Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

2018 #228
Frank Pavich | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | France & USA / English, French, German & Spanish | 12A / PG-13

Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1974, director Alejandro Jodorowsky was hot off a pair of psychedelic projects — “acid Western” El Topo and surrealist fantasy The Holy Mountain — that had brought some cult attention and success (El Topo was the original “midnight movie”, while The Holy Mountain was apparently second only to that year’s Bond film at the Italian box office). Consequently, his French distributor, Michel Seydoux, offered to produce whatever he wanted to do next. Jodorowsky’s answer was Dune. He’d never read it, but he had a friend who said it was fantastic.

So begins the crazy story of how a director of surrealist Mexican art-films came this close to making an epic space opera out of one of the most acclaimed science-fiction novels ever written, but, in his failure, accidentally helped give birth to Star Wars (sort of), Alien (indirectly), and possibly the entire history of screen science-fiction that did actually get made in the ensuing 40 years. Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Um, well, yeah… but that doesn’t stop some of this documentary’s contributors from asserting it, and they do kind of have evidence.

Mind you, Jodorowsky’s Dune is full of interviewees making grand assertions, not least the eponymous filmmaker himself. He unironically describes his Dune as “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. He pitches himself as a prophet, thinks of his crew as spiritual warriors, and is convinced the film was going to be a great message for humanity; that it would literally change the world. The lack of self-awareness when he considers Douglas Trumbull to be full of his own importance is palpable. Jodorowsky’s regard for himself and the project may seem deluded, but at least he was committed. They spent two-and-a-half years developing this movie, including storyboarding every shot and getting exactly the right kind of people for the cast and crew — he pursued Dalí literally around the world to persuade him to play the Emperor; he rejected Trumbull, not because of an ego clash, but because he felt he was a technician rather than a spiritual person. He’s a bit barmy, but Jodorowsky definitely believed what he was doing was some grand transcendent enterprise.

A Chris Foss spaceship design for Dune

Such an attitude might get you far with arty types, but it doesn’t wash with the moneymen of Hollywood. The film had a projected budget of $15 million, and they went to the Hollywood studios seeking the last $5 million. In hand they had a giant tome containing all the storyboards, the costume and production designs, and so on. The book convinced them — it was well planned out and reasonably costed — but this barmy director — whose only previous films were weird psychedelic experiences; whose response to “make it under two hours” was, “why? If it needs be, it’ll be 12 hours, or 20!” — he didn’t fill them with confidence. And so they didn’t get the money, and the film fell through. Well, duh. Surely they could see how that was going to go? Maybe people just weren’t as savvy in the ’70s, especially these optimistic, committed artists.

All the documentary’s interviewees act like this was a problem with Hollywood moneymen having no vision, but c’mon, it’s easy to see where they were coming from. Plus, the fact that “the book convinced them” is just the word of Seydoux. Maybe Jodorowsky’s history and attitude was just a convenient excuse, because a lot of the stuff that was designed and planned is quite out there, especially to the mind of a ’70s Hollywood suit. It brings us back to how everyone’s making grand assertions: they all acts like the film was going to be an unquestionable masterpiece, but it seems to me there’s a much higher chance it would’ve been terrible. For one thing, there’s doubt over if they even could have made it. It was an insanely ambitious project, with plans to do things George Lucas wouldn’t even attempt in the prequel trilogy, never mind what he struggled to get done in 1977. But there’s a first time for everything — 2001 still holds up, after all, and that was made seven years earlier. Still, I don’t know how successful Jodorowsky’s surrealist mindset would’ve made it as a movie — it probably would’ve been even less palatable to a mainstream audience than the Lynch version.

Dune storyboards

That said, there seems little doubt Jodorowsky was ahead of his time here. For starters, the idea of making a 12-hour film isn’t so ludicrous anymore. In the deleted scenes (there’s a hefty 46 minutes of them on the Blu-ray), he acknowledges people wouldn’t sit through that, saying he was prepared to release it in chunks if necessary — so, just like Lord of the Rings would do to huge success 25 years later? Jump forward another 20 years, and it’s even how they’re doing Dune, in two parts! Of course, it was unprecedented in 1975; and, decades later, Rings was still seen as a gamble, but it paid off and Hollywood is now littered with franchises where instalments connect up as closely as TV series. And what of TV series, where you’re also seeing 12-hour (or longer) single narratives.

