Red Sparrow (2018)

2018 #149
Francis Lawrence | 140 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian ballerina whose career-ending injury leads her down a path to becoming a “sparrow” — a highly-trained undercover operative for the Russian secret service. Used and abused throughout her training, when she’s sent after a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) in order to find a mole within Russian intelligence, a series of double- and triple-crosses leave everyone in doubt about whose side she’s really on… including, er, us viewers.

Red Sparrow is set today. I think. It’s easy to forget. I had to check on a couple of occasions, including one final double-check before writing this review. The thing is, the politics of it all is very Cold War. Of course, given the current state of geopolitics, a neo-Cold War between Russian and the West is probably at its most believable since the ’80s, it’s just that this film’s handling of it doesn’t feel timely and modern, but like a Cold War story that someone decided should be set today. Partly that’s because a lot of the technology and tradecraft feels like it comes from a previous era too. I mean, one major sequence revolves around floppy disks. Floppy disks! I can’t even remember the last time I saw a floppy disk. Either that bit is based on something real-world (like, there’s a reason why someone stealing secrets would still be using floppies) — and, if it is, the film doesn’t bother to lay out why — or it’s the single most unrealistic thing in a movie that’s about a former ballerina being trained to be a Russian spy skilled in psychological influence and sexual manipulation in just three months — i.e. this is a pretty unrealistic movie all round.

Lady spy in red

Even if we ignore the inconsistencies of its temporal setting, it struggles with what else it has going for it. In its attempts to provide a twisty-turny plot, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. As it flips and flops around about which side Dominika is supposed to be on really, clearly intending for us to feel wrong-footed every half-hour or so, the gears of how it’s setting up an inevitable final “reveal” begin to show through. Either that or I’m a genius for working it out ahead of time, whichever. One great well-disguised twist is better than endless back-and-forthing, but none of the filmmakers here seem to realise that, or don’t have the confidence to rely solely on that final reveal. Another side effect of this is it becomes hard to root for any particular character. Maybe this is the legacy of it being a US production: it can’t quite bring itself to ask us to fully invest in Dominika, a Russian spy, even as it tries to keep her the heroine. Plus the supposed twists wouldn’t work if we were actually let in on what she was plotting.

And away from the plot, the whole movie is sort of… seedy, but without owning it. It wants to be about sex and to somehow be honest about that, while also trying not to titillate in any way. It wants to be realistically violent, while merely being nasty in just one or two scenes. Conversely, it also wants to be a grown-up, labyrinthine Le Carré-esque thriller, but it’s so busy trying to repeatedly fool you that it forgets to properly engage you. It certainly doesn’t succeed in being plausible, with the elaborate plan Dominika supposedly concocted relying rather too much on crossed-fingers-type logic — or, I’m sure the filmmakers would say, her unparalleled ability to read people.

Sexy spy shenanigans

I’d rather it had picked a side: either go all out schlock — more violence, more tits — or go full intelligent thriller — rein in the seediness, rein in the superhuman foresight. As it is, Red Sparrow is not trashy enough to be titillating, certainly not clever enough to challenge Le Carré as the go-to example of intelligent spy thrills, and not stylish enough to get away with it either. It kind of sits in an awkward middle ground between all those things. I didn’t actually dislike it, but it didn’t thrill me either.

3 out of 5

Red Sparrow is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and UHD Blu-ray in the UK today.

Advertisements

The Snowman (2017)

2018 #84
Tomas Alfredson | 119 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Snowman

I read a comment somewhere that said Tomm Wiseau’s notorious film The Room is like a movie made by someone who’s never seen one but has had the concept thoroughly explained. The Snowman is like that but with crime thrillers.

Michael Fassbender stars as Norwegian detective Harry Hole — I presume there’s been some kind of fault of culture or translation there because, in English, that’s pretty much the worst name for a detective ever conceived without deliberately trying to be awful. He’s kind of washed up, with a terrible private life, but he’s also an unassailably brilliant detective — oh yeah, the originality keeps on coming. Anyway, after a woman disappears, an ominous snowman built near the crime sets Hole and a younger cop (Rebecca Ferguson) on the trail of a serial killer who’s been active for decades.

