Bill & Ted’s Double-Bill

As Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) slightly belatedly face the music in UK cinemas, now seemed a good time to review their first excellent adventure and second bogus journey

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
(1989)

2020 #91
Stephen Herek | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

I’ve written before about how my childhood film viewing involved a lot of catching up on the family-friendly blockbusters of the ’80s — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, etc — but Bill & Ted was one of the ones that passed me by. Maybe if I’d seen it at the time I’d now put it on a pedestal with those others; or maybe I missed it back then because it simply isn’t as good.

The titular duo are a pair of slackers and aspiring rock musicians, but they’re struggling to complete a high school History presentation and, if they fail, they’ll be separated forever. Fortunately, help arrives in the form of Rufus (George Carlin), a time traveller from the year 2688, when mankind lives in a utopian society thanks to the music of Bill and Ted — but only if they pass this project. So he lends them his phone-booth-shaped time machine, and off they go into the past to roundup some real historical figures.

Where Back to the Future was a sci-fi/comedy that took its sci-fi relatively seriously (applying proper scientific theories of time travel’s possible effects to provide jeopardy for our hero), Bill & Ted is an outright comedy. It revels in its silliness, which makes for fun, laidback viewing, but it’s at the expense of any tension or suspense in the plot. Ostensibly they must race against the clock to get their presentation together (thanks to some half-arsed gubbins about time still progressing in the present even while they’re gadding about in a time machine), and the phone booth gets broken and stuff like that, but it never really feels like there’s a hurry, or that things might not work out. I mean, it’s a daft comedy, so of course we know they’re going to pull it off, but the film seems to use that inevitability as an excuse to not even try.

If I seem overly critical, it’s only because expectations are high. The film has a marked cult following, and the fact there’s another 1980s comedy about a time travelling high schooler is an unavoidable point of comparison. It’s not Bill & Ted’s fault that Back to the Future is a fundamentally perfect movie, whereas this is just an easygoing 90 minutes of frivolity. It’s not all it could be, but it’s likeable enough to squeak up to 4 stars.

4 out of 5

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
(1991)

2020 #96
Pete Hewitt | 94 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

In the run up to Face the Music, I’ve observed a trend on Twitter for people, who consider themselves connoisseurs, to declare Bogus Journey better than Excellent Adventure. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but that’s one I definitely disagree with. So too, I guess, would Excellent Adventure director Stephen Herek, who declined to return for this sequel because he thought it was “almost a parody of a movie that was already a parody”.

Originally titled Bill & Ted Go to Hell (until that was vetoed by typically puritanical Yanks), the plot sees Bill and Ted, um, go to Hell. They’re killed by evil robot replicas of themselves, sent back in time by a future terrorist who wants to disrupt the utopia they created. While the robot doubles set about destroying their reputations, the real Bill and Ted are stuck in the afterlife, where they must convince Death (William Sadler) to restore them to life.

Apparently the first idea for the sequel was to have our slacker heroes struggling with an English assignment, which would lead to them entering classic works of literature. That storyline appeals to me (well, I do have an English degree), but it does sound like a mere do-over of the first movie’s plot. It’s to Bogus Journey’s credit that it’s not merely a rehash, but it doesn’t feel like there was a solid concept to go in its place. Excellent Adventure had a driving idea (“use time travel to do a History project”), but Bogus Journey feels like the result of a forced search for something else to do with the same characters. Heck, it even switches genres, from sci-fi to fantasy. That kinda doesn’t matter when they’re just silly comedies, but it didn’t sit right with me.

Perhaps that’s simply because I didn’t think it worked. The whole film is much scrappier and less inspired than the first. There are good bits — Sadler is quite fun as the Grim Reaper, and some of the Hell stuff is inventive — but it’s mostly a whole load of mediocrity, lacking the spark that enlivened the original. The climax even reminded me of a Doctor Who spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death. Okay, that came eight years after this, but it did the same gag better.

Bogus Journey is definitely barmy, like they were allowed to do whatever they wanted and went crazy with it. I kind of admire that, even as I didn’t think the result was particularly entertaining. In fact, I found it annoying rather than funny.

