Searching (2018)

2019 #51
Aneesh Chaganty | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Russia / English |
12 / PG-13

Searching

When his 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) does the most logical thing in this day and age: he turns to her computer and social media to try to work out where she’s gone. What Searching does to really sell this concept is place us inside the tech: everything we see takes place on the screen of computers, be it searching the internet, chasing leads via video chat, or compiling evidence in spreadsheets.

It’s a conceit that is clearly innovative, but also feels like it has the potential to grow old fast. After all, it’s inherently limiting, and if the filmmakers tried to coast on the novelty factor, you’d probably grow bored within the first half-hour. Fortunately, Searching has more to offer. Indeed, long before you’ve had a chance to become fed up with the unique storytelling method, you’re absorbed in the narrative.

It works on two fronts. There’s a degree of commentary on modern society and parent/child relationships, as David begins to discover all the things Margot has been hiding from him, realising he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. In some respects this is nothing new — we’ve had decades of films and TV dramas where parents discover their perfect little darling isn’t who they thought — but here it’s cannily updated for the social media era.

Searching the web

Secondly, it’s an engrossing mystery. Director Aneesh Chaganty uses the visual concept perfectly to help craft a storyline with compelling characters that keeps us thoroughly engaged. Pleasingly, the film never breaks its own rules, instead finding new ways to use the limitations to tell the story. The only possible misstep comes in the final act, when some developments begin to succumb to Movie Logic and get a bit grandiose for the previously-grounded film. But the array of twists here actually had me on the edge of my seat, and, really, what more do you want from a thriller than that?

Searching is the kind of film you come to thanks to its USP, your interest piqued by seeing how they can tell a story under such limitations; but what makes you stay, and want to come back, is how well it tells that story. It’s not unconventional for the sake of it, but a new and very timely way of viewing a narrative.

5 out of 5

Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

The 100-Week Roundup VII

If I were being slavishly accurate about weeks, there should be seven films in this roundup. But that seemed a bit much, so — as the next one of these wasn’t due until the end of the month — I’ve split it in two.

In this roundup, the final films I watched in July 2018.…

  • The Garden of Words (2013)
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
  • Paul (2011)
  • The Way of the Gun (2000)


    The Garden of Words
    (2013)

    aka Koto no ha no niwa

    2018 #170
    Makoto Shinkai | 46 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    The Garden of Words

    If the only anime director’s name you know is Hayao Miyazaki, you could do worse than familiarise yourself with Makoto Shinkai, director of recent popular hits Your Name and Weathering with You. He’d already been gaining attention with the films he made before those, which include short feature The Garden of Words.

    It revolves around two individuals: a 15-year-old schoolboy who aspires to be a shoemaker, and a 27-year-old woman. They meet one day in a park during a rainstorm and develop a connection. According to Shinkai, the film is a love story between two people “who feel lonely or incomplete in their social relations, but who don’t feel that they need to fix this loneliness.” That’s an interesting perspective, because while there’s undoubtedly a significant element of loneliness in the film, it’s accompanied by an element of depression; that these two characters seem unfilled. Without wanting to spoil anything, it seems to be the connection between the two that ‘saves’ them and elevates their lives — i.e. they did need to fix their loneliness. Perhaps it’s a disconnect between intention and execution that led me note that “where it ends up going isn’t as good as where it begins”. Nonetheless, the characters are engaging, and their emotional turmoil and connection are affecting. It also leaves room for personal interpretation with an open ending — it does reach a conclusion of sorts, but there’s clearly space the viewer to imagine what comes next.

    The animation is simply stunning — both beautiful in itself, and in its technical accomplishment. For that reason, if given the choice, it might be tempting to opt for an English dub, but I’d advise to stick with the original Japanese. I’ve written before about how I’m regularly conflicted when watching anime about whether to go for the original Japanese or an English dub, and I do often I go for the latter — I must admit I’m swayed by the recognisable voice casts on Ghibli films, for example; and, generally speaking, it allows you to appreciate the visuals more when you’re not having to read a lot of subtitles. Nonetheless, this time I chose the Japanese audio, and I’m glad I did: it’s subtle and calm, like the film itself, and the quietness and gentle pace mean there’s not an overabundance of distracting reading (unlike in Your Name, for example). I popped on a bit of the American dub afterwards and it felt all wrong by comparison — somehow brash and decidedly inauthentic. On the bright side, either track sounds luscious in 5.1, with the rain falling all around you, which serves to really immerse the viewer in the situation alongside the characters.

