Witness (1985)

2018 #74
Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Witness

Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

Witness protection

Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

4 out of 5

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True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • Knocked Up (2007)

    2018 #64
    Judd Apatow | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Knocked Up

    I don’t really know why I watched this. Well, I do: it’s because it’s been on one of my 50 Unseen lists for over a decade (as have 14 other 2007 films, of course, but I intend to get round to most of those too), and at the time it was available on two different streaming services, so it sort of sat there going “why don’t you watch me? Go on, watch me!” until I did. And then I actually quite enjoyed it.

    It’s about career-driven Alison (Katherine Heigl), who ends up having a drunken one-night stand with freeloading pothead wannabe-porn-website-designer Ben (Seth Rogen). She gets pregnant, and suddenly the mismatched pair are connected for life. Despite the raucous setup, it’s actually a surprisingly sweet, warm, heartfelt movie… with dick jokes. Maybe that’s why this Judd Apatow-masterminded stuff has been such a success: it manages to simultaneously hit two demographics (essentially, rom-coms and frat-coms) that used to be mutually exclusive.

    Alongside that main story there’s a subplot featuring Alison’s sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). They’re established as supporting characters, but that feels like underselling it — they’re practically co-leads, given the amount of screentime that’s spent on their storyline. You could probably trim much of their stuff out and make a more efficient, more comedy-length movie; but then you’d really be losing something, because it’s actually quite good, mature, genuine material. But it’s just that’s not what this movie is — or, at least, not what it purports to be — and so it’s, like, why is that here? Why isn’t it off somewhere as its own movie? (Debbie and Pete were later the stars of a spin-off, This is 40, which was billed as a “sort-of sequel” — considering they’ve got such major roles here, I can see why. It makes me wonder why they didn’t get Heigl and Rogen back and just go the whole hog, but that’s a question for another review.)

    Anyway, being too long was Knocked Up’s biggest problem, in my opinion — chop out 20, even 30 minutes (heck, do it properly and get rid of more, even) and I reckon it’d be better. It’s also a bit needlessly crude, I guess, but I’ve seen far worse and less funny examples of that. It makes up for it by how well-handled the more dramatic parts are. Overall, I liked it a lot more than I expected I would.

    4 out of 5

    Seth Rogen’s new romcom, Long Shot, is being destroyed by Avengers: Endgame in cinemas everywhere now.

    Shrek Forever After (2010)

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

    Shrek Forever After

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    The Shape of Water (2017)

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

    The Shape of Water

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    13 nominations — 4 wins

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

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

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

    Dreaming

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

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

    Toxic masculinity

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

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

    Something fishy goin' on

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

    5 out of 5

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

    February Review Roundup

    As 2018 races towards its finish line, I’m sat on a pile of nearly 130 unwritten reviews. Oof. And to think, I started that page when I first got 10 behind.

    Anyway, as my (likely in vain) attempts to reduce that number continue, today’s roundup includes three reviews of films I watched all the way back in February:

  • WarGames (1983)
  • Being John Malkovich (1999)
  • I Origins (2014)


    WarGames
    (1983)

    2018 #22
    John Badham | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    WarGames

    It’s Ferris Bueller’s Third World War as Matthew Broderick plays a precociously talented high schooler who unwittingly hacks into a government war planning supercomputer and instigates a countdown to nuclear annihilation.

    It’s a funny old mashup of genres that I’m not sure you’d get away with today. It starts out as a Cold War thriller, feeling almost like a Tom Clancy adaptation; then suddenly it’s a John Hughes high school comedy; then the two have to awkwardly mesh, before it turns fully into a young adult techno-thriller. Young Adult fiction is almost synonymous with dystopian future adventures nowadays, but WarGames reminded me nonspecifically of the kind of thing YA books used to be about when I was the right age for them — and, considering that would’ve been in the mid ’90s, those books were quite possibly inspired by this film.

    So, it’s inescapably of its era, but no worse off for that… though how The Youth Of Today would take to it, God only knows. If you stop to think too much (or at all) about the ins and outs of the plot then it becomes thoroughly implausible in so many different ways, but if you let those things slide and go along with the film on its own terms then it’s a cracking adventure yarn.

    4 out of 5

    Being John Malkovich
    (1999)

    2018 #28
    Spike Jonze | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Being John Malkovich

    The film that introduced the world to the kooky imagination of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (almost 20 years ago now!), Being John Malkovich is about a failing puppeteer (John Cusack) who starts a new job in a bizarre office, where he develops an unreciprocated infatuation with a coworker (Catherine Keener) and discovers a hidden portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich).