2 out of 5

Bill & Ted Face the Music is in UK cinemas from today.

Love on a Leash (2011)

2020 #173
Fen Tian | 86 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Love on a Leash

Love on a Leash first gained a degree of notoriety when some YouTuber happened upon it on Amazon Prime and made a video about it, in which he instructed his followers to rate it 10-out-of-10 on IMDb. Enough of them did that it apparently resulted in his account being banned. (At time of writing, it has a score of 9.2 from almost 6,500 ratings.) I came across it more recently on Letterboxd, where it was featured on a list of divisive films. You only have to look at its ratings spread to see why:

Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

Are the 1,504 people who’ve rated it 5 stars in on the same joke as those YouTuber’s fans who rated it 10 on IMDb? Or is there in fact something to this movie that makes some people think “this is worth full marks”? You might be surprised to learn that, actually, I think it’s the latter.

The film tells the story of Prince, a golden retriever who is actually a man turned into a dog (and whose human name may have been Alvin Flang. Or maybe not — I feel like the dog is an unreliable narrator). How has this happened? Why? Who knows? Who cares? (The film has a lot of random shots of ducks for no obvious reason (it’s almost Lynchian), so my guess is they did it to him. Still don’t know why, though.) Prince learns (from a magic rock-pool) that he can only return to human form by finding the true love of a woman. Enter unlucky-in-love shopgirl Lisa (Jana Camp), who meets Prince in a park and eventually takes him home. What unfolds is not as straightforward as the Beauty and the Beast narrative you might imagine, but to describe any more of the craziness would be to ruin half the fun. The plot’s constant twists and developments beggar belief — it’s genuinely imaginative, in its own way. By which I mean I don’t think you’ll have ever see anything else quite like this.

Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

I give full credit to Love on a Leash for just going for it. It’s hard to pigeonhole what genre it was even aiming for. The poster and basic concept suggest a cheesy kids’ film or Hallmark movie; the way it initially plays, you kinda assume it wants to be a romcom; but then it gets so fucking dark (suicide attempt! abusive coworkers! dead dog!), and there’s so much fantastical strange stuff… it’s so much weirder, wilder, and more unique than you can imagine. That’s without even mentioning the bizarre production quirks, like the fact Lisa only wears green clothes and lives in a green house with a green phone and green mugs and green plates… Or that it’s shot with a kind of documentary realism… um, maybe; or maybe it was just done quickly on digital video. There’s definitely no music, though. Like, at all. Even though there’s a composer credited.

Well, except for a couple of songs the dog sings. Prince is constantly chatting away to himself in voiceover, and sometimes sings little childish ditties too (I suspect they weren’t actually composed by anyone). He can be a right snarky little bugger (he describes the love of his life as a “pizza-faced cinder block”), to the point that I suspect it may all have been improvised by the voice actor in post-production — he seems to be taking the piss out of what’s going on as often as we are.

Love on a Leash was written and directed by Fen Tian, a 64-year-old Chinese woman who came to America in her 40s “with fifty dollars in her pocket, and not one word of English in her possession,” according to her production bio. It asserts that the screenplay won an award and funding from the Taiwan government, and at one point she took an American cast and crew to China to shoot it but funding fell through. After decades of trying, the film was eventually produced “with barely enough money to cover craft services”, and during post-production she “slept on the couches of her editors, dragging around her blanket, toothbrush, pillow and thirty-nine DV cam reels” and “spoiled” her team by “cooking up huge feasts of homemade Chinese food, and fixing her crew’s love lives with a motherly heart and some Chinese wisdom.” I feel like this deserves a Disaster Artist-type biopic…

What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes...

