The Tree of Life (2011)

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

The Tree of Life

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

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

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

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

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

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

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

Motherly love

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

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

Creation

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

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

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

Affection or headlock?

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

4 out of 5

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

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Conquest Program No.9

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

Conquest Program No.9 advertisement

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

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

Friends, Romans and Leo

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

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

Little Red Riding Hood

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

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

Microscopic Pond Life

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

3 out of 5

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

Christopher Robin (2018)

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

Christopher Robin

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

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

Pooh in the park

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

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

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

Tigger on the loose

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

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

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

Review Roundup: 15-Rated Comedies

You don’t have to be an adult to like today’s reviewed movies, but… you do have to be a teenager. Still being a teenager would probably help you enjoy them, too.

In today’s roundup:

  • Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
  • Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
  • Sausage Party (2016)


    Airplane II: The Sequel
    (1982)

    2018 #17
    Ken Finkleman | 81 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    Airplane II: The Sequel

    Comedy sequels are a funny business. Generally the first film’s been a big enough hit that people want to cash in, but can lightning strike twice? Well, the number of comedy trilogies (or more) suggests the answer is “yes”… or at least that enough people liked the first one enough that they went to see the second one and, regardless of what they actually thought of it, that persuaded people there should be a third.

    Airplane is widely regarded as one of the best comedies of all time. There is no Airplane III. Those two facts might suggest something about Airplane II — though it’s a film which even included a gag in its title, so it’s off to a good start.

    Watched now, over 35 years after its release, Airplane II has a certain vein of humour that hasn’t aged well. Ha ha, those two men kissed like they were a couple! Ha ha, that priest was looking at Altar Boy magazine like it was Playboy! Ha ha, everyone has to slap an hysterical woman! At least one of those gags would probably get you fired from a directing job at Disney nowadays… But to focus on those is to pick on the film’s weak points. Another would be that it has a few too many rehashes of jokes from the first one. Well, what comedy sequel doesn’t? That aside, much of the rest is pretty darn funny.

    3 out of 5

    * This was rated PG on its original theatrical release, but that was cut. The uncut version has consistently been rated 15 on video. ^

    Hot Tub Time Machine
    (2010)

    2018 #51
    Steve Pink | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*

    Hot Tub Time Machine

    I don’t know why I felt the need to watch Hot Tub Time Machine. Maybe just because it found its way onto my 50 Unseen list back in 2010 (I guess people talked about it at the time. Has it lasted? I don’t think so). Maybe because it’s got “time machine” in the title and so the sci-fi implication draws me in, especially as a Doctor Who fan. I don’t know. Whatever, it’s been vaguely on my radar for the past eight years and, when I wanted something undemanding one Friday night, its time finally came.

    As the title implies, it’s about a hot tub… that’s a time machine. Four dudes get in it and find themselves in the bodies of their ’80s selves. Except for one who wasn’t born at the time, who just finds himself in the past. Yeah, the logic of it is really shaky.

    Nonetheless, it actually has a couple of solid thematic and plot ideas buried away, to do with fate and second chances and stuff, but those are mired in execution that’s both derivative (of both Back to the Future and stuff like The Hangover — and, I swear, I hadn’t seen the quote on the above poster when I wrote that) and often unfunny (unless you really like that lowest-common-denominator gross-out stuff). There are some genuine laughs, but they’re infrequent enough that they might just’ve been accidents. Another part of the problem is that for the eventual pay-offs to work you need to be invested in the characters. The film makes half an attempt to give us reasons to care about the guys, but they didn’t connect for me. Maybe if that worked better, the later stuff would land too.

    I didn’t hate Hot Tub Time Machine — it was passably amusing for a time-filler — but it wasn’t great either. My score errs on the harsh side, because I definitely liked it less than other movies I’ve recently given 3 stars.

