The Post (2017)

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2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

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All the Money in the World (2017)

2018 #121
Ridley Scott | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Italy & UK / English, Italian & Arabic | 15 / R

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World does not star Kevin Spacey. But I expect you knew that. Indeed, if you only know one thing about the film, I expect that is what you know. Spacey’s firing, and his speedy replacement by Christopher Plummer, was such a big news story that it instantly became what the movie was most famous for — and, I suspect, is what it will always be most famous for, because the film itself isn’t good enough to transcend its own reputation.

Before I get into that, let’s do the film the courtesy of describing what it’s actually about. Based on true events, it tells the story of the kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in 1973 thanks to his family ties: his grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), was the richest man in the world. He was also a miserly old codger who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, and the film follows his daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams) as she desperately tries to arrange to get her son back, aided by the employee Getty assigns to investigate the case, former CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).

Even before the point of contention that drives the plot, various examples are given of what a piece of work Getty was. Whether these are based on true stories or not, I don’t know, but the film seems almost heavy-handed in creating this impression. For instance, although he’s the world’s first billionaire, he’ll do his own laundry in his hotel bath rather than pay the hotel $10 to do it for him; or he’ll spend an hour haggling a poor beggar down from $19 to $11 for an item that’s actually worth $1.2 million — although it later turns out there’s another side to that story… not that the it paints Getty in any better a light. Anyway, it’s to Plummer’s credit that he can take this kind of material and make it work, especially considering it was captured in just nine days of shooting with very little prep time.

Can you put a value on a child's life? J. Paul Getty can.

When those reshoots were first reported, it was said to be possible because Getty wasn’t actually in the film much, so it wouldn’t take long to remount just his scenes. Then the film started screening, and critics said he was in a lot of the movie and the amount they must’ve reshot was phenomenal in such a short space of time. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between: Getty pops up throughout the film, and his presence is huge, but I’d wager his actual screen time is smaller than you’d think — similar to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, who notoriously won Best Actor from less than 25 minutes on screen, it feels like Plummer’s in it more than he actually is. That’s partly the film’s structure, but also the quality of his performance.

In discussing the reshoots, director Ridley Scott has commented on the differences between the two actors’ takes on the character (Plummer wasn’t shown any of Spacey’s performance before he filmed). According to IMDb, Scott felt Spacey portrayed Getty as “a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character”, while Plummer found “a warmer side to the billionaire, but the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.” I can’t help reading between the lines to infer that Scott felt Plummer’s performance was more nuanced, and therefore better. It beggars belief that Spacey was cast at all, really: Scott wanted Plummer, who was 88, to play the 80-year-old Getty, but the studio insisted on 58-year-old Spacey, who then had to be caked in prosthetics. Supposedly it’s because Spacey was a bigger name, but that much bigger? Really?

Anyway, it turned out for the best, because Plummer is probably the strongest element of the finished product. Although Michelle Williams is top-notch as ever, too. Mark Wahlberg has been worse than this, but he still seems slightly miscast. Ridley Scott, also, is not on top form, his direction merely unremarkable. Oh, it looks nice enough — it’s well done — but there’s little beyond glossy competence.

Negotiations

Arguably its biggest sin is that, for a movie about a high-stakes kidnapping, it’s remarkably free of tension. The closest is the climactic manhunt around a village at nighttime (an event which is an entirely fictional invention, incidentally), but even that doesn’t seem to ring all that’s possible out of proceedings. The blurb sells the film as a “race against time”, but it’s almost the opposite of that: the kidnappers hold the kid for literally months while the Gettys bicker. But maybe Scott wasn’t going for thrills? There’s definitely a thematic thing in there about wealth and power and what it does to people, and what that represents versus the importance of family or morals. But I’m not sure those issues are really brought out or explored either.

It leaves the film feeling not tense and on-edge enough to be a thriller, nor thoughtful and considered enough to be a message-driven drama. The real-life story behind the film is a compelling hook and definitely sounds like it’d make a great movie, but the conversion process has perhaps not done it justice. Maybe someone else should have a crack at it…

3 out of 5

Trust, a miniseries from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy retelling the same events, begins its UK airing on BBC Two tonight at 10pm.