    4 out of 5

    The Secret in Their Eyes
    (2009)

    aka El secreto de sus ojos

    2018 #171
    Juan José Campanella | 129 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Argentina & Spain / Spanish | 18 / R

    The Secret in Their Eyes

    A surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010 (it beat A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery, two very different love stories, and a musing on the nature of justice, especially within a corrupt system.

    Primarily, it’s a procedural thriller about a decades-old unsolved case that one of the original investigators is revisiting in the hopes of finding closure. As that, I thought the film was probably a bit too long — despite some solid thematic weight, the unnecessarily slow pace at times make it feel a smidge self-important for what is fundamentally a crime thriller. That said, those other facets that have been added to supplement the storyline — the romance side; the passage of time (how do people deal with such life-changing events over the ensuing decades?) — do bring something to the film, elevating it beyond standard police procedural fare.

    Even as ‘just’ that, it pulls off some spectacular feats: the famous single-take at the football match really is an all-timer, and the final twist is unexpected and a perfect capper. I was this close to giving it full marks, and maybe when I revisit it someday I will.

    4 out of 5

    Paul
    Extended Edition
    (2011)

    2018 #172
    Greg Mottle | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Klingon | 15

    Paul

    On a post-ComicCon road trip around the US’s UFO heartland, a pair of British geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) bump into an actual alien, the eponymous Paul (Seth Rogen), who’s on the run from a government facility. Cue a kind of “E.T. for grownups” as the trio — and a widening assortment of supporting characters — endeavour to evade the authorities and get Paul home.

    Mistaken by some for the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (thanks to it starring Pegg and Frost, but it’s missing the vital ingredient of director Edgar Wright, who was committed to Scott Pilgrim), Paul lacks the sharpness of that trilogy at its best. However, it’s full of likeability — in the characters, and of course the humour — to the point where it actually manages to get a bit emotional at the end. It’s also chock full of references and quotes for fellow geeks to spot, some of which are incredibly well-timed to have fantastic impact.

    As for the extended cut, there’s a comparison here. As usual, the theatrical cut was R-rated in the US but the extended one is unrated there, but (also as usually) I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t pass at R. The running time difference is about five-and-a-half minutes, but there are 41 differences crammed into that time. It seems like some fairly memorable jokes were cut and others added back — nothing earth shattering, but enough to call the extended cut the preferable one.

    4 out of 5

    The Way of the Gun
    (2000)

    2018 #173
    Christopher McQuarrie | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Way of the Gun

    The debut directorial feature from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who made his name penning the likes of The Usual Suspects and more recently has found success as the regular writer-director of the Mission: Impossible movies), is one of those ’90s crime comedy-dramas — you know, the kind of thing we describe as “Tarantino-esque”, for good reason. It has its fans, but McQuarrie tends to refer to it disparagingly on social media, no doubt in part because it landed him in “director jail” for over a decade. Personally, I agree with McQuarrie (I usually do): it’s not a failure, but it’s not much of a success either.

    My main problem with it is that it’s over-long and over-complicated. Both of those are thanks to too many characters with too many motivations. It’s possible to get your head round it all in the end, but there’s a stretch in the middle where it feels like work. But rather than slow things down and spell it out, it might be better if it moved through them all quicker — at least then it would be pacy. It’s also rather dully shot by Dick Pope, who was later Oscar-nominated for the likes of The Illusionist and Mr. Turner, but has plied most of his trade in the grounded world of Mike Leigh movies, which perhaps explains that. There are still two or three good shots, plus a neat oner that indicates the direction McQ’s style would head.