So, we come to the issue I touched on at the start: how do you rate a film like this? As an exercise in moviemaking, it’s a 1. The storyline is borderline nonsensical; it’s shot like an amateur using a camcorder for the first time; the sound mix is so unfinished I’m not sure it was ever started… And yet it’s constantly enjoyable, partly through a “so bad it’s good” hilarity (see the aforementioned terrible filmmaking), but also for the barminess with which it conducts itself, the relentless forward momentum of the storyline leading us in unpredictable narrative directions. Like famous cult favourite The Room, it transcends its amateur awfulness to be an artistic experience all of its own. In fact, it achieves a higher level of genuine artistry than The Room for me, because Wisseau’s film sometimes mires itself in wannabe-seriousness and runs out of stuff to laugh at, whereas Love on a Leash is restless in its creativity and consequently almost non-stop entertaining. It transcends its obvious awfulness through a kind of perverse innovation; a commitment to not hewing to any recognisable conventions. And it’s really funny — sometimes deliberately, often not.

With reservations duly noted, then, I honestly and unequivocally give Love on a Leash full marks.

5 out of 5

The 100-Week Roundup X

These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

    Lost in Space featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

    Skyline featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

    2020 #78
    Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Jumanji: The Next Level

    The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

    Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

    For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

    Snow wonder it's better

    That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

    I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

    There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

    4 out of 5

    Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The Three Caballeros (1944)

    2020 #61
    Norman Ferguson | 72 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U / G

    The Three Caballeros

    At one point Disney had a reputation for churning out rubbish direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics, a practice they put a stop to because, well, they were getting a reputation for churning out rubbish direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics. But there have also been a small selection of films in the Disney Canon that were granted sequels also within the canon. I have no insight into why this was the case, but I’d love to know the thinking because some of them are random. Like, okay, Frozen was a mega-hit, so makes sense you’d make the sequel ‘official’. Winnie the Pooh? Sure, Pooh is awesome (and also a reliable moneyspinner). Fantasia? Well, it was a passion project, and I guess its inherently artistic nature seems a reasonable way to mark the millennium. Wreck-It Ralph? Um… The Rescuers? Er… Saludos Amigos? Wait, really?

    Yep, The Three Caballeros is, technically, the first sequel in the Disney Canon, and that’s only really surprising when considered without context. It’s from the period when Disney were bundling together shorter films to make package features, of which there are half-a-dozen spanning the gap between Bambi (Canon #5) and Cinderella (Canon #12). The first of those was Saludos Amigos, which was basically a propaganda film to showcase South America with the aim of improving relations between the continents. Donald Duck starred in two of that film’s segments, and it introduced José Carioca, a Brazilian parrot character. The Three Caballeros is a sequel in that it also presents a series of shorts about lands south of the US, strung together via a linking device of Donald Duck opening birthday presents from his Latin American friends. José eventually pops up, and the titular trio is rounded out with the introduction of Panchito Pistoles, a Mexican rooster.

    The three sex pests

    For all the similarities, I thought The Three Caballeros was considerably more enjoyable than its predecessor. Its depiction of South America is perhaps a little more twee, leaning on culture and tradition rather than the modern cityscapes that were so important to the impact of the first film, but that doesn’t grate too much because it’s not striving so hard to be educational. Because of that, it’s also able to be more straightforwardly entertaining. That said, it very much has the feel of a “kids’ cartoon”, rather than the artistry that’s to be found in Disney’s best efforts. Although Donald Duck comes across as a bit of a sex pest at times, which I guess is just changing attitudes. Conversely, the sequences that blend live-action and animation hold up incredibly well, although that might be because Disney’s use of DNR is so heavy-handed that the live-action practically looks the same as the animation. And the finale, where it suddenly explodes into a psychedelic nightmare, feels like someone didn’t know how to end the film and so had a mental breakdown all over the screen.

    While I’d chalk up The Three Caballeros as a superior movie to its immediate predecessor, it undoubtedly remains a minor entry in the Disney canon. That said, apparently they updated it into a spinoff series a year or two ago (which I only know about because I happened to spot it on Disney+ the other day), so it obviously endures somewhat.

    3 out of 5

    The Old Guard (2020)

    2020 #162
    Gina Prince-Bythewood | 125 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Old Guard

    Netflix’s latest attempt to launch a blockbuster film franchise is a comic book adaptation about a group of immortal warriors, led by Charlize Theron, who’ve been secretly fighting to help the rest of humanity down the centuries. Despite their efforts to remain hidden, someone shady has picked up their trail. At the same time, a new immortal (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne) has appeared for the first time in 200 years.