The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows as Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although its constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

Creation

There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

2018 #82
James Franco | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Disaster Artist

James Franco’s 18th feature as director* is the story of the making of The Room, the cult favourite “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. Franco also stars as the bizarre Tommy Wiseau, a figure of mysterious background who one day decides to make a movie, funded out of his own inexplicably wealthy pocket. Along for the ride is Greg (Dave Franco), a wannabe actor who befriends Tommy at acting class before inspiring Wiseau’s divergence into auteurism. So unfurls a crazy tale of ultra-independent moviemaking by someone who doesn’t seem to know how to be human properly, never mind produce a movie. By which I mean Wiseau, not Franco.

Franco and friends (the lead cast includes his brother, his brother’s wife, and his best mate) seem to be having a jolly old time recreating their favourite bad movie, and they’re certainly not above patting themselves on the back for how well they’ve done it (there’s a self-congratulatory “look what a good job we did recreating the film!” montage at the end that lowered my opinion of the film somewhat. By all means put that as a Blu-ray special feature, but putting it in the film itself feels boastful). Of course, for aficionados of The Room such dedication pays off: there are lots of fun references — not just the obvious stuff (the recreation of actual scenes), but scattered lines and nods throughout the movie.

For those of us uninitiated, The Disaster Artist provides mixed results. For example, the sequence about the shooting of the famous “Oh hi Mark” line, which played so well as the teaser trailer, is more long-winded in the final film (unsurprisingly), but consequently it doesn’t work as well — it’s lacking the conciseness of the trailer, which emphasised the ludicrousness of the process and therefore made it funny. But, hey, if you haven’t seen the trailer…

Artists at work

Where the film manages to surprise is that it kind of has something serious to say. Obviously it’s funny — the premise, the very fact of Wiseau’s existence, inherently calls for that — but around the laughs it wants to comment on the worthiness of dedication to artistic endeavour. Wiseau may be a weird guy who made a terrible movie, but he still made that movie — when Hollywood rejected him, he had the dedication to write and produce his own film, following his own vision. His weird, terrible vision. It’s little surprise that Franco — the guy who’s somehow made 20 feature films (including another two since this came out less than a year ago, with three more beyond that completed or in post) — should be on board with that as a worthwhile achievement.

The trailers mismanaged my expectations for The Disaster Artist. They promised more hilarity than the film delivers — it’s played a little straighter than you might assume, especially given the people involved. But while it’s not consistently funny enough to land as a pure comedy, it’s also not quite heartfelt and meaningful enough to sing as a drama. It’s good, but I felt like it could’ve been better.

3 out of 5

The Disaster Artist is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* That’s not a typo — James Franco has directed 17 other movies that you’ve probably never heard about. And now you’re probably wondering, “how can someone as famous as James Franco have directed 17 movies without me ever hearing about it?” I know, because I’ve been there. ^

The Room (2003)

2018 #81
Tommy Wiseau | 99 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | NR / R

The Room

I did not enjoy it, it’s not true, it’s bullshit, I did not enjoy it, I did naht!

Oh hi reader.

You’ve heard of The Room, right? Well, if you hadn’t before last year’s awards season, you probably have now, thanks to James Franco’s fictionalised account of its making, The Disaster Artist. I can’t remember when I first heard of The Room, but it was certainly after it had already gained a reputation among some people for being (as someone once put it) “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”; the kind of movie where its fans attend midnight screenings in costume, shout out phrases, throw items in the air, and all that palaver.