    There are flashes of McQuarrie’s brilliance elsewhere too, including some nice bits of dialogue and a couple of good sequences. The action scenes, in particular, demonstrate he had a strong skill there from the start. They feel very grounded and real — just the way the characters move; that they’re constantly reloading; how it ends when everyone’s out of bullets. McQuarrie’s brother, a Navy SEAL, was the technical advisor for these scenes, which explains their accuracy. The final shoot-out, with all of that going on, is the best bit of the movie. Well, at least it ends on a high.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VI

    Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

    In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup II

    I had a nice little introduction written for this post when T2 3D was going to be part of it, but then that got too long and I posted it separately. So, anyway, here are three other films I watched almost two years ago but haven’t reviewed yet…

    Laura
    (1944)

    2018 #93
    Otto Preminger | 85 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Laura

    This classic film noir stars Dana Andrews as a New York detective investigating the murder of an advertising exec and society girl played by Gene Tierney, the eponymous Laura. And there’s a good twist halfway through that completely turns the film on its head, so I’ll keep this vague. (We can debate the merits or otherwise of openly discussing plot points from 75-year-old films another time. Heck, go on Twitter — I’m sure someone’ll be ranting about it from one side or the other right now.)

    As a murder investigation, Laura is a decent little mystery — there aren’t a huge number of suspects, but enough to keep you guessing; though I did eventually wonder if it actually hangs together 100% as a case. But that doesn’t matter when everything else about the film plays out so well. For starters, it’s noticeably well directed by Otto Preminger, with some nice shot construction and editing. Then the screenplay (based on a novel by Vera Caspary, and penned by three credited writers and one uncredited, as per the interweb) boasts lots of great dialogue. It’s rarely show-off-ily snappy, but it is effective and sometimes witty. That’s only appropriate considering one of the characters (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker) has a rep as a wordsmith — that wouldn’t fly if he didn’t have plenty of bons mots to offer.

    The rest of the cast are similarly noteworthy. Tierney is very plausible as the kind of gal everyone would fall in love with, and Andrews is equally so as the solid copper. A key supporting role is filled by a young-ish Vincent Price. (Can we call 33 “young”? As someone who was born in 1986, I’m going to go with “yes”.) It’s an accident of history how effective his casting is — not that his performance is bad in and of itself, but his later reputation brings certain expectations about how things might pan out. Is that warranted? Well, you’ll have to watch it to see…

    5 out of 5

    Jigsaw
    (2017)

    2018 #104
    The Spierig Brothers | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Jigsaw

    After seven films between 2004 and 2010, the Saw series seemed well and truly done. But nothing once-popular can stay dead for long in Hollywood, and so 2017 saw this revival (and this year will see another, pandemic permitting). It seemed to go down quite poorly, and I’m curious as to why. It’s a Saw film through and through — if you don’t like the series, there’s no reason you should like this — so, I mean, why would you want or expect a Saw film to not be a Saw film? Maybe it’s just people who don’t actually liking Saw films all that much but chose to watch an eighth one anyway? Well, it’s up to them how they choose to spend their time…

    Anyhow, as a Saw film, I thought it was one of the better ones. Not the very best (that’s still the first), but definitely top end. I liked the final reveal, which is a big part of these films’ appeal — what twist they’re going to pull in the final moments. Sure, I’d guessed part of it well in advance, but it still had some neat aspects. (I do wonder how many people were fooled into thinking Jigsaw was still alive, somehow? He died many, many films ago; he’s not coming back.) In terms of the whole series, it does raise a load of questions — but digging into them is really getting navel-gazing about the series’ continuity. I’m not sure it’s worth worrying about.

    3 out of 5

    Inferno
    (1953)

    2018 #107
    Roy Baker | 84 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG

    Inferno

    3D and film noir aren’t things you readily associate with each other, but there are a couple of them — see here for a few. Some might count Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, too. Inferno here is another borderline case. The plot definitely has a whiff of noir — a husband left for dead by his wife and her lover, which cause her moral quandaries but him not so much — but the telling is more of an Adventure movie, some might even say a Western, with the husband struggling through an arid wilderness. Plus it’s all shot in brightly-lit Technicolor.