All of which should make for at least a solid crime thriller, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s like the whole thing has been almost-correctly-but-not-quite translated from another language. I’m not just talking about the dialogue (though that’s sometimes that way too), but the very essence of the movie — the character arcs, the storylines, even the construction of individual scenes. Like many a Google Translate offering, you can kinda tell what it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t actually make sense in itself. According to the director, around 15% of the screenplay was never even filmed due to a rushed production schedule, which perhaps explains some of these problems.

Mr and Ms Police

Said director is Tomas Alfredson, the man who gave us Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so you’d expect a lot better of him. Even the technical elements are mixed: there’s some stunning photography and scenery, contrasted with occasional bad green screen; and all of Val Kilmer’s lines had to be dubbed (due to his tongue being swollen from cancer, apparently), but it sounds like it. His performance on the whole is weird, just one more part of the film that doesn’t sit right. It all builds to a massively stupid, unremittingly nonsensical finale. It’s during the final act where things finally goes overboard from “not very good” to “irredeemably bad”.

Indeed, some of the The Snowman is so shockingly awful that I considered if it merited my rare one-star rating. It’s close, but a lot of the film is fine — it actually toddles along at a reasonable three-star level most of the time, before falling apart entirely towards the end. “It could be worse” may be the faintest of praise, but it certainly doesn’t deserve any more.

2 out of 5

The Snowman is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

Game Night (2018)

2018 #111
John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Game Night

Despite what the poster suggests, the cute dog is not in fact one of the three leads.

1 out of 5

Okay, okay — let’s put the Westie-based bait-and-switch advertising aside and give the film a fair hearing, because it’s actually surprisingly brilliant.

The other poster stars, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, play hyper-competitive couple Max and Annie, who love nothing more than the weekly game night they host with their best friends, from which they exclude their odd next-door neighbour, Westie-loving cop Gary (Jesse Plemons). One week, Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly shows up and gatecrashes game night, then offers to host an even better one. For that he arranges a real-life mystery game, where he gets kidnapped and the others have to track him down… except then he gets kidnapped for real, and they only have the rest of the night to rescue him.

If you’ve ever wondered “what if someone reimagined David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy?”, Game Night is probably the answer. Personally, I’ve never wondered that, but I’m up for it. That said, I was all prepared to let it wait until it popped up on Netflix or something, until the film’s home release in the US a couple of months back prompted a wave of praise from critics I follow on Twitter. Now I’m adding my small voice to those urging you to check this movie out.

Wanna play a game?

It’s the kind of film where I don’t want to say much more than I already have, because obviously the joy lies in the jokes (and jokes are a lot less funny if you spoil them) and the plot developments. At the risk of just reeling off a list of superlatives, I’ll say that what unfolds is fast, inventive, clever (after you’ve seen the film, check out this spoilersome bit of trivia. I mean, that’s superb!), and, above all, hilariously funny. There are more laughs in its opening montage than many modern comedies manage in a whole film. Jesse Plemons transcends the “budget Matt Damon” jibes (but, c’mon, he really looks like an own-brand Matt Damon) to all but steal the film with his hysterical straight-faced supporting role. I only say “all but” because everyone else is firing on all cylinders too: it’s a cast full of likeable, well-performed characters, not least Max and Annie. McAdams, in particular, gets to give a line delivery that’s an all-timer. If there’s a criticism in this regard it’s that, with so many characters competing for screen time, I’m not sure how well their individuals arcs really work, but that’s a minor distraction.

One other thing I will criticise — which is nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but bugged me enough that here’s a whole paragraph about it — is the scarcity of extras on the Blu-ray, which total just ten minutes. Seriously? Put some effort in! All the praise from American Twitter led me to acquire the film via Alternative Means, but, being the good honest film consumer I am, I was going to rent it when it came out here as retrospective payment. But then I loved it so much I thought I’d just go ahead and buy the disc. But a full-price new release of a film I’ve already seen with a grand total of ten minutes of special features? You’re having a laugh. Were there no deleted scenes? Could they not stump up for a commentary? Surely they filmed longer interviews than that just for the EPK? But no, all we get is a 6½-minute gag reel and a 3½-minute “featurette” (I’m being kind — at that length it can’t be much more than a trailer). I’m going to buy it eventually, in a sale, because I enjoyed the film enough to add it to my collection, but you cost yourself a day-one purchase there, Warners. I don’t know how much the general film-viewing populace still care about special features, but us aficionados do, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about this particular title. Anyway, rant over.