Ostensibly the story of the relationship woes of twentysomethings in San Francisco, there is nothing wrong with The Room… for the first two minutes. Then Tommy Wiseau enters a room and opens his mouth. There are no words to accurately describe Wiseau — he has to be witnessed to be believed. From there out, the film is so distractingly ridiculous that it’s easy to forget what any of it is supposed to be about. For the first half-hour it feels like they’re making a soft-core porno: the plot seems designed purely to facilitate sexual encounters (at one point a couple walk into a room and start getting it on before we’ve learnt anything else about them), most of which last several minutes to the sound of cheesy pop music (though they’ve cut out any explicit bits, so don’t go watching it just to get your jollies).

Room for a threesome?

From there, stuff just… happens. Characters come and go at random (three actors quit the project midway through shooting, so Wiseau sometimes just invented a new character rather than reshoot existing scenes); subplots about nothing pop up now and then; and people generally behave like no human being has ever behaved. Production values are all over the place, like the sets: many are amateur-theatre-level under-designed, yet some scenes take place on a rooftop where the view has been green-screened in fairly well. It’s also awfully misogynistic… but when it’s so awful generally, does that even matter? And yet some parts almost transcend the horror: the scene on the rooftop after they save Denny from being shot is like fucking poetry, with all its repetition and… stuff. I mean, it’s really bad poetry… but really funny poetry.

I guess some people would say you have to watch The Room at one of those cinema screenings packed with die-hard fans to get the most out of it, but they also say that about Rocky Horror and I’ve never found that to be true. Of course, Rocky Horror is actually a good film, whereas The Room is only entertaining because of how bad it is. The full 99-minute experience is a bit of a drag at times, waiting for the really funny bits to roll round, but the level of incompetence is so consistent that it remains fascinating throughout.

A real human being?

However, that does make it almost impossible to rate accurately. As what it sets out to be — a serious drama about the love lives of a group of friends — it’s irredeemably awful. But that’s not why we watch it. As a so-bad-it’s-good film to laugh at… yeah, it’s pretty funny. And as that’s why I watched it, that’s how I’ll mark it: for the level of enjoyment I got out of it, irrespective of what was intended.

4 out of 5

James Franco’s dramatisation of the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, is on Sky Cinema from today. My review is here.

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

aka Ma vie de Courgette / My Life as a Zucchini

2018 #3
Claude Barras | 66 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Switzerland / English | PG / PG-13

My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (or, to use the American name for the vegetable, Zucchini) is the story of young lad Icare — who prefers to be called “Courgette”, his mother’s nickname for him — and his life after he is taken into an orphanage. If you’ve heard of it, it’s most likely because it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Oscars.

It’s adapted from the novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, which was apparently a realistic portrayal of the lives of orphans in France. As you can see, the film takes a more cartoonish style, at least on the surface. In fact, the whimsical production design belies the very serious nature of the story — it’s not as monumentally grim as it could be, given the subject matter, but it doesn’t shy away from some very dark areas. It handles these with an understated, calm maturity that is both befitting and refreshing. The animation itself is equally sophisticated, with innumerable little touches that add finesse and richness to the work.

Orphaned

I watched the English dubbed version, because Amazon Prime gave me no choice (the original French version is available on Amazon Video, but for some reason not also included with Prime). Fortunately, despite having a US voice cast, they stuck with “Courgette”, meaning there’s no constant annoyance of the main character being called the wrong thing. (I do wonder, though: did they have to record it all twice, or did the American release rename the film My Life as a Zucchini but then call the kid Courgette anyway?) Fortunately, the dubbing wasn’t at all bad. Of particular note is Nick Offerman, giving a remarkable restrained performance as the gentle and kindly cop Raymond. As for Courgette and his fellow orphans, I don’t know if they cast actual kids or used adult soundalikes, but they also provided uniformly strong voice work.

My Life as a Courgette is one of those “weird foreign animations” that often manages an Oscar nod but doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning thanks to the conservativeness of Oscar voters — there’s no way a mature, restrained animation with a quirky visual style is going to beat the latest shiny-CGI fun-time from Pixar or Disney. For those with broader tastes, however, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped (1917)

2018 #159
Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English

Kidnapped DVD

The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com. (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

“Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

Swashes being buckled

Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

4 out of 5

Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

Christopher Robin (2018)

2018 #180
Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Christopher Robin

Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

Pooh in the park

Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry — they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

Tigger on the loose

The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

aka Zatôichi sakate-giri

2018 #157
Kazuo Mori | 78 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man

The eleventh film in the Zatoichi series is perhaps the first one that could legitimately be described as bad. It’s not outright terrible, but the plot doesn’t hold together very well, and there are only a couple of redeeming scenes.