    2 out of 5

    * I watched the extended “unrated” version, hence no MPAA certificate. It’s less than two minutes longer (comparison here), with no material that would challenge an R rating. ^

    Sausage Party
    (2016)

    2018 #37
    Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Sausage Party

    A movie about sentient food that parodies the inherent stupidity of religion — I mean, what’s not to like? Well, it’s from the minds of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and co (Jonah Hill as a story co-credit), so if you don’t like their kind of humour…

    Certainly, it’s incredibly rude and crude — even more so than they’d necessarily intended: they were so certain they’d get an NC-17 rating from the MPAA that the version they submitted included some extra extreme material, the hope being that would act as a distraction so that what they actually wanted in the film would pass as an R. However, the MPAA only insisted on one relatively minor change. I imagine that was to the massive, long, graphic orgy scene. There are no words for it. And yet, it only got a 15 over here — you really have to be very extreme to get an 18 these days, huh? Or maybe it’s just because it just involved food…

    For all the eye-watering content, at least the film has the good grace to also be quite witty and clever at times. I guess some of the ‘satire’ is a bit on the nose, but it works for what it is. I mean, no one comes to a film like this expecting subtle social commentary, do they? And if the analogies for religious belief are a bit on the nose, well, maybe that’s what it takes to get through to those people…

    4 out of 5

  • The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

    2018 #162
    Vincent Ward | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Australia & New Zealand / English | 12* / PG

    The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

    1348: the Black Death is sweeping across Europe. A remote mining village in Cumbria is yet to be afflicted, but they fear the disease is close at hand. When young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) reveals he’s been having visions of a quest to a great cathedral, they decide this is their best hope for salvation: a band of brave men will follow Griffin’s vision and make an offering to God so he will protect the village. The journey begins by travelling down a pit so deep it’s rumoured to lead to the other side of the world. As they emerge, they’ve unwittingly travelled not only across the world, but also forward in time some 640 years, to New Zealand, 1988.

    If that sounds like an adventure movie but also a bit, well, weird, then you’ve probably got a handle on The Navigator already. It’s a men-on-a-mission time travel adventure quest filtered through an arthouse sensibility — writer-director Vincent Ward trained at a school of fine art, intending to become a sculptor and painter, before getting sidetracked into moviemaking; and he’d previously helmed the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at Cannes, Vigil. (I didn’t realise until after viewing that he’d gone on to direct What Dreams May Come and also did a lot of development on Alien³ (the “wooden planet populated by monks” version), but once you know that, the aesthetic similarities seem obvious.) The Navigator has thus been likened to the work of Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, but also Terry Gilliam.

    So, on the one hand, it can play as a straightforward heroic quest, but the sometimes slow pace and occasional presence of symbolism suggest, on the other, a film with greater depths. Primarily, I think, this is the way the villagers’ fear of the plague is reflected by our modern-day fears — or, as the film’s press book rather nicely puts it, in the present day the adventurers are “surrounded by echoes of the fear which haunted medieval England”. So, for example, their journey is disrupted by the rise of a monolithic submarine, presumably a nuclear one; the issue of nuclear deterrence is also brought up on a TV broadcast; and that’s followed by a famous Australian AIDS commercial, perhaps the most obvious mirror of the plague there could be for an ’80s movie.

    Plagued by the, er, plague

    It’s also a somewhat spiritual film, though not in a heavy-handed, pro-religion kind of way. After all, the men are on a quest to seek protection from God, and the climax revolves around placing a spire atop a church. Naturally, the reliance of medieval folk on their belief in God is counterposed with the modern world’s disregard for such values — though, again, the comparison isn’t made in too forceful a manner. For example, when they first arrive in the present they look out over the city to find the cathedral, because a church is always the tallest building, but, to their confusion, they can’t see it because of all the skyscrapers. The point is subtly put: we worship different gods today.

    But aside from all these nods to philosophising, the film does work as an adventure movie, with certain sequences relying on the gang overcoming obstacles rather than musing on the state of the world. Standout set pieces include crossing a four-lane motorway (it was Ward trying to do exactly that in Germany that first gave him the idea for the film!), and the climax atop the church, which — between John Scott’s superb editing and Griffin’s premonition that one of them will die there — is as suspenseful a finale as you could ask for. Scott’s editing also shines in the sequences depicting Griffin’s visions, which become cleverly sprinkled in so that at times you’re wrong-footed about whether what you’re seeing is happening or another premonition. Although the film never chooses to play this for a big twist, it keeps things dynamic.