Who's stealing the film now, eh?

For pure enjoyment, I came very close to giving Game Night the full five stars — when it works, it absolutely sings — but there are just a few bits, here and there, that fell a little short. Nonetheless, it’s certainly the kind of film I loved in spite of its flaws. If only the adorable dog had been in it more, maybe this’d be a five anyway…

4 out of 5

Game Night is available to own digitally in the UK from today, and on that disappointing DVD & Blu-ray from next week.

The Conversation (1974)

2017 #10
Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

The Conversation

In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

5 out of 5

The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Review Roundup

This may look like a pretty random selection for a review roundup… and it is. But they do have two things in common: I watched them all in 2017, and I gave them all 3 stars.

Yeah, not much, is it?

Anyway, in today’s roundup:

  • The Girl on the Train (2016)
  • Lions for Lambs (2007)
  • Tea for Two (1950)


    The Girl on the Train
    (2016)

    2017 #113
    Tate Taylor | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Girl on the Train

    Based on a bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee whose commuter train passes her old home every day. She tortures herself by observing her ex (Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and their child, as well as her former neighbours Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett), who she imagines living a perfect life. But after Rachel sees something that shatters the image she’s created, she wakes up from a black out, with mysterious injuries, and to the news that Megan has gone missing…

    The whole story unfurls with a good deal of histrionics and a questionable level of psychological realism, but as a straightforward potboiler it has some degree of entertainment value. In fact, if it had been made with a little more panache then it may even have been seen as a throwback to the kind of melodramas they produced in the ’40s and ’50s. Because it doesn’t seem to have that level of self-awareness, I guess it’s just the modern-day equivalent.

    3 out of 5

    Lions for Lambs
    (2007)

    2017 #121
    Robert Redford | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Lions for Lambs

    The US intervention in the Middle East is obviously one of the most significant geopolitical events of our age, but how many films have really got to grips with it? Some, like The Hurt Locker, have given a sense of its impact to those on the ground. Lions for Lambs tried to take a more intellectual standpoint, with three interconnected storylines: a young and ambitious US senator (Tom Cruise) details a new military strategy to an experienced and sceptical journalist (Meryl Streep); a college professor (Robert Redford) tries to engage a talented but apathetic student (Andrew Garfield); and two soldiers become stranded in Afghanistan (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), providing a link between the other two stories.

    Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan originally conceived the work as a play, before realising the Afghanistan section needed the scale of a movie. Nonetheless, his original conception shows through: the film is very talky and stagey, and the other two storylines could certainly be performed on stage with no changes necessary. You can also tell it’s driven by disillusionment in the US’s actions, and it has everyone in its critical sights: the government, the media, the education system… It feels more like a polemic than a movie, lecturing the viewer; although, like everyone else, it doesn’t seem to offer any firm answers.

    Streep and Cruise both give excellent performances. I suppose being a smarmy senator isn’t much of a stretch for the latter, but Streep’s turn as an insecure journalist is the highlight of the film. You need acting of that calibre to keep you invested in a movie like this, and it almost works, but ultimately the film has too little to say.

    3 out of 5

    Tea for Two
    (1950)

    2017 #162
    David Butler | 94 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Tea for Two

    Musical comedy starring Doris Day (radiant as ever) and Gordon MacRae (given little to do as her love interest).

    The songs are largely forgettable, with a couple of sweet exceptions, but at least there are other things to recommend it, like some impressive dancing from Gene Nelson, particularly during a routine on a flight of stairs. There’s a solid helping of amusing one-liners too, most of them claimed by Eve Arden as Day’s wry assistant Pauline, the rest by S.Z. Sakall as her embattled uncle. Said uncle is, by turns, a bumbling old codger and an underhanded schemer who uses tricks to try to ruin his niece’s happiness just so he can win a bet. Best not to dwell on that too much…

    The same goes for the rushed ending, in which our heroine is in financial ruin, so her assistant basically whores herself out to a rich lawyer so they can still put on the show. Hurrah! And talking of things not to dwell on, there’s also the title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story (other than it being probably the best song). Conversely, the name of the play it’s based on — No, No, Nanette — is bang on. Ah well.