    Whether you count it as noir or not, it’s most noteworthy for its 3D. It was one of the last films made in the format during the fleeting ’50s experiment, especially as its studio, Fox, were backing CinemaScope as a TV-beater instead (well, I guess they were right). It doesn’t make blatant use of its 3D — there’s no stuff poking at the camera (until the punch-up finale) — but it often brings a nice sense of depth often, including to the wide-open desert vistas. It was well received, too, with the New York Times saying it was where “3-D comes of age”, and others comparing it favourably to other movies of the era, which treated 3D as no more than a gimmick and squandered its potential. All of that said, a climactic fight does indulge in all the in-your-face aspects we associate with classic 3D movies — but it was a late addition forced on the film by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to see more overt 3D action. In summary up, director Roy Ward Baker commented, “the critics gave it unanimous applause, largely because it has a good story to which the process contributed greatly, as opposed to the usual stereo films which were simply exploitation stunts. However, we did include a few of the cliches, at the behest of DFZ. I guess he was right at that.”

    It is a pretty good tale. Baker wanted to make a film in which “the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says.” Nonetheless, we’re given a voiceover narration from the hero, which gets a bit twee, albeit with an enjoyable dry wit now and then, and an interesting pragmatism about his situation. There’s some neat editing to juxtapose his situation with that of his condemners, too: when he’s starving it cuts to wifey enjoying a lavish meal; as he digs in the desperate hope of water it cuts to her lover casually fixing himself a drink. Said wifey is played by Rhonda Fleming, who apparently was known as “the Queen of Technicolor” because of her complexion and vibrant red hair. Everyone in the film is in love with her — even the cops who’ve just met her comment on it — and, yeah, I buy that. There’s an amusing bit where her lover is desperate to throw caution to the wind and visit her room that night simply because it’s “been four days”, wink wink nudge nudge. Men, eh?

    4 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup

    Regular readers may be aware that for a while now I’ve been struggling with what to do about my increasingly ludicrous review backlog. It continues to grow and grow — it’s now reached a whopping 215 unreviewed films! (And to think I started that page because I was 10 reviews behind…) Realistically, there’s no way I’m ever going to catch that up just by posting normal reviews, especially given the rate I get them out nowadays. But since this blog began I’ve reviewed every new film I watched — I don’t want to break that streak.

    So, I’ve come up with something of a solution — and kept it broadly within the theming of the blog, to boot.

    The 100-Week Roundup will cover films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Most of the time that’ll be in the form of quick thoughts, perhaps even copy-and-pasting the notes I made while viewing, rather than ‘proper’ reviews. Today’s are a bit more review-like, but relatively light on worthwhile analytical content, which I think is another reason films might end up here. Also, the posts won’t be slavishly precise in their 100-week-ness. Instead, I’ll ensure there are at least a couple of films covered in each roundup (it wouldn’t be a “roundup” otherwise). Mainly, the point is to give me a cutoff to get a review done — if I want to avoid a film being swept up into a roundup, I’ve got 100 weeks to review it. (Lest we forget, 100 weeks is almost two years. A more-than-generous allowance.)

    I think it’s going to start slow (this first edition covers everything I haven’t reviewed from April 2018, which totals just two films), but in years to come I wouldn’t be surprised if these roundups become more frequent and/or busier. But, for now, those two from almost two years ago…


    Das Boot
    The Director’s Cut
    (1981/1997)

    2018 #69
    Wolfgang Petersen | 208 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Germany & USA / German & English | 15 / R

    Das Boot: The Director's Cut

    Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen’s story of a German submarine in World War 2 may have an intimate and confined setting, but in every other sense it is an epic — not least in length: The Director’s Cut version runs almost three-and-a-half hours. However, the pace is excellently managed. The length is mainly used for tension — quietly waiting to see if the enemy will get them this time. It’s also spent getting to know some of the crew, and the style of life aboard the sub. It means the film paints an all-round picture of both life and combat in that situation. The only time I felt it dragged was in an extended sequence towards the end. I guess the long, slow shots of nothing happening are meant to evoke time passing and an increasing sense of hopelessness, but I didn’t feel that, I just felt bored. Still, while I can conceive of cutting maybe 10 or 20 minutes and the film being just as effective, being a full hour shorter — as the theatrical cut is — must’ve lost a lot of great stuff.

    It’s incredibly shot by DP Jost Vacano. The sets are tiny, which feels realistic and claustrophobic, but nonetheless they pull off long takes with complex camera moves. Remarkable. Even more striking is the sound design. It has one of the most powerful and convincing surround sound mixes I’ve experienced, really placing you in the boat as it creaks and drips all around you. The music by composer Klaus Doldinger is also often effective. It does sound kinda dated at times — ’80s electronica — but mostly I liked it.

