Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

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Mandy (2018)

2019 #34
Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

Mandy

Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

Crazy cultists, crazy colours

Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

5 out of 5

Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

aka Kaze no tani no Naushika

2018 #130
Hayao Miyazaki | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

I watched Princess Mononoke before Nausicaä, and also checked out the Blu-ray’s special features. Those include the film’s original Japanese trailers, which emphasise that it’s “13 years after Nausicaä”, which intrigued me, because director Hayao Miyazaki had made plenty of other films in between. But, having watched the earlier movie, the connection and similarities become clear: Nausicaä features an ecological message, a threat from nature that isn’t, industrial humans (with a female general) being the actual villains, innocent townsfolk that need saving, a princess who’s the only one who understands, and a boy from a different kingdom who helps her. They’re not identical, of course, but there’s a lot of overlap…

The animation is nice without being quite as mindblowingly good as later Ghibli productions — they certainly hit the ground running, but they would improve too. The full-length English dub was created in 2005 (the original US release was drastically cut and rewritten) and boasts a helluva cast: Uma Thurman, Patrick Stewart, Mark Hamill, Edward James Olmos, plus Alison Lohman as the lead and a young Shia LaBeouf. I don’t mean to disparage those actors who primarily ply their trade dubbing anime, but these starry Disney-funded dubs do add a certain extra oomph to the vocals.

Nausicaä was only Miyazaki’s second feature, but already shows a lot of the themes and concerns that would go on to characterise his later movies. I feel like maturity and/or experience make some of those later films better, but this is still a powerful demonstration of his talents.

4 out of 5

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

aka Mononoke-hime

2018 #73
Hayao Miyazaki | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG-13

Princess Mononoke

When I was first becoming aware of anime in the late ’90s, Princess Mononoke was one of the titles that everyone seemed to talk about (alongside the likes of Akira, and TV series like Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion). This may be in part due to it being the first Studio Ghibli film afforded a US release since Nausicaä (that was a bad experience for director Hayao Miyazaki — the film was cut by 25 minutes and the dialogue was drastically changed — hence the moratorium until Miramax persuaded him otherwise. Still, Miyazaki refused to sell the rights until Miramax agreed to make no cuts, which, considering Harvey Weinstein’s scissor-happy reputation, was a wise move). But it’s also because it’s a stunning film in its own right.

Set in medieval Japan, it’s a fantasy epic about the conflict between industrialising humans and the gods of the forest they’re destroying. Our hero is Ashitaka, a young prince who kills a demon but is infected by it. Travelling to find a cure, he encounters the aforementioned war and finds himself torn between the two sides. On one is Lady Eboshi, who razed the forest to produce iron in Irontown (imaginative naming), which has become a refuge for social outcasts. On the side of the gods is San, the titular princess (“mononoke” is not a name but an untranslated word, meaning an angry or vengeful spirit), a human girl raised by wolves who intends to kill Eboshi.

There’s more to it than that, because Miyazaki has imagined a very lyrical and meaningful story, about nature vs industry, and their possible coexistence. The theme isn’t exactly subtle in the film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t well portrayed. He’s populated the narrative with interesting characters, too. There’s little easy right or wrong here, with those on all sides coming across as nuanced individuals, with complicated relationships. Naturally, it’s beautifully animated, both the natural splendour and the physicality of the world, including some superb action sequences. Some of the violence is exceptionally gory, though — I can’t believe this only got a PG (if it was live action it’d be a 15 easily, if not an 18).

Bloody princess

However, while I really enjoyed the earlier parts, it begins to go on a bit towards the end. The last hour-ish felt like it needed streamlining, with too much running back and forth all over the place. When introducing the film’s Western premiere at TIFF, Miyazaki concluded by saying “I hope you will enjoy all of the ridiculously long 2 hours and 13 minutes,” and I tend to agree with him — you can have too much of a good thing.

I always feel like I should watch anime in its original language with subtitles, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. With Princess Mononoke, I was swayed towards the English dub because it was written by the great Neil Gaiman. There’s also a quality cast including the likes of Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Keith David. It’s definitely superior to an average dub, both in how it’s written (sounding more naturalistic than the “literal translation” feel some have) and performed (more understated and less histrionic than they can be). Out of curiosity I turned the subtitles on at one point, and they were completely different to what was being said in the dub. No wonder fans hate it when a disc only includes “dubtitles”.

Even if I have some reservations about the film’s pace and length, primarily in its second half, it’s a beautifully-produced film throughout, and the good stuff is so good that I can’t but give it full marks.