    Even with that mad premise, Being John Malkovich wasn’t the film I thought it was going to be. Well, I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, especially as it’s a Kaufman film so I knew to expect “weird”. But I guess I anticipated that it would focus on people inhabiting Malkovich and doing kerazy things as him, or something, rather than it being a four-way love triangle (in an Escher-esque way rather than an “uh, I think you mean love quadrilateral” sense) in which the whole “inhabiting Malkovich’s body” thing is more a means to an end rather than the film’s raison d’être.

    Said end is an exploration of identity and relationships — indeed, the screenplay reportedly started life as “a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife” and the kooky body-swap antics came later. I’ve read reviews that frame it in the context of films like Mulholland Drive and Persona as a “comedic meditation on identity”; though what it actually says about identity, I’m not sure (but then, I wasn’t really sure what Mulholland Drive and Persona were saying either, so maybe this is just me). But I wonder: does it just tip its hat in that direction while playing around with the situation to see what happens? Are the filmmakers “yeah, whatever”ing the broader psychological implications (as one of the characters does) while playing out the full bizarreness of the premise to its logical extreme? I’m not sure “logical” is quite the right word for what goes on in this movie, but what I mean is it works through the fullness of the idea, extrapolating it through various events and to a conclusion. Can you even consider the true psychological implications with something so out-there and not-real?

    Well, maybe. Indeed, the film kinda does, through its relationships. One character falls in love with another, but only when the latter is in Malkovich’s body; but then they’re tricked into falling for someone else in Malkovich’s body; but that doesn’t work out in the long run, and the first pair end up together in real life — so the physical body is the initial attraction, but it’s ultimately irrelevant to the actual person inside. Basically, is this just a kooky, crazy, bizarre film whose message is the age-old “beauty isn’t just skin deep”?

    4 out of 5

    I Origins
    (2014)

    2018 #36
    Mike Cahill | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    I Origins

    The second film from Another Earth writer-director Mike Cahill, I Origins is another science-fiction drama with the emphasis on “drama” more than “sci-fi”. It’s about a scientist, Ian (Michael Pitt), who’s mapping the evolution of the human eye with his lab partner (Brit Marling), hoping it will help discredit the superstitious religious ideas that he despises. At a party, Ian is drawn to a masked woman (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) by her eyes, and they end up dating — but developments in their relationship send his research in surprising directions…

    I Origins is a consistently engaging, intriguing film; the kind of story that continues to develop and evolve its premise throughout its whole running time, so that I’ve had to be a bit vague to avoid just giving away the entire plot. My only real query is that I don’t know what it all signified in the end. Something to do with there being room for spirituality even in dyed-in-the-wool scientists? Or maybe it’s just about the personal journey of its lead character? Or maybe, as it was developed as a prequel to an unmade script, the really significant stuff lies there, and this is just backstory? (Cahill sold the rights to that screenplay in 2011, but it’s still not been produced.)

    It feels a bit disingenuous to praise a film where I don’t really know for sure what the point was, but I liked it quite a lot all the same.

    4 out of 5

  • The Greatest Showman (2017)

    2018 #237
    Michael Gracey | 105 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Greatest Showman

    There’s nothing inherently festive about The Greatest Showman (if it has even one scene set around Christmas, I can’t immediately recall it), yet it was initially released on Boxing Day last year and now kicks off December’s premieres on Sky Cinema, and somehow the association feels entirely fitting. I guess it’s something to do with the tone and style of the film itself: a big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery musical — just the kind of thing many people like to wallow in during the big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery end-of-year festival. It’s almost a John Lewis advert in feature film form, only with upbeat original songs instead of whispery female covers of old hits.

    Inspired very, very, very loosely by a true story, the eponymous gentleman is P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a man of low station in mid-19th century America who, via a cunning fraud, manages to buy a building that he turns into a museum of curiosities. With attendance poor, he adds a floor show featuring acrobatics and freaks. It’s slated by the critics, but curious audiences flock en masse. Barnum is suddenly a massive success — but at what cost to his personal life?

    Well, virtually none, because there’s barely any jeopardy to be found here (apart from a little forced something to push it into a third act). But jeopardy is not the point of The Greatest Showman, which is all about being a crowd-pleasing a good time — like the show-within-the-show, it was poorly received by critics but a huge word-of-mouth success: it never made it to #1 at the US box office, but nonetheless stayed in the top ten for 11 weeks and earned $434 million worldwide; it’s soundtrack album was such a hit that they’ve already released another album of cover versions. It’s a phenomenon, basically, and I do think the lack of worry or tension in the story is a contributing factor, especially in these troubling times. That kind of lightweightness doesn’t please the critically-minded, but it doesn’t bother those simply after a good time. And why should it?

