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 a 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 infecting 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.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta

2020 #12
Hayao Miyazaki | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli go hand-in-hand (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if quite a few people think they’re synonymous, i.e. that all Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki), but his first two features (The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) were produced before Ghibli’s formation. So it’s Laputa, his third film, that is actually Ghibli’s first — which makes it appropriate to look at today, as it’s also one of the first titles being made available under Netflix’s new deal with Ghibli.* (Though if you search Netflix for “Laputa”, you won’t find it.)

Acclaimed as one of the first major works in the steampunk subgenre, Laputa takes place in a Mitteleuropean alternate past — the architecture is inspired by Welsh mining villages; the uniforms and hardware by historical German military; there are steam-powered automobiles and flying machines; but there’s also magic-like stuff, so it’s not just tech-based. In this world we meet Sheeta (voiced in Disney’s English dub by Anna Paquin, retaining her New Zealand accent), a young girl wanted by both the military and sky pirates for a necklace she wears. When she falls from an aircraft, the necklace glows and lowers her gently to the ground — and into the life of Pazu (James “Dawson’s Creek” Van Der Beek), a young orphan who immediately resolves to help her. And so off they go on an adventure to find out just what’s so desirable about Sheeta’s necklace, and what it has to do with the legendary flying city of Laputa.

If you watched Miyazaki’s first three movies ignorant of the knowledge they came from the same writer-director, I’m sure you’d work it out for yourself. It’s an action-packed adventure laced with humour and morally grey characters, like Cagliostro, with a well-imagined fantasy world populated by flying machines and brave young heroines, like Nausicaä. But it’s no act of self-plagiarism — Miyazaki is too inventive for that. His world-building is first rate, sketching in the details of this alternate reality in between character building scenes and thrilling action sequences. If this were live-action, it would make an exemplary action/adventure blockbuster, so well paced and structured is it.

The castle in the sky

That’s why it immediately clicked with me as an instant favourite among both Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s oeuvre. It’s unquestionably an adventure movie, so it lacks the heartfelt depths of something like My Neighbour Totoro, but it’s at least the equal of Cagliostro in terms of how wildly exciting the set pieces are. And it’s not as if it’s totally empty headed, touching on longstanding universal themes like the corruption of power, and with a minor-key ecological message too (another Miyazaki staple).

I always feel like I should watch anime in Japanese, and I often do, but when the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill, well, that’s good enough for me. He’s the villain, channeling a certain amount of his Joker (but not too much) into a government secret agent in pursuit of Sheeta and in search of Laputa. He’s just one of a memorable cast of characters — I mean, did I mention there were sky pirates? They’re as awesome as they sound, bringing both broad humour and fuelling several action scenes (you’d expect nothing less of frickin’ sky pirates, right?) One of the most memorable characters transcends the language barrier: a giant speechless robot, questionably friend or foe, who leaves a mark almost as great as the Iron Giant’s but in considerably less screen time. (Considering how much Pixar are renowned fans of Miyazaki, and that Brad Bird made Iron Giant over a decade after Laputa’s debut, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least a little cross-pollination.)

Like any good blockbuster, Laputa has it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… It’s the complete package. Plus, that level of broad familiarity (it wouldn’t take too many steps to imagine this remade as a Hollywood blockbuster, although they’d inevitably mess it up somehow) probably makes it the perfect starting point for any newbies to anime or Ghibli.

5 out of 5

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Netflix from today.

* If the news passed you by: Netflix have acquired the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films (that is, their whole back catalogue of features except Grave of the Fireflies, which has separate rights issues, plus Nausicaä) for most of the world (the USA, Canada, and Japan are excluded). They’re being released in three batches of seven — the first lot today, the next on March 1st, and the final ones on April 1st. As well as Laputa, today’s selection includes My Neighbour Totoro, which I reviewed here, plus Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. ^

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

aka Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

2019 #147
J.J. Abrams | 142 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Remember those people who tried to crowdfund a shitty fanwank-filled remake of The Last Jedi? Turns out J.J. Abrams let them make Episode IX under his name instead…

Before I expand on that, the ever-important note on spoilers. This review is mostly spoiler free. I say “mostly” because if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever, you should look away now (after saving this to read later, natch). I’m going to give my opinion on some things (obviously I am, this is a review), and so while I won’t give away the film’s revelations and surprises, what I say might sometimes indicate that there’s something there to be spoiled… if that makes sense. If you’re less fussy (e.g. if you’ve watched the trailers; if you’re only trying to avoid explicit details of things the film plays as a reveal) — or, of course, if you’ve already seen it — please read on.