    Versions
    Das Boot exists in quite a few different cuts, although The Director’s Cut is the only one currently available on Blu-ray in the UK. If you’re interested in all the different versions, it’s quite a minefield — there are two different TV miniseries versions (a three-part BBC one and a six-part German one), in addition to what’s been released as “The Original Uncut Version”, as well as both of the movie edits. There’s a lengthy comparison of The Director’s Cut and the German TV version here, which lists 75 minutes of major differences and a further 8 minutes of just tightening up. Plus, the TV version also has Lt. Werner’s thoughts in voiceover, which are entirely missing from The Director’s Cut. That means this version “has a lack of information and atmosphere”, according to the author of the comparison.

    Das salute

    As to the creation of The Director’s Cut, the Blu-ray contains a whole featurette about it called The Perfect Boat. In it, Petersen explains that he thought the TV version was too long, but that there was a good version to be had between it and the theatrical cut. It was first mooted as early as 1990, but it was when DVD began to emerge that things got moving — Columbia (the studio, not the country) was aware of the format’s potential even from its earliest days, and so it was with an eye on that market that they agreed to fund the new cut. Not only was it all re-edited, but as for that soundtrack I was so praiseful of, the audio was basically entirely re-recorded to make it more effective as a modern movie. The only thing they kept was the original dialogue… which had all been dubbed anyway, because the on-set sound was unusable.

    In the end, the new cut was such a thorough re-envisioning that it took three times as long as anticipated, and led to a glitzy premiere and theatrical re-release. Petersen thinks the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts is the latter is more rich and has more gravitas because we spend more time with the individual characters.

    5 out of 5

    Das Boot: The Director’s Cut was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

    It placed 22nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Identity
    (2003)

    2018 #78
    James Mangold | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Identity

    I bought Identity probably 15 or so years ago in one of those 3-for-£20 or 5-for-£30 sales that used to be all the rage at the height of DVD’s popularity, and no doubt contributed massively both to the format’s success and even regular folk having “DVD collections” (as opposed to just owning a handful of favourite films). As with dozens (ok, I’ll be honest: hundreds) of other titles that I purchased in a more-or-less similar fashion, it’s sat on a shelf gathering dust for all this time, its significance as a piece of art diminishing to the point I all but forgot I owned it.

    But I did finally watch it, not spurred by anything other than the whim of thinking, “yeah, I ought to finally watch that,” which just happens for me with random old DVDs now and then. But, like so many other older films that I own on DVD, I found it was available to stream in HD, so I watched it that way instead. The number of DVDs I’ve ended up doing that with, or could if I wanted… all that wasted money… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Whodunnit?

    Anyway, the film itself. On a dark and stormy night, a series of chance encounters strand ten disparate strangers at an isolated motel, where they realise they’re being murdered one by one. So far, so slasher movie. And, indeed, that’s more or less how it progresses. But there’s a twist or two in the final act that attempts to make it more than that. Without spoiling anything, I felt like it was an interesting concept for a thriller, but at the same time that it didn’t really work. There’s an aspect to the twist that is a cliché so damnable it’s rarely actually used (unlike most other clichés, which pop up all the time), and so the film attempts a last-minute explanation of why it’s better than that, but, I dunno, I feel like a cliché is a cliché.

    So maybe Identity is best considered as just a straight B-movie-ish slasher, and just overlook the final act’s attempts at being more interesting as just trying to be different. In fact, more interesting to me was the fact it was mostly shot on an enormous soundstage set, which is kinda cool given the scope of the location.

    3 out of 5

    Ad Astra (2019)

    2020 #10
    James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ad Astra

    This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

    Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

    Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

    Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

    In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

    While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

    But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

    On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

    Moon pirates!

    Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

    Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

    4 out of 5

    Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

    * I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

    Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

    2019 #75
    Drew Goddard | 142 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Bad Times at the El Royale

    If you thought Tarantino copycats died out after the mid-’90s boom in Reservoir Dogs / Pulp Fiction wannabes, well, you’re sweetly naive — those still crop up from time to time, a quarter of a century too late. But the better emulators have evolved along with their inspiration, as writer-director Drew Goddard demonstrates in Bad Times at the El Royale, a film which feels like an imitation of latter-day Tarantino flicks. At least Goddard has the good sense to dodge the carbon-copy style of those Reservoir Dogs mimics by shifting genre, taking some of what QT brought to war movies in Inglourious Basterds and Westerns in The Hateful Eight and applying it to a neo-noir mystery-thriller. He even preempts Tarantino’s own oeuvre by including a Charles Manson-esque cult leader, thereby prefiguring Manson’s role in QT’s own Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

    Also like Once Upon a Time, El Royale sets its scene in 1969; and, like The Hateful Eight, its setting is an isolated establishment. That’s the eponymous hotel, a destination straddling the California/Nevada state line, which in its heyday attracted celebrities and what we’d now call “influencers”, but has faded since it lost its gambling licence and the wealthy patrons dried up. Now, over the course of one day and night, a variety of customers arrive, strangers, each with secrets, all of which will out in the twists of fate that ensue. All of that plays out in chaptered sections, divided with title cards, that mix in flashbacks and juggle the timeline of the present section as necessary — all of which are familiar Tarantino flourishes, of course.

    One thing it shouldn’t’ve copied from Tarantino is the running time: just like many of his recent works, it’s longer than it needs to be. That’s not because the material is bad per se, but because the pacing isn’t tight enough. It seemed to drag its heels for no reason (again, I felt the Tarantino comparison), whereas a tighter pace might’ve contributed some tension, which I rarely felt despite the scenario screaming out for it.

    Heavy rain at the El Royale

    Well, as the saying goes: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Heck, Tarantino has certainly borrowed plenty from his own wide-ranging influences. If you are going to imitate another filmmaker, this is the way to do it: by bringing your own characters and settings and plots and twists to the table. That might sound obvious, but so many of those wannabes are slavish in their borderline-plagiarism. Goddard doesn’t sink to that level overall, though there were some parts I felt were only a couple of steps above it. For example, the whole “the hotel is on the state line” bit seemed quirky for the sake of being quirky, imitating a bit that a filmmaker like Tarantino would use but without quite knowing how to use it (it plays a big role in the opening sequence, after which there’s one slight gag with it before it’s never mentioned again).

    But such lapses were outweighed by the good. For one, there’s some very nice photography by Seamus McGarvey. It looks like it was shot on 35mm (I checked and it was, which proves Nolan & co are right when they say it does make a difference), which didn’t always translate too well to the 1080p stream I watched, but I suspect might look all the more stunning in 4K. Visual aside, much of what’s good stems from the characters, especially the strong performances by actors like Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, and Lewis Pullman. It was those, and in particular how each role comes together in the final act to define the whole character, that definitely elevated the quality of the film for me. And while those three are the highlights, there are also good turns from the likes of Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cailee Spaeny. I’d say more, but so much of the meat of these characters comes from how they present themselves vs what the truth is revealed to be — the less you know, the more there is to uncover.

    Rewatch you again soon

    That said, I wonder if this is a film that will play better on a rewatch. There are several surprise plot developments I wouldn’t wish to spoil for a first-time viewer, for sure, and I do feel like that’s a worthy filmmaking tool (I don’t agree with that research that ‘proved’ audiences enjoy something more if they know the story beforehand — you don’t appreciate it more, you just appreciate different stuff, same as with a rewatch). But I feel like some of that plotting did distract focus from other bits of the film that were working well. Put another way, in my memory the niggles have damped down and I primarily recall the good stuff, so my enjoyment has gone up with hindsight. I’ll have to pick up the 4K disc at some point and give it another go.

    For the time being, while I did like it overall, I judged it to be the kind of 4-star effort that could’ve easily become a 5-star top-ten-of-the-year film if it had just polished up everything that I felt didn’t work.

    4 out of 5

    Bad Times at the El Royale is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    The Happytime Murders (2018)

    2019 #9
    Brian Henson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

    The Happytime Murders

    The Muppets meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets an R rating in this black comedy murder mystery from director Brian “son of Jim” Henson. Set in a world where Muppet-esque (but not actual Muppets, because IP rights) puppets co-exist alongside humans, disgraced puppet cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta, which, let’s be honest, is a better name for a comedy private eye than the one they’ve actually used) stumbles onto a spate of connected puppet murders, and must reluctantly team up with his former partner, human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to crack the case.

