’s twin raisons d’être.

    Half the fun of how the films present their mythology lies in the way every character seems to be completely aware of all the rules. No one ever needs a symbolic coin or a judgement’s motivation explained to them; they inherently understand its significance or reasoning, the status and power that’s conferred. But we don’t know what any of it means, of course, because this is a fictional world that we’re being inducted into as and when parts of it become relevant to the narrative; and so we’re led along on a magical mystery tour of what these arcane rituals might mean and where they might lead us. As I said, it’s quite a particular kind of storytelling, and if it doesn’t engage you then that’s that, but if you do find it enjoyable then the John Wick films are spinning it into a fine art.

    A hundred bad guys with swords? Who sent those goons to their lords? Why, John Wick!

    Naturally, nowhere is the film’s sense of artistry more on display than in the fights. For all the mythology, director Chad Stahelski and the small team of screenwriters never forget what really made people love John Wick in the first place: the gonzo action. There’s a lot of competition in that arena (not just its own preceding instalments, but the past decade’s acclaimed imports like The Raid and its sequel, The Villainess, The Night Comes for Us, et al), but Chapter 3 is up to the challenge, boasting continual inventiveness among the slickly choreographed and expertly performed carnage. One innovation includes dogs getting involved in the action — appropriate for a series all about the love of pooches. The mutts in question are commanded by an old acquaintance of Wick’s, played by Halle Berry, who trained with the dogs so she could actually control them during takes. It’s that level of dedication that marks out the action here.

    It all looks great as well, with the camerawork boasting precise movement and impressively long takes to celebrate the action and how well it’s been achieved. The actual phototography is fantastic too, the light looking gorgeous whether in the neon glow of New York or the sand-orange Moroccan desert (I watched it in UHD, where it’s a real showcase for why HDR is a bigger benefit than pure resolution; though that’s not to discredit the film’s crispness). It’s complemented further by the design work, in particular a glass-house set where several key scenes take place, which reportedly cost $4 million. On any technical merit you care to name, Chapter 3 is exceptional.

    Unleash the dogs of bellum

    That said, while there’s fun to be had throughout, by the end I felt like the story was the film’s real problem. Not the tone and style that I praised earlier (though it’s easily the most fantastical of the series so far, which might turn some off), but its significance: it ultimately feels like merely a dot-join between Chapter 2 and the already-announced Chapter 4. The film’s Latin subtitle, Parabellum, translates as “prepare for war”, and that’s apt: this film is a preparation for the next. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe, when this series is all said and done, we’ll see that Chapter 3’s contribution to the overarching narrative is equivalent to the other films. However, at first blush, it feels to me like this is either a kind of linking passage, or maybe Chapter 3 Part 1. I guess only time — specifically, the time until after we’ve seen the fourth chapter (currently slated for May 2021) — will tell.

    In the meantime, let’s not get too distracted from storyline niggles in a film that’s really about style over substance, in a good way. Chapter 3 certainly knows what boxes it should tick, and it ticks every last one of them with considerable flair. (Can you tick a box with flair? I bet John Wick could. After all, we know how skilled he is with a pencil…)

    4 out of 5

    John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    * The film’s primary language is undoubtedly English, but IMDb also lists seven more. Each only pops up briefly, in short lines or exchanges here and there, which is why I haven’t cluttered the top of this post by listing them. But for the record, they are: Mandarin, Latin, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. ^