    The real star from the crew, however, is probably cinematographer Geoff Simpson. The entire movie is gorgeously shot in a couple of styles: the medieval stuff is presented in high-contrast black & white, which combines with the snowbound setting to create a stark, gritty beauty; then the present day stuff is in colour, mostly lit in rich oranges and blues so that it feels almost opulent, with the choice of colours drawing inspiration from medieval art. Ward’s reasoning for this delineation was to emphasise how striking the modern world would feel to someone coming from the grimness of the plague years, and it works. A word too for composer Davood A. Tabrizi, an Iranian émigré here charged with writing Celtic-esque music. Inspired was taken from genuine ethnic music that was especially researched in Britain, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia, and the score was performed entirely with traditional instruments. The resulting folksy sound is entirely fitting and very atmospheric.

    Steeple chase

    The film doesn’t devote much time to fleshing out the characters of its band of heroes, but they’re succinctly delineated nonetheless. Standouts include Bruce Lyons as Connor, Griffin’s admired older brother, an experienced adventurer, but that also leaves him prone to thinking he knows best; and Marshall Napier as Searle, a likeable but pragmatic and sceptical man, with a tragic backstory. Young Hamish McFarlane also acquires himself well as Griffin, a young lad whose unexplained gift leaves him with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but a determination to live up to what’s needed of him. (Incidentally, although he did act a couple more times, during filming of The Navigator McFarlane apparently became fascinated by the process of filmmaking, and he’s gone on to have a career behind the scenes — his most recent credits as first AD include episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, Supergirl, and forthcoming giant shark movie The Meg).

    All of the above mixes together to create a film that both has familiar elements, but also feels strangely unique. It’s at once a straightforward heroic quest, with sequences of adventure, tension, and humour, and also a thoughtful, spiritual, philosophical musing on communal fears, how we deal with them, and how they resurface. Or, you know, something. It’s a marvellously idiosyncratic film in that regard, and while I wouldn’t say I loved it, it’s an experience I’d definitely take again.

    4 out of 5

    The Navigator is released on Blu-ray this week by Arrow Video in both the UK and US.

    * It used to be rated PG in the UK too, until Arrow had it reclassified for the Blu-ray. The higher certificate is due to a man stuck on a speeding train, a boy climbing a church spire, and the “unsettling” psychic visions. Frankly, it strikes me as needlessly excessive — the PG was fine. ^

    The Great Wall (2016)

    2017 #158
    Zhang Yimou | 103 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA, China, Hong Kong, Australia & Canada / English, Mandarin & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

    The Great Wall

    This movie was on a hiding to nothing from the moment people got wind of the fact it was a China-set action movie starring white American Matt Damon. Increased representation is all well and good, but you still need a big-name star in order to get funding for your movie if it’s a $150 million production aimed at a global audience, and the stars who can sell movies that big around the world are almost exclusively white. It’ll be a positive thing when that changes, but it’s the way it is right now. Should we write off entire movies just because they have to think about budget more than political correctness?

    There are pros and cons within the film itself. Damon plays a mercenary who stumbles upon China’s national secret: that the Great Wall was built to keep out monstrous beasts, and when they attack it has to be defended. An outsider character works as a good way into this story, though of course there are “white saviour” issues with it being someone who looks like Matt Damon. If you want to object to the movie entirely for those reasons, that’s your prerogative. There were other criticisms of it as a piece of entertainment, but I hold even less stock in those, because I thought it was highly entertaining.

    The best bit is the first 25 minutes. This opening salvo is phenomenal: a huge, well-made battle sequence with tonnes of cool moments. It’s so epic, it feels like the climax. That leaves you wondering where the film possibly has left to go for the next hour-and-change — can it possibly have something up its sleeve to top that? Unsurprisingly, it heads away from huge battles and into skirmish territory. Fortunately, inventive ideas keep these sequences from feeling like lesser fodder than the epic opening act. In the end, it never does top the opener, but hey-ho.

    Colourful diversity

    As for the plot, well, it is what it is. There are some obvious holes and contrivances (most obviously: why do they hold back some weapons and tactics to only use in later battles?), but nothing I found too bothering for the type of entertainment the film seeks to provide. Character work is also about what you’d expect from an action-adventure blockbuster, though Damon and Pedro Pascal have a buddy relationship that’s a lot of fun. Despite the presence in key roles of Damon, Pascal, and Willem Dafoe, most of the cast are actually Asian, with the standout being Jing Tian as a strong female co-lead.