    Nonetheless, Tea for Two is all-round likeable entertainment; the kind of movie you put on for a pleasantly gentle Sunday afternoon.

    3 out of 5

  • Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

    2018 #105
    Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

    I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

    If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

    Fisticuffs!

    So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

    The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

    The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

    Miss Selina Kyle

    As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

    Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

    The Ripper approaches...

    In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

    As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

    4 out of 5

    Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.

    The Hangover Parts II & III

    In today’s roundup:

  • The Hangover Part II (2011)
  • The Hangover Part III (2013)


    The Hangover Part II
    (2011)

    2018 #56
    Todd Phillips | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / R

    The Hangover Part II

    The Hangover was a surprisingly big hit back in 2009 (was it really so long ago?), so naturally it spawned a sequel. That went down less well, mired in criticisms of just being a rehash of the original. I don’t know what people expected, really — The Hangover was sold on its high-concept setup, so naturally they repeat that for the sequel.

    For those who don’t remember said setup, it’s a bunch of mates gathering for a bachelor party, only they wake up the next morning with no memories of the night before, surrounded by evidence that a bunch of crazy random stuff has happened, and one of their party missing — in the first film it’s the groom, which naturally has potential to upend the wedding; in this one it’s the bride’s brother, which is almost as bad. So they must retrace their steps to find the missing person, along the way learning what the hell they got up to the night before.

    The devil, then, is in the detail. The big change is that the first film was set in Las Vegas and this one is in Bangkok. Other than that… look, I’m not going to list specifics, because what would be the point? But as I say, it’s the same broad outline, only with different specific events. I suppose I can see why some might feel they’d seen all that before, but when so many movies have the same plot without even meaning to, can we really begrudge a sequel for sticking to the same shape and structure as its forebear?

    Monk-eying around

    I wonder if part of the reason some people were so disappointed was their heightened expectations. The first was a very popular film, so I guess its fans expected a lot of a sequel. Receiving something that was almost a copy must’ve felt inferior. Personally, I only thought the original was okay — quite amusing, for what it was. I thought the sequel was at least equally as good. If anything, being free of expectations, I enjoyed Part II more. Thinking back on it, I didn’t actually laugh that often… but, somehow, I didn’t mind. So I guess I… kind of like the characters? And so hanging out with them for another couple of hours… was enough? Well, I didn’t expect to have that reaction.

    Anyway, clearly fans of The Hangover need to approach this rehash sequel with caution; and if you hated Part I then Part II is samey enough that you don’t want to bother. But if, like me, you enjoyed the original well enough but that was all, this follow-up might surprise you.

    3 out of 5

    The Hangover Part III
    (2013)

    2018 #102
    Todd Phillips | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Hangover Part III

    Clearly the people in charge of the Hangover series took on board criticism that Part II just rehashed Part I’s plot, because Part III takes the same characters and spins them off onto a wholly different narrative. There isn’t even a hangover involved. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either: based on ratings found across the web, it’s the least popular of the trilogy.

    Picking up after the events of the second film, it begins with Chow escaping from prison, leading a former criminal rival to force the Wolf Pack to track him down. Cue the gang finding themselves involved in a heist in Tijuana, before events take them back to Vegas to bring the series full circle. In the most fundamental change to the series’ MO, these events unfold linearly, meaning it ditches the piecing-the-night-together element of the previous two films. You can see why they tried to put the same characters through a new crazy adventure, but it’s missing something without that mystery structure.

    Even worse, it’s just not as funny and the story isn’t as engaging. Some people say it’s completely humourless, which I think is a bit harsh, but it’s also a more serious film than it should be. The stakes are too high, and the need to construct a story that progresses sequentially leads to a focus on plot. Say what you will about the repeated structure in the first two films, but it allowed for the insertion of almost any random situation that seemed funny — what occurred the night before only has to just about hang together, because the guys are re-encountering their adventures out of order and without all the facts. Here, with the characters sober and the story unfurling in chronological order, there must be clear cause-and-effect from one scene to the next. That seems to have hampered the writers’ funny-bones. It almost becomes a comedic crime thriller rather than just a comedy — albeit a ludicrous, derivative one — which feels like it’s missing the point.