    If you’re looking to start an action/fantasy franchise nowadays, what better bet than superheroes? The Old Guard is sort of a superhero movie, but also not really. Their only superpower, which they all share, is a Wolverine-esque healing ability. They can die, they just get better (most of the time). So whether you class this as a “superhero movie” probably depends on your personal definition. I think some critics have just seen “based on a comic book” and gone “superheroes!”, and it’s a shame we haven’t got past that attitude by now. Equally, yeah, the characters do have a superpower, so fair enough. But the film itself plays more like an action-thriller, with the team relying mostly on guns and military tactics in combat rather than special abilities.

    Bearing that in mind, the concept has fundamental similarities to another recent big-budget Netflix actioner, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (which I’ve seen but not reviewed yet, fyi). Whereas that was about a band of off-the-grid mercenaries working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys, The Old Guard is about a band of people who can’t die working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys. Obviously the set dressing is different — The Old Guard has a lot more mythology to explain, and the heroes occasionally whip out swords and axes and stuff; and it lacks (for good or ill) the unique storytelling style of Bayhem — but, honestly, at heart it’s the same deal.

    5 overground

    They’re also equally badly written. It’s what we expect from Michael Bay at this point — a plot that might hang together if he ever stopped to let it be explained, but instead he’s more concerned with amping every single scene up to 11 with hyperactive editing and gonzo action sequences. The Old Guard, on the other hand, does stop to explain stuff. All. The. Time. Half the dialogue is characters speaking in infodumps to fill us in on this world. Or not fill us in, because there are gaps. It’s hard to tell if those are deliberate mysteries meant for a sequel (there’s a definite sequel tease at the end, naturally) or if the filmmakers just got bored of world-building and decided the characters don’t know how it works either.

    On the bright side, it has some nice grace notes, like a betrayal I actually didn’t see coming, or Chiwetel Ejiofor injecting genuine emotion into his character’s motivations. Two of the immortals are a gay couple, played by Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, the latter of whom was Jafar in Disney’s live-action Aladdin (another one I’ve seen but not yet reviewed). He’s much better here, to the extent you wonder how he was such a limp Jafar. Anyway, the pair get a nice scene when they’re captured by a van full of enemy soldiers: a “what is he, your boyfriend?” taunt receives an epically romantic answer that’s an even better putdown than just “yes”. They also get a couple of beats of welcome humour later on. Not laugh-out-loud stuff, but this is quite a dour film otherwise. Most of the action is well staged if unremarkable, although the finale is a rather good assault on the villain’s HQ, ending with a couple of cool deaths.

    Immortal badass

    Despite the poor dialogue and certain familiarities of concept, The Old Guard is more blandly acceptable than 6 Underground. And yet it never swings as big as Bay’s films — for all his many faults, his “go big or go home” style has its merits as blockbuster entertainment. Nothing here is going to stick in the memory as much as 6 Underground’s opening car chase, or midway apartment assault, or madly overblown yacht climax. All told, I’d rather have 7 Underground than 2 Old 2 Guard, please Netflix. Both would be fine.

    3 out of 5

    The Old Guard is available on Netflix now.

    It Chapter Two (2019)

    2020 #71
    Andy Muschietti | 169 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    It Chapter Two

    As you may remember from the first half of It, ancient evil Pennywise the clown had been popping up to terrorise the town of Derry every 27 years, until he was defeated by a gang of kids known as the Losers Club in 1989. Fast-forward to 2016, and the bugger’s back. Maybe “defeated” wasn’t the right word. Despite their vow at the end of the first movie — to return to fight if It came back — the grownup Losers have all moved away and forgotten the events of their childhood. All except one, that is, who stayed in Derry and consequently can’t forget. Now it’s up to him to call on the gang to honour their vows, and hope that together they can defeat Pennywise once and for all.