5 out of 5

Princess Mononoke was meant to be viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project… just three years late.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

2018 #42
Spike Jonze | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Germany & Australia / English | PG / PG

Where the Wild Things Are

Lonely and over-imaginative child Max (Max Records) runs away from home one night, finds a small boat at the edge of a pond, which becomes an ocean as he sails across it, and winds up on a remote island. There he encounters a group of maladjusted and mostly unlikeable large monster-like creatures, the Wild Things, and ends up having to deal with their tumultuous interpersonal relationships. But it’s a fun kids’ movie, honest!

Except it isn’t. Not really. Despite being adapted from a kids’ picture book, and resolutely rated PG, it didn’t strike me as a kids’ movie at all. It’s glum, depressing, and surely only understandable when filtered through an adult perspective. By which I mean, the film depicts a child’s imaginary adventure, and if you take it as just that it’s no fun whatsoever. Give it an adult reading and I think the adventure actually reveals Max’s subconscious, with the monsters being an externalisation of his personal issues… I guess. I mean, I’m not sure what personifying his issues achieves, or what the film is saying with them.

If I felt it came to some kind of interesting point by the ending, maybe I’d be more on board with it. But Max basically decides he’s had enough of the monsters (he certainly doesn’t seem to solve all their problems) and heads home. I guess he’s realised his home life isn’t so bad after all, but… well, is that it? In the course of one night (which he’s imagined is a longer stretch of time, but still, one night), the kid’s had a complete change of personality and heart? I don’t buy it.

Mournful monsters

Apparently director Spike Jonze has said he intended “to make a movie about childhood” rather than a literal children’s movie, so it would seem my interpretation isn’t too wide of the mark. I’m not sure he told the Warner Bros executives that, though, because they were reportedly so unhappy when they saw Jonze’s initial final cut that they considered reshooting the entire movie — which, with its $75 million price tag, wouldn’t’ve been a small ask. In the end they pushed the release back almost 18 months, giving Jonze more time and money to make a movie that satisfied both himself and the studio; though even after that they still spent 70% of the promotional budget targeting adult viewers, advising parents to “exercise their own discretion”.

Maybe it was that compromise that kicked the meaning out of the film. Maybe it was never there. Maybe I missed something. On the bright side, technical merits are strong: Lance Acord’s cinematography is beautifully golden, and the monster effects (a mix of Jim Henson-made suits and CGI, which replaced animatronic heads that weighed too much) look perfect. But that’s not enough to save a thin and tedious story.

2 out of 5

Glass (2019)

2019 #7
M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Glass

About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

…but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

Confounded?

Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

Is Dr Staple stable?

As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

(Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

Mastermind

Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

4 out of 5

Glass is in cinemas now.

Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Shrek Forever After (2010)

    2018 #132
    Mike Mitchell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Shrek Forever After

    Shrek the Third suggested that DreamWorks’ golden-goose animated franchise was running out of fairytales to subvert, so this fourth — and final (for the time being) — movie turns its attention on the series itself.

    Shrek is becoming disgruntled with life as a family man, so signs a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have just one day as a “real ogre” again — but Rumpelstiltskin is a tricksy so-and-so, using the small print to land Shrek in an alternate timeline where he was never born. If Shrek can’t sort it out by midnight, he’ll be erased forever and the new timeline will stick. The filmmakers take this storyline as an opportunity to give us a look at how characters might’ve turned out in a Shrek-less world: Fiona is a warrior leading an ogre resistance, disillusioned by life after no prince came to rescue her; Puss in Boots is a fat, pampered kitty; and Donkey is working as a cart-donkey… but is otherwise pretty much the same. I guess some personalities never change.

    Sundry of the series’ many supporting characters get the same treatment, and it’s in this upending of familiarity that Forever After finds its greatest entertainment value. The result therefore favours dedicated viewers, while newcomers would be advised to seek out the franchise’s first two instalments. While this conclusion might not be quite as good, or iconic, as that pair, it does have a lot going for it, making it a more fitting finale than its mediocre predecessor.