    The greatest show

    It’s a Musical through and through, the movie equivalent of a broad stage grin and jazz hands. The numbers are of a different ilk to traditional Broadway style, but not misplaced — it’s modern chart-pop style songs and music video choreography, wrapped up in a big showy old-school musical vibe. I know everyone’s latched onto This Is Me as the film’s anthem, and Rewrite the Stars earned a single release because it’s a pop love song sung by kid-friendly Zac Efron and Zendaya, but the one number that really works for me is opener/closer The Greatest Show (it’s even better on the soundtrack, because it isn’t awkwardly sliced in two with the rest of the movie shoved in between, as it is on screen). If that song doesn’t end up being co-opted for opening ceremonies and things like that, it’ll be kind of a shame. And if I was to point to a runner-up favourite, I’d go for The Other Side purely for how its staged: a barroom duet between Jackman and Efron with impressive drinkography. And talking of the songs, the Honest Trailer contains some excellent spoofs of them.

    Still probably best known as surly superhero Wolverine, Jackman was an established musical theatre star before his big-screen breakthrough, so this stuff is very much within his skill set — indeed, as his recently-announced world tour could attest, this show of song and dance may be more in his comfort zone than the superhero shenanigans. Either way, that he’s so effortlessly consummate at both proves he’s a performer of underestimated range. Less remarkable as allrounders are former Disney brats Efron (as a bored rich kid roped into Barnum’s enterprise) and Zendaya (whose qualifier for a freakshow seems to be that she’s somewhat dark skinned), but they’re perfectly adequate for their poppy against-all-odds romantic subplot. Less at home is Michelle Williams — not that she’s bad, but seeing her smiling and happy is weird

    Drinkography

    Altogether, I can see why The Greatest Showman was unpopular with critics but a huge hit with audiences — it’s a proper crowd-pleaser; a big, cheesy, easy extravaganza, similar to its pop-style music. That’s not the sort of thing critics are enamoured of, but it is the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of the masses. On the whole, it didn’t appeal to me — there were things it could’ve done better without betraying what it was aiming for, I think, like that total lack of risk in the plot, but also things I was never going to like, such as the music style — but it did have its moments.

    3 out of 5

    The Greatest Showman will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

    aka Zatôichi umi o wataru

    2018 #214
    Kazuo Ikehiro | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Pilgrimage

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is the ‘lost’ Zatoichi movie: at some point the Weinsteins bought the rights to it because Quentin Tarantino was considering a remake, with the side effect of making it unavailable legally for years — while all the other Zatoichi films appeared on DVD in the US, Pilgrimage remained AWOL.* Its legal release finally came in 2013 as part of Criterion’s Blu-ray box set (which, coincidentally enough, is out in the UK this week). Clearly it was felt to be worth the wait, because it’s a highly-regarded instalment in the series. That might cause a newcomer to wonder if said wait led to some bias — that “hurrah, a new one!” feeling. Well, if it did it was entirely justified, because Pilgrimage is superb.

    I’ve often written in my Zatoichi reviews about the inaccuracies of the English-language title “translations”. Pilgrimage is another one… but, for once, the English title seems more apt. The original translates along the lines of Zatoichi’s Ocean Voyage, and while the film does begin with Ichi going on a voyage across the ocean, that’s the extent of its relevance — after that, he’s on his pilgrimage. Well, until he kills a guy and is followed by the chap’s horse, who then leads Ichi to the man’s home. Maybe Zatoichi and the Horse would be the most accurate title… but he’s sort of on a metaphorical pilgrimage even after he abandons his official one, so that’s okay. What develops could pithily be described as Seven Samurai meets High Noon: a group of humble farmers need protection from a violent gang, but, despite Ichi’s efforts to recruit them to defend themselves, they cowardly leave him as their sole protector.

    Zatoichi and the horse

    We’re up to the 14th film in the series now, and in a bid for something different star Shintaro Katsu and director Kazuo Ikehiro tapped Kaneto Shindo (director of Masters of Cinema/Criterion-friendly films Onibaba and Kuroneko) to write a screenplay focused on Ichi doing penance for all his killing, hence the titular pilgrimage. But by this point the Zatoichi series was a reliable money-spinner for studio Daiei, so the head of the studio ensured they didn’t let things stray too far from the formula. They got away with enough, I think. Ichi’s early attempts at atonement set the tone for the piece, and the final many-on-Ichi fight is more of a struggle for our hero than usual.