    It’s kind of ironic that the plot of Chapter Two sounds like something cooked up by a movie producer who had a surprise hit and was desperate for a sequel. “Ironic” because that’s how many sequel ideas have been cooked up down the years, but in this case both ‘chapters’ are adapted from Stephen King’s original novel, which interweaves the two time periods of the Losers as kids and adults. And it’s not as if they decided to only adapt the kid part and then went “ah, may as well do the adults too”, because the first film ends with a double-barrelled tease for the sequel: Bev has a vision of them as adults fighting Pennywise so they make the aforementioned vow, and the closing title card reveals the film’s full title to be It Chapter One.

    Now, I’ve never read It, but it seems to be a fairly widely-held view that the novel’s adult portions are less interesting than the childhood ones. That’s probably why many people seemed to take the first film at face value as an adaptation that had chosen to only tackle half the novel — if they’re the best bits, maybe you don’t need the adult storyline at all. And Chapter Two has probably proven that’s still the case. It doesn’t feel like a missing half; a necessary section of the story mandated by the first being incomplete. What it actually feels like is what I described in the last paragraph: someone realising “our standalone film has been a surprise hit, let’s come up with a story for a sequel”. I don’t know if that’s more a criticism of King’s novel or the way the filmmakers have gone about adapting it. Either way, if you look at both films’ critical and audience reception (both online scores and box office numbers), the drop between chapters One and Two suggests I’m not the only one to have felt this way.

    Pennywise wasn't impressed by the film's box office takings

    Despite the sense of unnecessariness, I by no means hated Chapter Two. You’ll see this review ends with a three-star rating, but that’s primarily to make clear that it’s a lesser film than Chapter One, which I gave four stars. That said, most of my notes are about the things it got wrong. Like, there are too many lead characters — in fairness, a problem that also blighted parts of the first movie. There are six surviving members of the Losers Club, and when they each have to go off on individual quests, that results in six separate storylines that have to be got through. That’s a lot of screen time — no wonder the film is almost three hours long. I wasn’t actually that bothered by the length — I didn’t think it was slow, just overfull.

    There’s been talk of “director’s cut” versions of both films, but some of the stuff left in the theatrical cut already feels like it’s from an extended version. You know, scenes that aren’t strictly necessary but are good or interesting in their own right; the kind of thing you drop from the mass-audience cut but reinsert because they’ll play well in a longer version aimed at fans. That includes some of the flashbacks to the kids, which seem like they’ve been shoehorned in after the younger cast proved popular. (The fact the sequel was filmed a couple of years late also necessitates a spot of CGI de-ageing, which edges perilously close to the uncanny valley.) Maybe releasing a shorter, more focused cut into cinemas and saving that stuff for a later longer release would’ve benefited the online scores and box office receipts.

    Not cutting the flab also means it can be a mite repetitive. There are oh so many jump scares and gross things. It gets a bit tiring. But it’s also considerably less scary than the first film. There are some chilling bits (the odd old lady in Bev’s former flat, as seen in the trailer, is a key one), but they feel few and spread out — another side effect of the bloated running time. I’d also argue the film’s true focus is elsewhere: rather than being scary, it’s more interested in a mix of flashbacks to the popular cast of the first film and attempting to dig into the psychology of their adult counterparts.

    Grown Losers

    I don’t think it’s actually seeking to be a horror movie; or, at least, not a straight-up one. It does want to be scary (some of the potential cuts I mentioned include scary sequences that I guess they left in so it would still primarily be a horror movie), but narratively and tonally it’s less concerned with that than it is with being some kind of middlebrow drama about repressed childhood memories and, simultaneously, a good-vs-ancient-evil fantasy epic (the whole saga is over five hours long, remember). But it doesn’t always land the dramatic beats, either. Take the finale (spoilers follow). Victory comes via the bullied bullying their bullier into submission, as the Losers taunt Pennywise to death. It does feel apt, but it’s also not exactly healthy. Maybe they should’ve killed It with compassion…

    Ultimately, I think I liked the film it wanted to be (using the horror genre as an analogy/examination of growing up and moving on, or not, and how the past differs from our memories even as it defines us) more than the film it actually is (kind of that, but not in enough depth, and with a bunch of unnecessary business thrown in).