Aside from general questions of form, when you look at some of Dune‘s storyboards and plans you can see mirrors to stuff that wouldn’t be done until later. This is where the claim that Jodorowsky’s work on Dune led to Star Wars, Alien, et al, comes from, because you can see parallels between what he did and what would come after. His film was never made, but they produced 20 copies of that book I mentioned, and only two are known to exists (one with Jodorowsky, one with Seydoux). The rest were left with Hollywood studios. Were they passed around behind-the-scenes? Did the likes of Lucas and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and Mike Hodges and James Cameron really see them and pilfer ideas? Or is it just coincidence — Jodorowsky thought of them first but couldn’t execute them, then others thought of them independently and pulled it off. Pick your own side.

However, the claim that Dune led almost directly to Alien is less dubious. After he rejected Trumbull, Jodorowsky saw John Carpenter’s Dark Star and was impressed enough to hunt down its visual effects guy, Dan O’Bannon. Concept artists he hired included Chris Foss (painter of sci-fi book covers, mainly spaceships); Moebius (French comic book artist, for costume designs and storyboards); and H.R. Giger (German artist, who designed the dark and twisted world of the film’s villains). Those who know their Alien history might recognise all of those names: after Dune fell through, O’Bannon went on to write Alien, and all three of those designers followed on to the project. Maybe Alien would have come together just as well without the lead-in from Dune, we’ll never know, but those connections are pretty striking.

Giger at work on Dune

Lest you feel bad for everyone just ripping Jodorowsky off, he was able to recycle some of the ideas himself. His vision for Dune was only broadly faithful (one of the better deleted scenes is about his attitude to adaptation, which it seems Frank Herbert agreed with; i.e. that it’s not about being faithful, but reimagining something as a new, different work of art), and so he had plenty of fresh ideas that, presumably, weren’t tied up in the rights to Dune. Jodorowsky and Moebius piled some of these directly into later comic book collaborations, like The Incal and The Metabarons. A good idea never dies, I guess. Well, whether they were good ideas or just good in Jodorowsky’s mind, I don’t know. It does make me interested to read those books, though.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is an interesting “what if” in the history of science-fiction cinema, and this documentary does a good job of being a making-of for a movie that was never made. (If you think this review reads like I’ve just regurgitated the entire story, I promise, there’s a lot more in the film; not to mention the unique benefits of hearing it from the horses’ mouths, rather than my abridgement for the sake of appending my own opinions.) Some critics assert the documentary does more than just recount interesting anecdotes; that it offers some kind of transcendent viewpoint about the creation of art. Maybe if you’re of a similarly spiritual disposition to Jodorowsky himself, that’s what you’ll take from it. For me, it’s most interesting as a window into what might have been. If it had been made, would Jodorowsky’s Dune occupy the place of Star Wars in our culture? Its devotees think so. I don’t, to be honest. But it’s fun to think about.

4 out of 5

The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune will be released later today.

The 100-Week Roundup IX

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

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

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


    The Most Unknown
    (2018)

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

    The Most Unknown

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

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

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

    Science, innit

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    Zorro
    (1975)

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

    Zorro

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup IV

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

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

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

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


    Doubt
    (2008)

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

    Doubt

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Gaslight
    (1944)

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

    Gaslight

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Florida Project
    (2017)

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

    The Florida Project

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Swingers
    (1996)

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

    Swingers

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus:
    Director’s Cut

    (1984/2002)

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

    Amadeus

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    Becoming Bond
    (2017)

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

    Becoming Bond

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup III

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

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


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

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

    The Wild Bunch

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

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

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

    Bad boys

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

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

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

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

    The Warriors

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

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

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

    Gang wars

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

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

    Power Rangers

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

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

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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

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

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

    Two outta three ain't bad

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

  • Free Solo (2018)