I won’t bother to recap the plot, because it launches into what some would consider full-on spoilers right from the start of the opening crawl. Put another way: there’s stuff in the trailers that some thought was a spoiler that shouldn’t’ve been there; but, really, the promos are almost necessary background info, because stuff that was played as a reveal in trailers is simply stated as information in the film itself. So, suffice to say this is the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, and their Resistance friends as they fight Kylo Ren and the First Order, and it wraps up the whole nine-film saga. Or it intends to, at any rate. I mean, the sequel trilogy starts with the premise of “what if those bad guys who were defeated… just came back?”, so who’s to say in a decade or two’s time they won’t pull the same trick again for Episode X?

Rey and friends

But, okay, let’s take them at their word for now: this is the end of The Skywalker Saga (as it’s now definitely officially known — presumably so as they can keep producing lots more Star Wars stuff without the awkwardness of the nine-film saga being “real Star Wars” and everything else being “A Star Wars Story” or whatever). For my money, the saga here ends with so many bangs it amounts to a whimper. Abrams, serving as director and co-writer (with Chris Terrio, who seems to still be getting big-name work off the back of his Oscar win for Argo, despite the fact his only produced work since has been Batman v Superman and Justice League) seems to have no understanding of pace or nuance. It starts at a screaming gallop and doesn’t let up, often feeling like little more than a two-hour montage of fan service.

Well, it must have a lot to do, right? Wrong — it moves at that lick so it can cram in far more plot than it needed to. Most of the business here is not a story worth telling, it’s just one MacGuffin chase after another. If Abrams and Terrio had streamlined the story — had cut out all the unnecessary faffing about; the needlessly over-involved running around after various plot-furthering objects — then there would’ve been more room in the running time for light and shade; for such important and welcome things as character beats; even for something as simple as giving the audience a chance to breathe. The only time they step aside from the relentless plotting is to forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers. Maybe that’s unfair, but to me it did feel like there were bits where characters all but said, “hang on a minute guys, I’ve just got to go over here and play out something that’ll look super in a teaser.”

This shot doesn't mean what everyone thought it meant

Also awkwardly forced in is Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. We all know the backstory there, and it’s completely understandable they wanted her to have a presence and part in the film, rather than leaving her out or killing her off-screen. Sadly, what they’ve come up with is largely uncomfortable. Rather than recast her part (impossible!) or do a fully CGI recreation (which didn’t go down so well in Rogue One), they’ve taken the more respectful option of trying to cobble something together from offcuts from the last two films. The result unfortunately feels cobbled together from offcuts. Other characters’ dialogue jumps through hoops to set up replies from Leia that are only one or two words long and could just about be said to have some passing relevance to what she’s replying to. That said, there are plenty of other dialogue exchanges in the film that feel similarly forced — perhaps Terrio and Abrams were trying to make the Leia scenes seem more natural by making every dialogue scene as awkward… or perhaps the writing is just crap throughout.

Leia isn’t the only familiar face that’s revived here. This is both the third and final film in the Sequel Trilogy and the ninth and final film in the Trilogy of Trilogies, so of course there’s plenty of stuff from the past. The problem is how these elements are introduced and handled. Familiar faces and rivalries and lines and whatnot are dragged out for a last hurrah, but the film doesn’t really do anything with them beyond trotting them out to say “remember this?” And so they’re not hurrahs, it’s merely empty repetition. I suppose that will satisfy some — the kind of people who didn’t enjoy Last Jedi because they didn’t like how it chose to move things onwards. But if you were unhappy with, say, how little backstory Snoke received in Episode VIII — if you thought writer-director Rian Johnson basically dismissed the character as an irrelevance — then can you honestly claim to be happy with the manner in which Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine here? Again, some will, because they hated Last Jedi so irrationally that they’re going to find excuses for why Abrams’ “greatest hits” approach is better. But it isn’t. It’s hollow.

Hollow

Abrams does seem to have taken certain parts of the Last Jedi criticism to heart. I agree with the view that it is in fact a vocal minority of hardcore fans who utterly despise that film (it did well at the box office and has good scores on websites that haven’t been subjected to a negativity campaign, after all), but that group are indeed very, very vocal in certain circles and maybe that’s persuaded someone in the Star Wars camp that they should be listened to. Or maybe Abrams’ own storytelling instincts align with what they were after. So while The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t ignore The Last Jedi in a literal sense (there are nods and references to stuff from it), really Abrams has made a sequel to The Force Awakens here. That’s not always a bad thing (it picks back up on Finn’s past as a Stormtrooper, for example; though, as I say, there’s no time spared to properly dig into character stuff like that), but at others he undoes some of the good ideas Rian Johnson brought. Of course, for those who viscerally hated Last Jedi that will be seen as a good thing. But, like the use of Snoke vs Palpatine, can you seriously say this film’s reveal about Rey’s parentage is better than what Johnson offered? I know some will just because it’s different to the thing they disliked, but… c’mon, is this really better? Is it more surprising or imaginative? I don’t think so.