The first of these is at the very start, when the film opens on the striking image of Ichi receiving lashes as punishment for an initially-unspecified crime. They seem almost a minor inconvenience to our hero, however, who is more concerned with questions he has for his punisher about this cellmate of the previous night. It turns out he was the eponymous “doomed man”: a fellow who’s been incarcerated on a murder charge, but claims he’s innocent, and urges Ichi to track down the gang bosses who can vouch for him. Uncharacteristically, Ichi resolves not to help, but fate has other plans…

That reliance on fate to marshal Ichi around led me to dub this Zatoichi and the Coincidental Coincidences of Coincidence. He’s constantly stumbling back onto the film’s plot even when he tries to avoid it, or bumping into the people he needs to find, or bumping into people who happen to be connected to other people he happens to know. It’s easily the most poorly-constructed story of the series so far. That’s not limited to its dependence on coincidence, either: half the stuff it sets up doesn’t even pay off or come together in a reasonable fashion. Although the initial “wrong man” setup is enticing, rather than do anything interesting or different with that, it just turns out to be the series’ usual: some bosses have betrayed the chap as part of a scheme to control the area. And to rub salt in the wound, we learn about this in a scene where one conspirator explains what they’ve already done to his co-conspirator. Oh dear.

Shenanigans

It’s a very slight story — not even enough to sustain the brief sub-80-minute running time, it would seem, as we’re ‘treated’ to an array of unrelated shenanigans. The primary one is a young man who starts following Ichi around, then later impersonates the famed blind masseur for financial gain — and, supposedly, for comic effect. He’s played by Kanbi Fujiyama, who (according to Chris D. in his notes accompanying Criterion’s release) “was a noted funnyman in mid-to-late-sixties Japan, appearing in sidekick roles in many of Toei studios’ ninkyo (chivalrous) yakuza films.” Reading other reviews, a lot of people seem to find his schtick hilarious, but I thought he was the most irritating comic relief character the series has yet foisted upon us — and he’s basically the co-lead of this instalment, so we get to see far too much of him. He eventually turns out to have a connection to the main plot too, which is emblematic of the whole movie: the connection is a complete coincidence, dumped on us via random exposition late in the game, and then not paid off in any way. It’s entirely pointless. At one point he disappears from the film entirely. Due to how it was handled, I began to wonder if we were meant to infer he’d died off screen. But then he turns up again in the epilogue, as it merely to confirm that wasn’t the case.

That stands in opposition to the film’s main plot — you know, the titular one about the “doomed man” — which is resolved offscreen while Ichi’s already going on his merry way. It’s just one aspect that feels rushed (despite the short running time and ‘comedy’ distractions), or as if scenes were deleted. This is particularly noticeable as it pertains to the female interest, Oyone (Eiko Taki). Ichi rescues her thanks to a little trick she pulls, but then she seems ungratefully indifferent to him… until she’s suddenly hanging around near the end, hoping (as the women in these films always do) that he won’t run off while her back’s turned. Which is exactly what he does, of course.

Zatoichi with the doomed man

You may remember I said there were some good bits. One is the pre-titles, which I already partly discussed. They’re effective thanks to some strong photography from Hiroshi Imai and the way they flip around with our expectations to create mystery (even if the reason Ichi’s receiving those lashings is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film). The other is the finale. As usual, the movie climaxes with Ichi having to take on an army of goons single-handed, but this one adds some spice with a seaside location, strewn with fishing nets (which get brought into the action) and covered with an early morning sea mist. It’s also beautifully shot, and there’s nicely choreographed combat. It’s easily the highlight of the film.