    As you might expect from the director of Hero, the film is a visual feast. There’s vibrant design work, emphasised by cinematography from DPs Stuart Dryburgh and Zhao Xiaoding that makes things like the colour-coded soldiers really pop. And the 3D is spectacular. Although it’s a post-conversion, the film definitely seems to have been shot with it in mind. The massive scale of the wall allows for both deep scenery shots and extreme height, especially when we follow the class of warriors who dive off the wall to fight while abseiling down it. Then there are the arrows, throwing axes, leaping monsters, exploding monsters… Of course the rest of the film has visual depth too — facial details in close-ups, the scale of a large banquet hall, and so on — but the action scenes are a riot.

    That’s why I enjoyed The Great Wall, despite its daft plot. The action is a lot of fun, and the whole thing looks spectacular in 3D. From an action-adventure blockbuster, that’ll do me nicely.

    4 out of 5

    Despicable Me 2 (2013)

    2018 #155
    Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud | 98 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    Despicable Me 2

    In this sequel to the popular animated comedy (which I wasn’t that fond of, personally), supervillain turned adoptive dad Gru (Steve Carell) is dragged back into his old world when the Anti-Villain League recruit him in order to track down the villain who stole a dangerous serum. Meanwhile, Gru’s daughters think he needs a girlfriend, and the AVL agent assigned as his partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), seems the perfect fit. Also, his yellow Minions are still around, getting up to all sorts of ker-azy antics.

    That’s the concise version, anyhow. This is a film that rambles around a lot in the telling, presumably out of fear that it might ever become boring to hyperactive youngsters. Unfortunately, it almost had the opposite effect on me. The main plot just felt like a shape on which to hang the romantic and Minion subplots, but those subplots just felt like a constant distraction from the main plot. The end result is a film that’s narratively unsatisfying on all fronts.

    So. Many. Minions.

    Instead, entertainment value comes from individual scenes or moments. Personal preference will dictate just how entertaining those are, however. I didn’t feel there was much consistency, with the humour able to spin on a dime from being pretty amusing to falling flat. It doesn’t help that it feels way too long, overloaded with subplots that don’t go anywhere meaningful and the Minions’ sketch-like shenanigans. And there’s a lot of the Minions, clearly the breakout stars of the first movie (and hence why the series’ next film was entirely centred around them). While they amuse me on occasions, I mostly find them annoying, and am slightly baffled that anyone over the age of about six can find them significantly amusing.

    But it looks pretty great in 3D, at least — turns out Gru’s long pointy nose was made for the format — and it’s quite funny and imaginative in places. Still, a good trim would’ve benefitted it enormously. Unless you do really enjoy the Minions, I guess.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of spin-off Minions is on ITV today at 6:15pm.

    Paddington 2 (2017)

    2018 #58
    Paul King | 103 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

    Paddington 2

    Famous for its untarnished 100% Rotten Tomatoes score after almost 200 reviews (the best critical record of any film ever), Paddington 2 consequently comes with an awful lot of hype attached — perhaps too much for a movie that is, at heart, just a kind-hearted bit of fun about a marmalade-loving bear. But then, in our current climate, such a film is less barely necessary (unlike many sequels) and more a bear necessity.

    Said bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to buy a unique, and consequently expensive, pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. When the book is stolen by failed actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), he manages to frame Paddington, who is consequently sent to prison. His adoptive family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, et al) set out to prove his innocence, while Paddington makes the most of his jail time by making friends and livening the place up.

    The film’s joy lies less in the facts of the storyline and more in the emotions it inspires. The whole thing has clearly been crafted with a lot of love, inventiveness, generosity, and a good-hearted outlook on life, which comes across from all the characters and their actions, making for a resolutely charming and feel-good film that’s beautifully made. Of course, the first one had a lot of those elements too, but they’ve managed that rare thing of striking gold twice. One thing the first movie didn’t have is Hugh Grant, who proves he’s more than just a stuttering romcom lead with a superbly witty turn as the film’s villain. HIs BAFTA nomination wasn’t as silly as it perhaps sounded.

    Friendly criminals

    But while there’s nothing bad about Paddington 2, and an awful lot to like, I feel like my expectations for its absolute perfectness were set too high. I feel like I should be giving it 5 stars just because of how lovely everyone else said it was — and it was lovely, but 5 stars lovely? I’m not sure. I did like it a lot — it’s funny, clever, sweet, and good-natured — but I wasn’t bowled over in the way I’d been led to believe I would be. Maybe I would’ve been if I’d seen it before all the hype? That element of almost-disappoint means I can’t give it full marks, but it’s still a film I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re after something thoroughly nice, or that’s both suitable for and entertaining to the entire family. I look forward to watching it again sometime and refining my opinion. Maybe in a double-bill with the first film, which I’m currently tempted to say was slightly better.

