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 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. ^

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

2019 #75
Drew Goddard | 142 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bad Times at the El Royale

If you thought Tarantino copycats died out after the mid-’90s boom in Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction wannabes, well, you’re sweetly naive — those still crop up from time to time, a quarter of a century too late. But the better emulators have evolved along with their inspiration, as writer-director Drew Goddard demonstrates in Bad Times at the El Royale, a film which feels like an imitation of latter-day Tarantino flicks. At least Goddard has the good sense to dodge the carbon-copy style of those Reservoir Dogs mimics by shifting genre, taking some of what QT brought to war movies in Inglourious Basterds and Westerns in The Hateful Eight and applying it to a neo-noir mystery-thriller. He even preempts Tarantino’s own oeuvre by including a Charles Manson-esque cult leader, thereby prefiguring Manson’s role in QT’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Also like Once Upon a Time, El Royale sets its scene in 1969; and, like The Hateful Eight, its setting is an isolated establishment. That’s the eponymous hotel, a destination straddling the California/Nevada state line, which in its heyday attracted celebrities and what we’d now call “influencers”, but has faded since it lost its gambling licence and the wealthy patrons dried up. Now, over the course of one day and night, a variety of customers arrive, strangers, each with secrets, all of which will out in the twists of fate that ensue. All of that plays out in chaptered sections, divided with title cards, that mix in flashbacks and juggle the timeline of the present section as necessary — all of which are familiar Tarantino flourishes, of course.

One thing it shouldn’t’ve copied from Tarantino is the running time: just like many of his recent works, it’s longer than it needs to be. That’s not because the material is bad per se, but because the pacing isn’t tight enough. It seemed to drag its heels for no reason (again, I felt the Tarantino comparison), whereas a tighter pace might’ve contributed some tension, which I rarely felt despite the scenario screaming out for it.

Heavy rain at the El Royale

Well, as the saying goes: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Heck, Tarantino has certainly borrowed plenty from his own wide-ranging influences. If you are going to imitate another filmmaker, this is the way to do it: by bringing your own characters and settings and plots and twists to the table. That might sound obvious, but so many of those wannabes are slavish in their borderline-plagiarism. Goddard doesn’t sink to that level overall, though there were some parts I felt were only a couple of steps above it. For example, the whole “the hotel is on the state line” bit seemed quirky for the sake of being quirky, imitating a bit that a filmmaker like Tarantino would use but without quite knowing how to use it (it plays a big role in the opening sequence, after which there’s one slight gag with it before it’s never mentioned again).

But such lapses were outweighed by the good. For one, there’s some very nice photography by Seamus McGarvey. It looks like it was shot on 35mm (I checked and it was, which proves Nolan & co are right when they say it does make a difference), which didn’t always translate too well to the 1080p stream I watched, but I suspect might look all the more stunning in 4K. Visual aside, much of what’s good stems from the characters, especially the strong performances by actors like Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman. It was those, and in particular how each role comes together in the final act to define the whole character, that definitely elevated the quality of the film for me. And while those three are the highlights, there are also good turns from the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny. I’d say more, but so much of the meat of these characters comes from how they present themselves vs what the truth is revealed to be — the less you know, the more there is to uncover.

Rewatch you again soon

That said, I wonder if this is a film that will play better on a rewatch. There are several surprise plot developments I wouldn’t wish to spoil for a first-time viewer, for sure, and I do feel like that’s a worthy filmmaking tool (I don’t agree with that research that ‘proved’ audiences enjoy something more if they know the story beforehand — you don’t appreciate it more, you just appreciate different stuff, same as with a rewatch). But I feel like some of that plotting did distract focus from other bits of the film that were working well. Put another way, in my memory the niggles have damped down and I primarily recall the good stuff, so my enjoyment has gone up with hindsight. I’ll have to pick up the 4K disc at some point and give it another go.

For the time being, while I did like it overall, I judged it to be the kind of 4-star effort that could’ve easily become a 5-star top-ten-of-the-year film if it had just polished up everything that I felt didn’t work.

4 out of 5

Bad Times at the El Royale is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Live by Night (2016)

2018 #113
Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Live by Night

Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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 reason 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.

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