When it occurred, after I was done groaning, I hoped there was going to be a further twist to come, but no, Abrams doesn’t have that much imagination. I felt the same about various other bits of business too: the film states or shows a thing, and if you’re like me you’ll think “surely that’s a bit obvious and there’s going to be a twist to it”, but no twist ever comes. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise: Abrams doesn’t do proper mysteries or twists, he does “mystery boxes” — i.e. we’re told there’s a mystery, but rather than clues for either the characters or audience to piece together for a reveal, all there is to be done is wait for someone to open the metaphorical box and reveal it to us. He tried to set such a game in motion in The Force Awakens. Johnson threw some of those away in The Last Jedi, which I felt he was right to do — simply disregarding those wannabe-mysteries was more surprising and interesting than any ‘reveal’ could’ve been. Here Abrams plays that game again by revisiting some of the stuff Johnson dealt with to give different answers, but I feel like his modified reveals prove my point: they’re not surprising, and they’re certainly not interesting. (This caveat should be obvious, but as it isn’t always: this is all just my opinion. Some will feel these new answers fix mistakes that Johnson made. I don’t. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.)

Goodbye

For all of that, The Rise of Skywalker is not entirely a disaster — there were bits I felt worked. Sure, I thought several of the obvious ‘big moments’ were too corny, and some of the one-shot cameos too cheap, and Keri Russell is wasted, and Naomi Ackie’s character is good but there’s no time to develop her… sorry, this was meant to be positives. So, C-3PO kinda gets an emotional arc that’s quite effective. Tied to that is a new character, Babu Frik, who’s a lot of fun. New droid D-O is a brazen attempt to create toys, as are the red-hued Sith Stormtroopers… Oops, slipped into the negatives again. Adam Driver gives a pretty good performance, but he also gets a bit sidelined. Okay, almost everyone gets a bit sidelined — as I’ve said, there’s too much going on and not enough time to cover it. And yet the film still feels too long — I spent an awful lot of the climax wondering how much more of this could be left.

Following all that criticism, my middling score may look generous. But The Rise of Skywalker is not an entirely incompetent movie, just a deeply flawed and disappointing one. And, frankly, there’s part of me that simply doesn’t want to have to give it 2 stars. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fanboy, but this saga has been with me throughout my film-viewing life — I don’t want to dislike its finale so much that I give it an outright bad score. Well, I guess I wouldn’t’ve given 2 stars to The Phantom Menace in 1999 either, but I did in 2007. Someday I’ll rewatch Episode IX, and maybe that’ll smooth out the cracks and cement this 3-star rating (I struggle to imagine it’ll go up); or maybe it’ll make the problems even more apparent and I’ll have to accept it’s really a 2 after all.

3 out of 5

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas virtually everywhere now.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Judy & Punch (2019)

2019 #143
Mirrah Foulkes | 106 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15

Judy & Punch

Australian actress turned writer/director Mirrah Foulkes makes her feature debut with this live-action version of the famous Punch and Judy puppet show. I don’t know how famous the show is outside the UK (I guess it reached Australia, at least), but here it’s a staple of seaside children’s entertainment — although given its propensity for violence and misogyny, it’s suitability has been the subject of a small degree of controversy over the last couple of decades, and its prevalence is on the wane.

There’s no set version of Punch and Judy — each puppeteer has their own spin on the events of the tale and which characters show up — but there are certain elements that are, I suppose, considered standards and widely associated with the show. Here, Foulkes takes all of those familiar tropes and remixes them into a freshly imagined origin story. The real Punch and Judy comes out of the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, a fact which has very loosely inspired Foulkes’s take.

The setting is somewhere in Europe (never specified, and there’s a wide-ranging mix of accents to be heard), sometime in the past (it seems quite medieval, but there are buildings and notions that date from later), in a town called Seaside… which is nowhere near the sea. Judy & Punch comes with a hefty dose of absurdity and whimsy that calls to mind the work of Terry Gilliam as a reference point, and with dialogue and music choices that range from cod-medieval to very modern-sounding (especially in some of the references thrown up, which I won’t spoil), it’s clear Foulkes is taking a playful attitude to the material. Well, fair enough — “a live-action version of Punch and Judy” does sound a bit ridiculous, and so the film takes an appropriately irreverent tack. It won’t work for some people, for various reasons, but I was easily on board with the concept.