    3 out of 5

    It Chapter Two is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The Head Hunter (2018)

    2020 #101
    Jordan Downey | 72 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

    The Head Hunter

    Originally released in 2018 but not making its UK debut (as a direct-to-DVD release) until earlier this year, The Head Hunter is a low-budget independent fantasy/horror movie. Such a description might conjure up images of fancy-dress-like costumes, plastic props, locations that venture no further than a mate’s back garden and a nearby bit of forest, cinematography with all the hallmarks of digital video, and some embarrassingly basic and boxy CGI. None of this is true of The Head Hunter, which marries some impressive production design to an understanding of its limits — its low budget shows only in its small scale, rather than uncomfortably forcing its reach to exceed its grasp.

    The setting: a medieval fantasy world. It could pass for our medieval times (in Germany it was retitled Viking Vengeance), were it not for the presence of nasty monsters. The title refers to the film’s unnamed protagonist (Christopher Rygh), who lives alone in the a remote shack in the woods, where he prepares weapons and potions. Occasionally he hears a distant horn, which beckons him to ride out in full armour. When he returns, he carries a new monster’s head for his wall of trophies, and some serious injuries too. Fortunately, his potions seem to have magic-level healing properties. He once had a daughter, who now lies buried beneath a nearby tree. One day, the opportunity arises for him to hunt the monster who slew her. “This time it’s personal,” and all that. Only things don’t quite go to plan…

    I have, perhaps, described altogether too much of the plot there, because there’s not much more to the film than that, narratively speaking. Not only does the film run under an hour-and-a-quarter, including credits, but it’s more about moody atmospheric shots than plot; more about the preparation for battle than the fight itself. The Head Hunter may ride out to meet various monsters during the course of the film, but we don’t get to go ride along to see him at work.

    That's a nice head. I'll have that.

    This is where the small budget shows. It was made for just $30,000, which would buy you under two seconds of a Hobbit film (literally — I did the maths), with a cast and crew of no more than five on set at any one time. All the more impressive that it looks as good as it does, then, from the Head Hunter’s detailed and threatening suit of armour to the remote locations that pass through a couple of seasons. It’s a film that relies on atmosphere more than thrills, and it has that in spades, with cold, misty daytime scenes and fire-lit nighttime sequences, where who-knows-what lurks in the shadows.

    As impressive as it is, all things considered, it nonetheless feels a bit drawn out at feature length (even at under 70 minutes before credits). It would probably have made an incredible 30-minute short, though then it would likely have had an even harder time finding an audience than it already has. But that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. If an action-lite atmosphere-heavy fantasy/horror movie sounds appealing, this may just scratch an itch. And it should serve as a great showreel calling card for co-writer/director Jordan Downey, who hopefully will convert it into bigger — or, at least, more story-filled — things.

    3 out of 5

    The Head Hunter is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    Yesterday (2019)

    2020 #21
    Danny Boyle | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, China & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Yesterday

    Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring — and failing — musician. He’s unlucky in love too, although that’s also his own fault, because he’s missed the blatant fact his friend-cum-manager Ellie (Lily James) has fancied him for the past couple of decades. One day there’s a weird blackout thing across the world, and (long story short) Jack is apparently the only person who remember the Beatles exist. Shocked that the world has been deprived of this amazing, culture-defining music, Jack begins to perform and record it… with zero success. Clearly, there’s more to it than just the music and lyrics. And he’s still none the wiser to Ellie’s obvious affections. Maybe Jack is just one of life’s losers?

    Ooh, that all sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, this is a Richard Curtis movie — things pick up. Because of course someone notices the music Jack’s now playing is amazing, and of course that leads him to global success. Curtis is a massive Beatles fan — I believe that’s how the concept for the movie came about in the first place — so there’s no way he’s going to let what he believes is the wondrousness of their music go unnoticed. We know that as well, I think, so the bit where Jack still fails, despite now having good material, is a nice little plot red herring.