    2019 #36
    Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Free Solo

    Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

    So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

    Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

    In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

    Alex vs El Capitan

    That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

    Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenge of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

    Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

    4 out of 5

    Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

    2018 #234
    Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

    They Shall Not Grow Old

    Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

    This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

    Before and after

    Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

    Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. It’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

    Faces

    Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

    It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

    Western Front

    While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

    5 out of 5

    They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

    Conquest Program No.9

    2018 #158a-d
    30 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English)

    Conquest Program No.9 advertisement

    We all know the cinema experience of today: 20 minutes of TV adverts that we’d fast-forward at home but have no say in on the big screen, followed by 10 minutes of movie trailers that we’ve already watched on YouTube, and, finally, the film we’ve paid to see. But back in the day the theatrical programme was less unedifying, with short films of various stripes preceding the headline film (hence the term “feature film”, obv.)

    For her DVD release of the 1917 feature Kidnapped (more about that in my review here), Fritzi Kramer of Movies Silently was able to source the four short films that were bundled with it as part of “Conquest Program No.9”. The Conquest Programs were the idea of distributor George Kleine and created by Thomas Edison’s film company. Eleven were created in all, each one bundling together a feature film and a mix of shorts to create a complete bill of wholesome entertainment. By specifically recreating Program No.9, the Kidnapped DVD doesn’t just offer an approximation of what a night at the movies in 1917 might’ve been a bit like, but rather a genuine was-definitely-shown-in-theatres programme from the time.

    Friends, Romans and Leo

    The programme opens with a twelve-minute comedy short, Friends, Romans and Leo, directed by Alan Crosland, who also helmed Kidnapped, and featuring several of the feature’s leading players too. It’s a bit of Roman farcing about, concerning an “emperor” who’s so in debt he lets the moneylender marry his daughter rather than call in the mortgage on his garage. I’m sure that’s exactly how Roman politics worked. Then, an unwanted and useless servant is cast into the gladiatorial ring to face the hulking Brutal Brutus, and also Leo, a man in a lion costume… er, I mean: Leo, a lion. This bit, at least, has some amusing pratfalling. It’s not big (it’s a short film, after all), it’s not clever (characters speak in a mix of Olde Worlde English (“thou hast been good to me”) and modern slang (“that’s a twenty-karat rock, girlie!”)), and it’s not particularly amusing to today’s eyes either, although the second half is at least diverting enough. Certainly, a grown man titting about in a lion suit has its own kind of charm.

    Up next is a seven-minute “fairy tale in silhouette”, Little Red Riding Hood. I’d assumed it was going to be some kind of puppet animation job, but no, it’s live-action shot in silhouette, presumably for a kind of stylistic, picture-book-ish look. This means we’re treated to another man in an animal costume — the wolf, of course — but this outfit is less good than Leo’s, something even the silhouetted visuals can’t hide. The short rattles through the traditional story with no significant variations, which feels a little quaint viewed from the vantage point of over a century later. That said, it does include this immortal line: “It must be grandmama for it is her cap, but how very strange this bad cold makes her look!” Because people can always be identified by their caps, and colds make you look like a wolf.

    Little Red Riding Hood

    Talking of quaint, that clearly wasn’t a concept alien to 1917 audiences, as the third short implies. Titled Quaint Provincetown, it’s a seven-minute travelogue about a quiet little seaside town and its almost throwback way of life (even for 1917!) A series of lifestyle scenes rather than a narrative documentary, it’s a fascinating window into the past, which arguably makes it the most interesting of these films for the modern viewer. That said, how much of it was captured actuality and how much was staged, who knows — for example, at one point we watch a couple of boys have a fight in the street while their friends egg them on, which you feel the filmmakers can’t’ve just happened upon. Still, kids, eh? I guess some things never change.

    Finally, Microscopic Pond Life is a four-minute look at… well, what it says on the tin. This is, broadly speaking, stuff we’re nowadays familiar with from a young age thanks to science lessons and whatnot, but I imagine it must’ve been quite incredible to see these minuscule organisms in action for the first time. You’re not going to learn a lot of detailed scientific information from a 100-year-old short like this, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of the tiniest of lifeforms.