Other reviewers are not so harsh on The Doomed Man, going so far as to call it a “fine entry” in the series, or “thoughtful [and] hilarious”. And yet, those reviews can’t seem to help spotting the flaws in spite of themselves. Walter Biggins’ review at Quiet Bubble is a series of questions about why the film is so poor, with the last query being the most baffling of all: “why, despite all this opacity all my questions, did I end up liking this movie so much?” I’ve no idea, mate. Several other reviews make comments along the lines of, “Ichi behaves uncharacteristically here, but there must be a good reason for that” — or it’s just crappy, inconsistent writing. At least Letterboxd users agree with me: it’s ranked 24th out of the main series’ 25 films (the only one lower is the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large — which, incidentally, is by the same director).

“Here's the end of the plot — go give it to someone and get this over with!”

For me, The Doomed Man is by a clear margin the weakest Zatoichi film so far. As nowadays I very much look forward to my regular appointments with Ichi, being so underwhelmed left me feeling disappointed: it wasn’t worth the wait since the last film, nor was it really enough to tide me over until the next one. For those reasons I considered giving it a lowly two stars, but that felt a bit harsh: it certainly isn’t without merit (the climactic fight is a stunner), and it’s always nice to spend time in Ichi’s company, even if he is being inconsistently written. Nonetheless, it only earns that third star by the skin of its teeth. This is a “for completists only” instalment.

3 out of 5

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

2018 #77
Rob Reiner | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

When Harry Met Sally...

Written by the queen of the romcom, Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is almost a deconstruction of the genre: its titular protagonists are just friends, but (the film asks) can a man and a woman ever be ‘just friends’? It perhaps feels like a dated question today, when almost 30 more years of gender equality have pushed heavily towards the answer being “yes, of course”, but that doesn’t matter for two very good reasons: first, the film still stands as an insight into the nature of relationships in the ’80s and ’90s; and second, it’s just a really good film.

It begins in 1977, when Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are recent graduates who meet through a mutual friend. They soon go their separate ways, and then the film catches up with them in 1982, and again in 1987 — and that’s just act one. It’s an interesting opening gambit to chart the pair’s backstory. It dodges the usual romcom thing of people who’ve just met falling instantly in love, but also does more than introducing us to two friends and telling us “they’ve always been friends” — it shows that friendship. I don’t think I’ve read anyone else talk about this part of the film, I guess because it really ‘gets going’ in the ’87 segment, but I think it’s an interesting way of beginning things, and gives a different grounding to the relationship drama we then see unfold.

It’s an immaculately constructed film all round, both on a macro and a micro scale. For the latter, there’s a single-take four-way phone call between the two protagonists and their respective best friends that is a thing of beauty (and apparently took 60 takes to get right!) It also manages to make New Years and Auld Lang Syne feel relevant to the plot, rather than just an obvious big occasion on which to set the finale. That’s a neat trick to pull off. Even the seemingly-random interludes showing interviews with long-married couples have a pay-off at the end that, once again, reiterates my point about how put-together this is.

Just friends...?

On that macro scale, it again subverts the usual romcom structure simply by having the characters be hyper-aware of the possibility they could sleep together, and regularly discussing whether they should or will. They’re not just bungling through this relationship, happening to fall into all the usual clichés, like so many romcom characters before and since — instead, they’re actually thinking their way through it, aware of the pitfalls. And yet they fall into some anyway, and the film does sometimes follow predictable structure and does hit some of those clichés — but it always manages to make them ring true.

This truthfulness — about male-female friendships, mainly — is probably the film’s biggest asset. Is it still accurate about those dynamics almost three decades later? Despite what I said earlier, maybe it is. And even if it isn’t, I reckon it was bang on point for the ’80s and ’90s, and isn’t that enough? It tells you about the time it was made, even if it doesn’t tell you about today. It all adds up to mean that, when the inevitable happens at the end, it doesn’t feel like an obvious outcome, but something earned and emotional.

4 out of 5