    4 out of 5

    Paddington 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

    “Christmas in July” Review Roundup

    Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • Dudes & Dragons (2015)

    aka Dragon Warriors

    2018 #145
    Maclain Nelson & Stephen Shimek | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    Dragon Warriors

    Back in 2014, when it felt like I was contributing to Kickstarters for film projects left, right and centre (including a variety of short films I still haven’t got round to watching and several projects which never amounted to anything, which is why I’ve largely stopped), I helped fund a fantasy comedy called Dragon Warriors. To cut to the quick, it was eventually released as Dudes & Dragons, the title changed presumably to better indicate its comedic tone, and apparently at the end of last week it popped up on Prime Video UK — so, naturally, that made me finally get round to watching my Blu-ray copy.

    In a Dungeons & Dragons-y world, no one can show signs of love lest they be torched by the fearsome dragon Dolvarnög (the pronunciation of which is one of the film’s better recurring jokes). In fact, the dragon is commanded by evil sorcerer Lord Tensley (James Marsters, of Buffy and Angel fame), whose personal experiences with love have left him bitter. The dragon is just one threat to the relationship between human Camilan (Maclain Nelson) and elf Larec (Clare Niederpruem), and so he teams up with his mercenary brother Ramicus (Adam Johnson) — plus Camilan’s stable boy, Samton (Jake Van Wagoner), and Ramicus’ lodger, orc Shokdor (Erik Denton) — to save the world, etc.

    Comedy!

    As I said, and as the title surely implies, Dudes & Dragons is ostensibly a comedy — though not the kind of comedy the re-titling implies, I don’t think. I guess the lead characters are “dudes”, but they’re not, like, “dude” dudes… if you know what I mean. Setting that aside, potential hilarity is undercut by the film being overburdened with plot. My summary didn’t even mention the object of Tensley’s affections, his cousin Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who summons our heroes on their mission; or that Camilan’s parents forbid his marriage to Larec because of some stuff to do with laws of succession or something — this is meant to be a comedy, fellas! Who wrote it, Phantom Menace-era George Lucas? This necessitates rather too many scenes of exposition, especially early on, meaning it’s a while before the gags really begin to flow.

    Well, “flow” is a generous descriptor — the gag rate is alarmingly low. The exposition scenes are balanced on a knife edge where you can’t tell if the actors are playing it tongue-in-cheek because it’s supposed to be humorous, or if it’s because they’re reaching for a florid style that they think is correct for a serious High Fantasy movie. (“High” fantasy is probably what you expect from a movie called Dudes & Dragons, actually, isn’t it?) Put another way: take those joke-less scenes out of context and you might think they were just am-dram Fantasy. James Marsters is probably best equipped to navigate this, giving a sterling go at being both villainous and comic, though the uneven tone means he’s never allowed to be properly menacing nor properly hilarious, a balance we know he can strike thanks to the aforementioned Whedon series. The rest of the cast actually aren’t bad — when the script gives them some decent material, there are laughs to be had. The weakest link is a cameo from Luke Perry, who’s worse than most of the non-famous cast.

    Buffy flashbacks

    Production-wise, this is a very low-budget effort and it shows, but if you give it the benefit of bearing those cheap-and-cheerful roots in mind, it doesn’t look half bad. Well, mostly. I mean, some of the costumes are a bit cosplay, but the creature prosthetics are pretty good; and the CGI monsters are alright considering the next-to-no-budget; and it’s decently shot, especially some sequences that spoof the oeuvre of Zack Snyder, though it’s sometimes distracting that it was all done on green screen — were there no real forests nearby they could’ve popped down to?

    There’s some enjoyment to be had in Dudes & Dragons for the more forgiving viewer. It would’ve been helped immeasurably by a more streamlined plot, a higher preponderance of genuine gags, and probably by being a good 20 or 30 minutes shorter, too. As it is, most people after some fantasy-based laughs are going to want to look elsewhere.

    2 out of 5