    Microscopic Pond Life

    Viewed today, this selection of short films is, at worst, an insight into a time long gone — one of the nearest experiences we’re likely to get to time travel. At best, the films themselves retain some inherent interest and entertainment value. As Fritzi puts it in her booklet accompanying the DVD, “the ninth Conquest program is not filled with hidden masterpieces, just good solid programmers that would have entertained the average American audience in 1917.” Very true, and fair enough.

    3 out of 5

    Read my review of Conquest Program No.9’s feature film, Kidnapped, here.
    The DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com.

    Review Roundup

    Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

    In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Vintage Tomorrows (2015)

    2017 #120
    Byrd McDonald | 67 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada, Czech Republic & UK / English

    Vintage Tomorrows

    Heard the term “steampunk” but don’t really know what it is? Or have an idea, but you’d like a fuller picture of the whole subculture? Then this is the film for you, my friend, because Vintage Tomorrows is basically Steampunk 101.

    For those that don’t know, steampunk is a kind of alternate history, where Victorian-esque technology and fashion rub against advanced technology — think steam-powered cars; clockwork machinery; and cogs. Lots of cogs. Although little more than an hour long, Vintage Tomorrows does a good job of providing an overview of the movement, encompassing the cool literature, fun costumes, impressive self-built gizmos, and so on. It also doesn’t ignore the political dimension: how steampunk does — or, frequently, doesn’t — deal with the dark side of the Victorian era: the poverty, oppression, racism, colonialism, misogyny, and so forth. Mainly, the subculture still needs to “grow up” and tackle that stuff. With plenty of featured interviewees, it’s also interesting to hear the different ideas that different people have about what exactly steampunk is and should be — there are clearly dissenting voices, rather than a homogenous whole. I guess that’s probably true of any subculture, but I imagine particularly one that’s quite counter-cultural.

    That said, when some people start placing steampunk in the context of widespread movements like the Beat Generation, hippies, punk, hip-hop — asserting that it’s following in their footsteps — I think they’re possibly going a bit far. It may be inspired by the same mentality (the rejection of the mainstream, the desire to create something different, the search for your own identity and people who share it), but to imply steampunk is having the same influence on wider culture that those earlier movements did… I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. In the future? Who knows.

    Fire!

    Indeed, some pretentious assumptions come to the fore when the interviewees get on to the subject of modern technology. They don’t like sleek, minimalist, Apple-esque design — it’s not complicated or tactile enough for them. Fine, if that’s your taste — but it is just your taste. A lot of people love that stuff. And, actually, it’s not a different subculture that loves it, it’s the mainstream. If the mainstream didn’t like it, something else would’ve swept it aside by now. But a level of self-absorption seems to go hand-in-hand with those at the forefront of niche movements, so I guess we should expect such attitudes.

    Set aside those occasionally presumptive attitudes, and there’s a lot to like about steampunk. Well, if it meshes with your sensibilities, anyway. It’s not something I’d want to partake in myself, but it looks like a fun alternate reality to be a part of. And if Hollywood saw fit to give us a few more movies that fit into the genre (because there haven’t been many, I believe), I certainly wouldn’t complain.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies & Trekkies 2

    In today’s roundup:

  • Trekkies (1997)
  • Trekkies 2 (2004)


    Trekkies
    (1997)

    2018 #97
    Roger Nygard | 83 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English & Klingon | PG / PG

    Trekkies

    There are quite a few fan documentaries out there nowadays (a few years ago… wait, ten years ago? Bloody hell. Anyway, back then I reviewed the likes of Starwoids, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, and Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity). But before all of those, and I think the first of its subgenre, was Trekkies, which examined the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom — or, rather, the wild, weird extremities of it.

    Trekkies begins with the proclamation that “Trekkies are the only fans listed by name in the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s not true anymore (“Whovian”, at least, is in there), and that speaks to an interesting truth about this entire documentary. When it was released 21 years ago, Trekkies was exposing a niche thing to wider awareness, and these fans were seen as weirdos, fundamentally. Watching it today, though, you see that it’s mostly just cons and cosplay — stuff that’s been virtually mainstream for a few years at this point. It may’ve once seemed odd for these people to define their lives as “Star Trek fan”, but now, for many people (especially younger people), it’s perfectly routine to be defined by which fandom you’re in.