    The mystery that drives the plot isn’t too bad, including a neat twist/reveal that’s perhaps guessable but not terribly so. It does hew closely to the tropes and clichés of the noir genre, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as it’s not a straight crime movie I don’t think it’s a problem for it to recycle all those things when it has fresh comedy to hang off them, or if it’s somehow riffing off familiar elements but with the puppet stuff, but often it isn’t that clever.

    Women and puppets in blue

    Nonetheless, there are some legitimately funny bits along the way, often found among the riffs on the puppet thing (for example: one of the victims is drowned, and before bagging the body they ring him out). Unfortunately it isn’t funny as often as it should be, too often relying on worn or lacklustre humour. I mean, it tries to run with the old playground favourite “idiots say what?” as a running gag. It also leans on puppets being lewd and crude as the extent of the gag, which simply isn’t that funny in itself, partly because it isn’t as original as the film seems to think it is (cf. Team America, Avenue Q).

    While The Happytime Murders isn’t close to the echelons of quality where you’d find Roger Rabbit or the best of the Muppets, it’s also not a total washout. From behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve read it sounds like a lot of effort was expended on filming it, making sure the puppets could interact with the humans and so on, and those technical aspects are first rate. It’s just a shame the same level of innovation wasn’t poured into screenplay. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t live up to its potential either.

    3 out of 5

    The Happytime Murders is available on Netflix UK from today.

    Murder Mystery (2019)

    2019 #96
    Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Murder Mystery

    Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

    I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

    Detectives or suspects?

    The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

    There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

    3 out of 5

    Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

    Holmes & Watson (2018)

    2019 #38
    Etan Cohen | 90 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Holmes & Watson

    From the moment it was announced, I knew two things about Holmes & Watson: that it would not be up my street, and that I’d definitely see it. Basically, Will Ferrell is not to my taste — I thought Anchorman was OK at best; I didn’t like The Other Guys despite it having a premise I loved; I remember enjoying Wedding Crashers specifically apart from his one scene; and, cementing my opinion shortly before Holmes & Watson’s release, I finally saw Step Brothers, Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous major co-starring turn, and didn’t care for it. (I also haven’t got round to reviewing it, but when I do it won’t be positive.) Despite my personal antipathy, most of those films are highly regarded, at least in certain circles; so when Holmes & Watson finally debuted trailers that no one liked, then garnered reviews that damned it as one of the worst movies released for years, I abandoned all hope of enjoyment. But it’s still a Sherlock Holmes movie, and so I’ve still felt compelled to watch it.

    As you could no doubt infer from the title and aforementioned leads, the film sees Will Ferrell take up the mantle of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, with John C. Reilly as his trusty sidekick and biographer, Dr John Watson. The plot, such as it is, sees the pair investigating a threat to assassinate Queen Victoria by Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). Really, it’s just an excuse for Ferrell and Reilly to lark about in a series of Holmesian sketches. Full of truly terrible accents, reheated gags, and comedy bits that go on far too long, it would be tedious if presented as individual skits in a sketch show, but strung together as a movie… ugh.

    Incompetence on both sides of the camera

    The incompetence isn’t just present in front of the camera either. It’s hard to believe this was a professionally-produced, studio-released movie given the lack of technical skills on display, including atrocious dubbing, sloppy editing, and even shots that are out of focus. It’s so poor that Netflix, who seem to purchase any scraps the major studios decide to throw their way, turned down the chance to buy it (so they do have some standards!)

    Amazingly, it’s not completely terrible. In supporting roles, Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, and Kelly Macdonald improve it just by showing up. There’s one bit that riffs off the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, which might’ve felt original-ish if those weren’t already nine years old. There’s a bit of dialogue where it’s suggested America is forward-thinking about female equality, which isn’t the intended joke but is a laugh nonetheless. And as it’s the only laugh in the whole sorry 90 minutes, I guess we should take what we can get.

    If they’d deliberately set out to make a film that was ostensibly a comedy but contained no actual humour, I’m not sure they could’ve achieved it any more thoroughly than this. It’s so terrible that it’s almost a remarkable achievement of just how badly it’s possible to fail.

    1 out of 5

    Holmes & Watson is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week.

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