    Indeed, the way Ikehiro and Shindo build up to the finale — Ichi’s late-night heart-to-heart with latest love interest Okichi, then slowly walking out alone as the villagers hide away in their houses — actually creates a bit of tension and suspense before the battle, something rarely felt as we know Ichi’s always going to win. In the fight itself, Ichi actually seems overwhelmed by the onslaught of so many opponents. It’s a (slightly) more realistic take on the character: we’ve seen him take on this many with ease before now, but it wouldn’t really be easy; here we feel his struggle to come out on top, which makes the action more tense and exciting. The series’ other big final fights have marked themselves out with gimmicks or trickery (fire, drums, bird’s-eye camerawork, etc), but with this one it’s just how hard-won it is, how tough it is. Plus, as noted, it also recalls High Noon quite effectively: Ichi stands alone in the middle of the empty village, ready to face the attackers, while Okichi runs from house to house, begging the villagers to help, and we see them cowering inside.

    Oh, Okichi

    Ah, Okichi. Ichi has had many female admirers before (one per film, more or less), but most of the time their interest in him isn’t reciprocated; or, if it is in Ichi’s heart, he never lets his head get in the way and always leaves. Here, though, this feels genuinely like a romance. A lot of credit for this surely belongs to actress Michiyo Yasuda — as Walter Biggins lays out at Quiet Bubble, she “gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic […] rather than crazed.”

    There’s quality throughout Pilgrimage’s supporting cast. Isao Yamagata makes for a top-drawer villain as ‘smelly’ Tohachi, the local boss and horse trader (hence why he smells of horse manure). He gets a lot of good screen time alongside Ichi himself, trading veiled threats as much as physical assaults. His confidence makes for a nice change from the recent bad guys, who generally cower from Ichi’s reputation. Also, his weapon of choice is a bow and arrow, an unusual armament for this sword-focused series, but it leads to a couple of fun demonstrations of Ichi’s skill. Equally great is Masao Mishima as village headman Gonbei, jovially smiling and laughing while he’s threatened, or while discussing the conquering of their village, or while scheming and plotting to let Ichi fight on their behalf but without their backing. The villagers’ hiding is partly cowardice, but also a cunning scheme that, basically, gives them plausible deniability. Sneaky so-and-so.

    Tis but a scratch!

    The skilfulness extends behind the camera, too. I’ve already discussed screenwriter Shindo, but fans of the Zatoichi series will have good reason to recognise the name of director Kazuo Ikehiro: he previously helmed Chest of Gold and Flashing Sword, two of the best-directed Zatoichi films, and Pilgrimage can comfortably join their ranks. The whole film is nicely directed, with beautiful shot choices and framing, but particular standout sequences include an underwater sword fight (it’s only brief, but it’s effective), and a fantastic opening scene where Ichi punishes a brazen purse snatcher (credit to Shindo, again, for setting up some of the film’s themes and mirroring its finale as Ichi steps up from a crowd of do-nothings to bring justice). Some bad news, though: this is Ikehiro’s final contribution to the series, sadly.

    At least he goes out on a high. As Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits put it, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage is “one of the crown jewels of the series.” It’s little wonder Tarantino was considering a remake.

    5 out of 5

    Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage placed 13th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is available in the UK as of this week.

    * If you purchased a UK DVD titled Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage back in the ’00s, it wasn’t this film. For reasons unknown, a company called Artsmagic released the 23rd film, Zatoichi at Large, under the wrong title. There’s more information about that here. ^

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

    2018 #207
    Bill Condon | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Portuguese | 12 / PG-13

    The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

    And so we reach the final book in the Twilight Saga… but not the final film, because Breaking Dawn hails from the era when Young Adult adaptations routinely split their final book in two, all the better to make more money fully adapt the story. Sparked by the success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, said “era” lasted all of five years, taking in Twilight and The Hunger Games, before the two-part adaptation of the Divergent series’ finale was cancelled halfway through due to poor box office.

    But back to Twilight. Breaking Dawn, Part 1 starts with an event promised by the end of the previous movie: the wedding of human Bella (Kristen Stewart) to vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson). Sorry, Team Jacob; but let’s be honest, he never stood a chance. The double-length running time afforded this book means the film can spend its whole first half-hour indulging in the nuptials, which I imagine is the kind of thing fans of this series would revel in, so fair enough.