    Gabriel Koerner in 1997

    That said, Trekkies still managed to find some people who are pretty weird by any standard. At the time the filmmakers received some criticism for this — for creating a film that got laughs out of “look at the weirdos!” while ignoring the more normal side of fandom. That’s not a wholly baseless critique, but I didn’t think the film was cruel. As well as going “aren’t these people nuts!”, I think it does try to dig into why they do it, what they get out of it. I’m not sure how well it reveals the former (I mean, how did any of them go from liking a TV show to… this? It must be some personality thing), but it does a decent job of showing what benefits it brings them. And there are some incredible stories (mainly from interviewed cast members) about how Trek has changed, or even saved, people’s lives.

    Trekkies may’ve lost the uniqueness it once had, with elements of the lifestyle it depicts coming to increasing prominence, but it still remains an interesting look at that kind of world, with some very memorable characters. And if you think it might’ve aged into irrelevance after all this time, there’s a bit about the importance of Captain Janeway as a role model for female leadership and what women can do — we’re still having debates and arguments about that sort of thing over twenty years later, which is, frankly, depressing.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies 2
    (2004)

    2018 #98
    Roger Nygard | 93 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English, German, Italian, Portuguese, French & Serbian | PG / PG

    Trekkies 2

    Such is the strangeness of Time that, just 24 hours after I watched Trekkies, I jumped forward seven years to catch up with some of that film’s featured fans in this lesser-seen follow-up. It’s not just repeat visits to old friends, though — if you thought America had a monopoly on crazies, well, Trekkies 2’s got news for you!

    This time out director Roger Nygard and host Denise Crosby take us to Germany (visiting the set of a fan film); the UK (with a guy who turned his flat into a starship, which he’s listed on eBay for $2 million (a couple of years later it sold for c.$840,000, which was still 16 times what he paid for it)); Italy (where fandom is apparently centred around food); Brazil (where a collector has a rare playset from the ’60s… which Crosby accidentally knocks over); Australia (where the fans mainly seem to be female and obsessed with the sexy male cast members); France (which is really just “more international fans”, to be honest); and Serbia (where the series and its values has brought a lot of hope to people in a tumultuous region).

    We also meet more US fans, as the sequel tries to rectify some of the first film’s shortcomings. For example, there’s a much greater section on filk music (which is, basically, music tied to sci-fi/fantasy fandom), as well as some crazy-funny Star Trek punk tribute bands — there’s a whole scene of that kind of thing in Sacramento, randomly. Plus we’re shown the lighter side of fandom, like the theatre company staging a satirical Trek-ified version of Romeo & Juliet.

    German fan film

    And, as I mentioned, we catch up with some old friends, including Barbara Adams, the lady who wore her Trek uniform while on jury duty (and who has a hilarious Trek vs Wars debate with a coworker that’s like something out of The Office), and the film’s break-out star, Gabriel Koerner. A super-geeky teen in the first movie, seven years later he has a wife and has turned his hobby into a career in visual effects. It just goes to show, there’s someone and something for everyone.

    Indeed, overall it’s not quite as “look at the freaks!” as the first film. It takes time to explicitly discuss what’s going too far and what’s normal, and it also highlights how Trek fandom has been a force for good, like raising money for charity, or giving hope in war-torn regions. Consequently it’s not as funny as last time, but probably in a good way — this one’s a bit more thoughtful, a bit fairer to its subjects as people. Ultimately, I think the two films work quite well as a pair. There’s also been talk of a Trekkies 3, which I hope happens — as I mentioned about the first film, attitudes to this kind of fandom have changed massively in the past decade or so (for example, the rise of Comic-Con and its influence), so it would be very interesting to explore that.

    For my money, the most insightful moment in either film comes from Pierluigi Piazzi, a Brazilian publisher of Star Trek books, when he says that “this is a wonderful way to be crazy. Everybody’s crazy, but it’s wonderful this way.”

    4 out of 5