Punch and Judy

So, in this town we meet the self-proclaimed great puppeteer Mr Punch (Damon Herriman, most noticed for his small role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who is of course at least equally responsible for the brilliance of their show. Now, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the original that Punch beats his wife. One day he takes it too far and he leaves her for dead. But this being a modern telling with feminist inclinations, that’s not the end of her role. No spoilers, but some viewers will consider where this ends up to be too preachy — literally, considering there’s a grand speech given at the climax. It’s a shame Foulkes pushes it to such a blunt point; not because I disagree with what she and her characters have to say, but because it ends up a little heavy-handed. The rest of the film makes its point well enough and is entertaining with it, so do we really need it to end with a polemic? Personally, I can let that slide because I was enjoyed the rest enough that it barely mattered by that point, but I know some other viewers found it a bit much.

And really, that could be said about the entire film. Like much of Gilliam’s work, it’s an acquired taste, with a distinct oddness and tonal mix that some will find distasteful. In my screening, one particular key moment drew what seemed to be a 50/50 mix of genuinely shocked gasps and stifled guffaws. I think that’s the kind of reaction its meant to provoke — a mix of shock and laughter — although I imagine anyone who genuinely found it gasp-inducing might not take to the fact that, actually, it is played for the laugh. But then there’s some quite genuine emotional fallout. Anyone who struggles with a variable tone, or with visual signifiers that don’t match said tone (the production design is muted and realist, not bright and whimsical), might not get along with the way the film dances merrily back and forth.

Horse and Judy

For me, it nailed what I was expecting in that regard. This is a film that kinda wants to tell the Punch and Judy story seriously, but knows it’s kinda silly to take Punch and Judy seriously, and so it manages a balance between a grounded grit and a comical daftness. There’s a lot of inventiveness in how it incorporates the familiar elements of the original, but, unfortunately, not quite enough to sustain it all the way — if it were a bit shorter (or pacier in the middle), or had just a few more bright ideas to see it through to the finale, I would’ve loved it. As it is, it’s a bold effort that I liked a lot. That is, indeed, the way to do it.

4 out of 5

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from today.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

2019 #132
Bill Condon | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I may’ve been pretty quiet for most of October, but it’s Halloween today and that means it’s time to uphold a tradition I’ve had since 2015 — but for the final time! Well, all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, so too must Twilight.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

As usual with films this deep into an ongoing story, I won’t bother making much of an effort to set it up for newcomers. Film series like this are more like miniseries, just with feature-length episodes that are released theatrically and years apart. You wouldn’t just watch Episode 5 of a five-part TV series, would you? That goes double here, as the title indicates: it’s also the second half of the final book.

Ah, the title… As regular readers may’ve picked up by now, I’m a stickler for title accuracy (heck, it’s literally my job at the minute). The ‘correct’ title is what’s on the film’s title card… which you’d think is pretty straightforward, but every now and then something challenges that methodology. The Twilight films have consistently been a problem with that. Always promoted as “The Twilight Saga: [Film Title]”, the main title card in the films themselves use just the individual title bit. But Breaking Dawn has decided to be even more irritating, because Part 1 was called Part 1, but Part 2 is called Part Two. No, seriously. Look, I know this kind of thing matters not a joy to most viewers, but I feel like it’s indicative of the amount of effort and attention that was actually spent on these movies. (Despite all that, I’ve gone with Part 2 for the title of this review to match my Part 1 review, because I appreciate consistency, at least.)

Numerical formatting inconsistencies aside, the opening titles are really nice. I mean, they’re not so amazing that you should go seeking them out especially, but they look good. And for once, it’s not all downhill from there!

Bella the vamp

But only because the climax is probably the highlight of the whole saga — unless you’re primarily here for the romance stuff, which was mostly tied up in previous movies. It does make you wonder somewhat who this final part is for, actually. The central couple got married in the last film — that’s the end goal of all conservatively-minded relationship stories. You get married, then you live happily ever after, so naturally there’s no story beyond that point. (Heavy eye roll.) But Twilight isn’t quite an ordinary conservative romance, what with one of the pair being a vampire, so there’s some mythology stuff left to tackle. Well, no spoilers (yet), but Breaking Dawn isn’t ultimately very conclusive in that regard. Maybe author Stephenie Meyer was deliberately leaving room for a further book.