    It’s welcome, too, because the plot doesn’t have a whole lot else surprising going for it. (Well, there’s a subplot about the song Wonderwall that is such a plot structure red herring as to seem like a plot structure mistake, but I’m not sure it counts as a surprise when it’s only likely to be noticed by film buffs who incorrectly predict where it’s going.) It’s one of those films where the one-line premise is more interesting than what the film actually does with it. “What if only one man remembered the Beatles?” sounds like a neat idea for a story, but where is there to go with it? For the sake of there being any story at all, he has to be able to perform these songs that only he can remember. Then he either has to be a success or not, as discussed. It all feels inevitable, the only real question being what’s the ‘out’ — how does this end? Well, I shan’t spoil it.

    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

    To add more bulk, there’s a romance storyline. Of course there is, it’s a Richard Curtis movie. But a romcom is hardly more original, is it? No, this is a very comfortable movie — you’re rarely going to be surprised about where it chooses to go. That said, I liked this side of the film more. In fact, I feel like the film would actually have been better without the whole Beatles thing — just a movie about a struggling wannabe musician realising he doesn’t really love music, he loves Lily James. As it is, at one point he has to choose between his lifelong dream of pop music mega-stardom or being with Lily James, and he choose the dream, which is wholly implausible because Lily James.

    But for all its predictability, there are some really nice bits along the way. (Proper spoilers follow.) It turns out there are two other people who remember the Beatles, and they begin to stalk Jack as he has success… but it turns out they’re just glad this music is back in the world. Neat twist. The surprise-cameo John Lennon scene is another unexpected moment heavy with emotion. The closing montage not being to any ‘big’ Beatles song, but to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (well, life does go on). Ed Sheeran ruining one of the greatest songs ever written. That one’s not so much nice as “funny because it’s true”, but I’ll take it. (If you thought Ed Sheeran was bad in his Game of Thrones cameo, just wait ’til you see him try to act as, er, himself. The role is very convincingly written, mind.)

    Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it’s not only the Beatles that have disappeared in this alternate world. Oasis have gone too, which, as Jack observes, “makes sense” — though the film doesn’t go very far in this regard. It’s based on the notion that the Beatles’ music was The Best Ever, but what has removing them from history actually changed about pop culture? As far as we can see, all it means is that Oasis don’t exist. Is that really the sum total of the Beatles’ influence? Anyway, my point was that other stuff has disappeared too, including Coca Cola, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Live (although that’s just become Thursday Night Live for some reason), and smoking. So this isn’t just “a reality without the Beatles”, it’s a subtly different world entirely. That’s an interesting creative choice. It’s basically just used as a source of humour — an easy go-to gag — but it still provokes the question: why has this random selection of things disappeared? What else has gone that Jack doesn’t notice?

    Hey Dude

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because this is a comedy like Groundhog Day or Sliding Doors in that the sci-fi/fantasy aspect is a means to an end, not a thing to be queried in itself. But in those films the change only affected our hero: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is the only one in the time loop; in Sliding Doors, it’s only Gwyneth Paltrow’s life that’s significantly different (and none of the characters are even aware there are two versions of events). In Yesterday, Jack isn’t the only person this happened to, which emphasises the “what happened?” question. Why did it affect most people, but not these few? Why is so much of the world the same, but random things are missing? The film doesn’t care — it’s not about that — but, with the narrative choices the storytellers have made, it invites these kinds of wonderings.

    That is, unless you just switch off and let it be a pleasant bit of fluff about a guy becoming famous with borrowed music while finally realising that the girl who’s wasted her life waiting for him to realise she loves him, er, loves him (Jack doesn’t deserve Lily James). Yeah, it’s mostly predictable, but that’s part of the comfort factor. There’s some good music, some likeable performances, and a general amiability to its tone. Let it be, indeed.

    3 out of 5

    Yesterday is available on Sky Cinema from today. (Maybe I should’ve reviewed it tomorrow…)

    Toy Story 4 (2019)

    2019 #101
    Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Toy Story 4

    Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

    Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

    So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

    In search of a new story

    Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

    Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

    4 out of 5

    Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.