    4 out of 5

    Shrek Forever After is on BBC One today at 3:10pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

    The Shape of Water (2017)

    2018 #256
    Guillermo del Toro | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English, American Sign Language & Russian | 15 / R

    The Shape of Water

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    13 nominations — 4 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

    I still can’t quite believe a creature-feature fantasy romance won Best Picture. It remains surreal to see a genre movie conquer the Oscars like that. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all its so-Fantasy-it-defined-the-genre-ness, has a lot of the “historical war epic” in its form (not to mention the genre-transcending cultural impact that film trilogy had), and so its win seems less striking than this out-and-out monster movie. Naturally, The Shape of Water doesn’t actually conform to the commonly-understood connotations of what a “monster movie” is, and therein lies what makes it something fresh, and therefore Best Picture material.

    In fact, even “Fantasy” isn’t quite the right term for The Shape of Water — “fairy tale” is nearer the mark. It begins with voiceover narration talking about a princess as the camera glides underwater into a room where everything is afloat, including a sleeping woman… until everything gradually settles to the floor, an alarm goes off, and she wakes up — and now it’s just a real room. Except, even then, it’s not really real — it’s storybook-real; movie-real. Almost literally, in the sense that her apartment is above an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a gorgeously designed set, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere someone would actually live — but it’s only just out of kilter, which is part of why it’s so fantastic. In case you missed it up top, the film also won an Oscar for production design, and that was certainly deserved.

    Dreaming

    Anyway, the woman in question is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose reality could hardly be more distant from that of a fairytale princess: she’s working nights as a cleaner at a government facility, wiping up the splattered piss of “clever men”. She’s also mute, communicating via sign language to her friends, coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and down-on-his-luck neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Things change when a mysterious new project arrives at the facility. Well, it’s no surprise to say that turns out to be a… kind of… merman… human/fish… being… It’s accompanied by head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon), who hates its guts and desires nothing more than to inflict pain, and scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is more sympathetic, for his own reasons. But it’s Elisa who, almost accidentally, comes to bond and communicate with the creature, in secret; but as their connection grows, she realises something must be done about its predicament.

    I’ve read some reviews that berate Shape of Water for its straightforward storyline — I’ve described a fair chunk of the plot just getting to that point of conflict, and you can probably infer much of the rest. But I think such criticisms miss the point. For one thing, it is not fiction’s only goal to shock us with plot twists. There’s more to storytelling than just surprises, and Shape of Water certainly has more to it. For another, it is quite clearly a fairy tale — albeit an adult-minded one — and those go more-or-less one way. And even then, the events that I thought would form the film’s climax happen at the halfway point, so this viewer was at least somewhat surprised.

    Toxic masculinity

    So what is there instead? Characters, for one. We don’t get too much backstory on any of them — which is interesting, because apparently del Toro wrote lengthy summaries for the main characters, some running to 40 pages, which were provided to the actors to read and use if they wanted. Whether they embraced them or not, they are all well-judged performances. Hawkins, Spencer, and Jenkins got the nomination nods, but it would’ve been equally at home in the hands of Shannon or Stuhlbarg. And that’s not to mention Doug Jones, who conveys the creature’s emotions with physicality and movement alone — aided by superb prosthetic and CGI technicians, of course. But while the film’s primary focus is on the interspecies love tale he features in, each supporting character has their own subplot to help sketch their personality, and provide meaning and resonance to the main story.

    That’s where theme comes into it — intricately linked to the characters, because this is all about outsiders and otherness. The fish-man is the most obvious “other”, with Elisa positioned second (as alluded to earlier, she seems to only have two or three friends and acquaintances she can actually communicate with); but there’s also Zelda, a black woman, and Giles, a gay man — and this is ’60s America, making those statuses even ‘lower’. Plus there’s Dr. Hoffstetler, but that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, his unique predicament is given a more nuanced portrayal than you’d normally find in American media. All of this exists in counterpoint to Strickland, who’s basically the physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. For a film set in the ’60s, with a lot of Cold War overtones — and in a Fantasy environment, with a supernatural romance at its core — The Shape of Water certainly has a lot of timely relevance.

    Something fishy goin' on

    But, while you can hold it up as a mirror to the here and now, it also has a timelessness — like all the great fairy tales, of course. It transcends its ’60s setting and its 2010s production to really be about values of humanity — of acceptance —that are always pertinent. By tucking these messages into a fantasy that is most assuredly aimed at adults (it practically contains a laundry list of “things not suitable for children”), del Toro has given depth and meaning to an outlandish movie that, yeah, fundamentally, as the jokes all go, is about a woman fucking a fish.

    5 out of 5

    The Shape of Water is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    A Monster Calls (2016)

    2018 #129
    J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    A Monster Calls

    Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

    The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

    All the feels

    The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

    Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

    4 out of 5

    A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.