As a commercially-minded theory, that seems a reasonable presumption. But the narrative of Breaking Dawn suggests Meyer was more than ready to move on. Out of almost nowhere, everyone starts developing superpowers (element manipulation, forcefield projection, the ability to deliver electric shocks, etc), which they must then learn how to use. Sound familiar? I can only assume Meyer got bored of writing shitty novels about vampires and werewolves so decided to make this one a shitty version of the X-Men instead.

Further evidence of restlessness comes from the amount of plot we’re treated to. In almost all my Twilight reviews I’ve specifically noted how slow the films are, or that nothing happens; but this time so much happens they have to condense events with montage and voiceover. New characters are introduced at a rate of knots, simply to fill out an ‘army’ for the final battle. Any writer worth their salt would’ve known this was coming and spent time introducing these people earlier — it’s not as if there hasn’t been room for it in the sparsely-plotted earlier instalments. Simply, this saga is exceptionally poorly paced.

Almost all of these characters are introduced in this film

It’s certainly not the film’s only technical flaw. Apparently it cost $136 million, so why does it look like it was made for £3.50? Inadequate CGI has always been a feature of these films, so what possessed them to think they could pull off a CGI baby/toddler?! The result is fucking creepy; the very definition of the uncanny valley. Sometimes I think the people who made these movies shouldn’t be allowed to work again. The dialogue, the editing, the obvious green screen, the cheapo effects… it’s not just that it’s a crummy story with dubious morals, it’s that the films are so shittily made.

But, as I said earlier, there’s almost some redemption. First, Michael Sheen rocks up as the head of the Volturi, who are the top vampire coven or something (I don’t really remember, it was explained three films ago). I think he’s thoroughly aware it’s all rubbish (I believe I read he only did it because his daughter was a fan), so he gives a delicious performance. It’s not over the top — he’s not just phoning it in for the payday — but it also seems aware that it’s all daft, so why not have some fun? He’s the Big Bad, so his presence enlivens the climax, which also benefits from a good old “two armies face off across the battlefield with rousing music” approach.

And then they fight… and, wow, they should’ve called this The Twilight Saga: Breaking Off People’s Heads. It’s possibly the best of the series simply because of how fucking brutal it is. If you watched the previous films thinking, “I wish most of these characters would just die horrible deaths”, this is the sequel for you. And it’s still rated PG-13! They pull a woman’s head and arms off, and toss the head into a fire, and then they toss a toddler into the fire too… and it’s still rated PG-13! But half a glimpse of a woman’s nipple and you get an R. You’re fucked up, America.

Michael Sheen shines

Post-fight, the film has one final good bit. I’m just going to spoil it, because if you’ve got this far I figure you don’t care. It’s revealed that the entire battle — which, note, killed off a slew of major supporting characters — was all a premonition. “It was all a dream” is frowned upon as a rule, but here it’s actually quite a neat twist. I didn’t see it coming, anyway. I guess I didn’t think anyone involved with Twilight was capable of such structural ingenuity. How I wish it was in a better film, more deserving of its effectiveness.

Oh, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. It means the fight never happens, which means the bad guy isn’t actually defeated, he just decides not to bother (because he’d lose). But is he happy about it? Duh, no. So he… just goes home… still in a position of power, still not happy with our heroes… Is that a victory? Or has the villain gone away to cook up a new plan? As I said, it feels open for a further story. A pair of characters who wanted the good guys to win for their own nefarious reasons basically tell the heroes, “you’re all fools, the Volturi might’ve left but they’ll never forgive what happened”… and all the good guys just laugh, because they’ve won, because they’re the good guys. But they haven’t won, have they? They didn’t defeat him. They didn’t convince him. It won’t take much for him to come up with a new, better plan. Fuck it, I was glad this was over, but now I want to see The Twilight Saga Episode 6: The Volturi Slaughter All Those Cocky Bastards.

Happily ever after

But there isn’t a sixth instalment. This is it. I have completed The Twilight Saga, just over a decade since it first came to the big screen. Back then it was a relatively significant part of pop culture, with a rabid fanbase clamouring for the movies to be recognised, and turning them into major, much-discussed hits. But they were always critically reviled, both in print and on screen, and now it feels like their relevance is waning, presumably as old fans grow up and new ones fail to materialise. Or maybe they still do good numbers in book sales / TV airings / Netflix streams, but we just don’t talk about them widely because they’re not new anymore. Who knows. The only reason I care is because I’m wondering if I’ve spent ten hours of my life watching something I knew would be poor, spurred merely by its cultural significance, only to find that significance has quickly evaporated.

Oh well. At least I’ll always have Face Punch.

2 out of 5