    A model heist

    It’s also too long, especially when it moves onto an epilogue that seems to keep reaching an endpoint only for there to be another scene. Eventually there’s a montage of clips from all the previous films, which seems to be under the impression this was some epic saga and something more significant than it actually is. And then, to rub salt in the wound, there’s a mid-credits scene that suggests a better Hangover movie than the one we just watched.

    Apparently the lead cast members all took convincing to return for this film, eventually being swayed by a $15 million payday (plus gross points). I mean, fair play, I’d appear in worse movies than this if I was being offered $15 million. At least it’s kind of alright, depending on how forgiving you’re feeling, with a few funny lines and bits; but it is also definitely the weakest and least memorable of the trilogy.

    2 out of 5

    * Just as with the first film, the BBFC took issue with some of the photographs shown during the end credits, and so they were cropped to secure a 15. The version streaming on Amazon is unedited, however, meaning that technically what I watched hasn’t been passed by the BBFC. But there’s nothing there that your average fifteen-year-old hasn’t already seen on the internet anyway. ^

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

    aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

    2017 #163
    Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

    The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

    “A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

    But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), the give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales, without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

    Impractical architecture

    Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

    For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

    One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

    Suspicious activity

    And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

    But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

    4 out of 5

    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    My Cousin Rachel (2017)

    2018 #33
    Roger Michell | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    My Cousin Rachel

    Adapted from a lesser-known Daphne Du Maurier novel (previously filmed in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland, and here relocated from Cornwall to Devon to avoid comparisons to Poldark (really)), My Cousin Rachel is the story of an orphaned young man, Philip (Sam Claflin), who’s raised by his older cousin Ambrose until the latter’s health forces him to leave for Florence. There Ambrose falls in love with their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and marries her, but shortly after dies. His final letter to Philip implies Rachel may’ve had a part in his demise. When she arrives at their estate in England, Philip is determined to confront her, but soon finds himself entranced by her, as does everyone. Is she a scheming murderess intent on using her wiles to acquire the family’s estate, or did Philip’s imagination get the better of him?

    That mystery is really the heart of My Cousin Rachel, which unfurls as a classy, lightly Gothic melodrama. It’s a puzzle that’s not so much investigated as gradually hinted at, leaving the audience to make up their own mind. It certainly was successful in having me change my opinion on where it was headed multiple times. The pace is fairly leisurely, which some reviewers have found to be trying; but while it’s certainly a slow burner, for me that was part of why it worked. The passage of time and the opportunity it grants for overthinking sways Philip’s mind hither and thither, and so the film gives the viewer similar space to think, for their opinion to shift, back and forth. It makes you a part of his paranoia.

    Who's playing who?

    Rachel Weisz is typically excellent, delivering a finely balanced performance that is at once charming and suspicious — is Rachel simply quietly enigmatic, or she hiding a scheming and deadly nature? Sam Claflin is very effective as the hot-headed, easily-led young man at the centre of the story, exhibiting these characteristics which sell Philip’s flip-flopping opinions, which could otherwise have come across as inconsistent. You can believe their passion of each other — or, certainly, his for her — which leads to some earthy bits that might surprise anyone expecting a quaint Heritage melodrama. Thrusting among the flowers aside, the overall style does evoke those Sunday evening costume dramas (you can see why they were wary of a Poldark comparison), as does the pretty photography by DP Mike Eley — it’s not the most outright gorgeous film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a bit of a looker.

    My Cousin Rachel’s unhurried storytelling may put off some viewers, but if you settle into its rhythm then it’s a paranoia-fuelled guessing game that will keep you rethinking the truth up until its closing moments.

    4 out of 5

    My Cousin Rachel is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Annihilation (2018)

    2018 #45
    Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Annihilation

    Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

    Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

    Squad goals

    The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

    Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

    All the better to eat you with

    Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

    A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

    Scared of the dark?

    However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

    4 out of 5

    Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.