    Then Bella and Edward head off on a romantic honeymoon, and after spending three movies being an analogy for the wonders of chastity, the lead couple getting married means they can finally get. it. on! PG-13 style, of course (I believe some thrusting was cut to retain the teen rating in one or both of the UK and USA). Nonetheless, Edward’s so vigorous that he completely destroys the bed — well, the poor guy has been waiting for about 100 years. He also leaves Bella with some cuts and bruises, making him reluctant to go again. This leads to an extended montage where the newly wed girl desperately tries to get laid while the newly wed guy does his best to avoid it. It’s almost transgressive in its role reversal, except Twilight is too coy to present this quite explicitly enough to really nail that gag. Besides, if you’re looking for a human-vampire relationship that nails the sexual politics of teen relationships, Buffy got there over a decade earlier.

    PG-13 fucking

    Despite the paucity of their lovemaking, and the fact that one of the pair is technically dead, Bella winds up pregnant, with the baby growing in super-double-quick time and sucking the life out of her. Well, it is at least half vampire — that’s kinda their thing. All this means trouble for Bella’s life, but she insists on keeping the foetus — or baby, as one character forcefully points out when another refers to it as a foetus. Hm, I wonder what the conservatively-minded author might be drawing parallels with now? In fairness, it depends a certain amount on how you choose to read it. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has said she is pro-choice and wouldn’t have agreed to do the film if she felt it violated her beliefs, while acknowledging she had to find a way to not offend the beliefs of “the other side”. So, almost everyone tries to dissuade Bella from sticking with the pregnancy, but they let her make her own choice… and (major spoilers!) it ends up killing her. So they were right, basically.

    And that’s the entire movie, more or less. Well, it is only half the story. I think it’s the knowledge of it being only half the book that led many critics to describe the film as slow and light on content (you always see such comments about multi-film adaptations of single books), because while it’s hardly fast-paced, I didn’t think it was notably less incident-packed than previous Twilight movies. Mind you, that probably says less about the pacing of this film and more about how little actually happens in all these movies.

    Angry like the wolf

    However, despite choosing to adapt only half the story, it still feels like the plot is making jumps at times. For example: Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his werewolf buddies factor into things because they want to kill Bella’s devil-kid, but there’s also the matter of a treaty between the vampires and wolves (which I can’t remember the details of, so don’t ask). The film makes a point of emphasising that the wolfpack leader doesn’t want the treaty to be broken, then later on it’s stated that in his mind the treaty is broken. Now, okay, we can connect those dots ourselves, but really it’s missing a scene where the guy undergoes this about-turn of opinion. And yet, despite such missing links, director Bill Condon finds time for numerous sequences where people do nothing while a mournful song plays.

    On the bright side, Condon does manage to create a sequence that is the nearest this series has ever got to being an effective horror film (well, apart from Edward being a creepy stalker in the first film). It’s basically the ending of the movie, so, again, massive spoilers. So: Edward eats the baby out of Bella, who promptly dies, forcing Edward to flood her corpse with venom by biting her all over, which seems to do pretty awful things to her organs — that’s the scary bit, though it doesn’t sound particularly terrifying when you put it like that. Potentially more emotionally scarring is that, meanwhile, Jacob is off falling in love at first sight with Bella and Edward’s baby. That’d be their creepy CGI baby, which is roughly as convincing as a plastic one in a Clint Eastwood movie.

    “Is it a boy or a girl?” “I think it's... pixels.”

    Not that the acting of the humans is much more convincing. Kristen Stewart had a promising career before Twilight, and seems to have managed to reignite it as something of an arthouse darling afterwards, but here she’s just a personality vacuum. The film starts with her delivering a couple of lines of voiceover, and even from just that she manages to sound terminally bored. Later she asks, “why can’t you see how perfectly happy I am?” Probably because you’re not putting any effort into your performance, love. And yet, the less said about the rest of the cast, the better. Lautner doesn’t even get to wheel out his surprisingly-effective comedy chops this time.

    But for all the terribleness, I sort of feel I can’t hate it, because the rubbish bits are too funny, and the mad bits too bonkers (for a movie that is primarily aimed at romantically-inclined teenage girls, at least). While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was entertaining to sit through — kind of like The Room, for example, only still not quite as transcendently appalling.

    2 out of 5

    Join me this time next year when I finally finish this thing off. Unless I decide to do it next month, because Part 2 is currently sat on Netflix going “finish meeee”…