Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

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  • Another Blindspot Review Roundup

    Following on from the roundup of four of my Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” reviews the other day, here’s another quartet.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Gran Torino (2008)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Nashville (1975)
  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


    Gran Torino
    (2008)

    2017 #78
    Clint Eastwood | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & Germany / English & Hmong | 15 / R

    Gran Torino

    Clint Eastwood’s modern Western (thematically speaking), about a grumpy old loner who overcomes his inherent racism to bond with the immigrants who now dominate his neighbourhood and eventually come to their defence, is a well-liked film, generally regarded as a late career highlight for the director-star. I imagine it would play very nicely as a companion piece and/or counterpoint to his earlier Oscar-winner, Unforgiven — both are stories about old men in one final fight, essentially. Here, that comes with a subtext about the price that’s paid for standing up for yourself. It may be the right thing to do, and maybe it ends up with the right result, but the good guys really suffer to get to that point.

    While that aspect of the film is ultimately powerful, I was less won over by the actual filmmaking. It feels like it’s been jiggered around in the edit, with some odd bits where it just jumps into a new scene. Even before that, Nick Schenk’s screenplay occasionally features very heavy-handed dialogue, of the “explain what the character is feeling right now” variety. It’s especially bad when Eastwood just talks to himself in order to vocalise these points for the sake of the audience.

    Still, if you’re immune to such niggles then it remains a potent — and timely — tale of doing what’s right for the defenceless. Such themes never die, I suppose.

    4 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes
    (1968)

    2017 #96
    Franklin J. Schaffner | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / G

    Planet of the Apes

    The original instalment in the long-running franchise (it’s up to nine films across three go-rounds now, plus a couple of TV series) sees astronaut Charlton Heston land on a mysterious planet where apes have evolved to have human-like intelligence, while men are mute wild creatures dominated by their simian betters. And eventually there’s a twist that everyone knows, which is a shame because I bet it was pretty darn surprising before that.

    Coming to Planet of the Apes for the first time almost 50 years after its release, there’s an unavoidable quaintness to some of it, mainly the monkey makeup. It was for a long time iconic, but it’s been abandoned in favour of hyper-realistic CGI in the new movies and therefore shows its age. That said, while the apes may not be as plausible as those produced by modern technology, the performances underlying them are still strong. It contributes to what is really a parable about dominance and oppression; colonialism inverted onto a white man, that kind of thing. All wrapped up in a sci-fi adventure narrative, of course.

    Honestly, it’s not just the effects that have improved — as a piece of speculative fiction, I think it’s now been outclassed by the recent trilogy. It’s still a cracking adventure, but a bit “of its time”.

    4 out of 5

    Nashville
    (1975)

    2017 #111
    Robert Altman | 160 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Nashville

    Robert Altman’s low-key epic about 24 characters and how their stories interact, overlap, and collide across five days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee.

    The sheer scope of that makes it a tricky film to interpret. There’s a lot going on, much of it in snatched conversations and moments that leave it up to the audience to piece together what matters and why. Collision must be a theme: within the first hour there are three car crashes or near misses, and the climax is certainly a collision in its own way. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a fully-developed thought, so I’m not sure what the point of it might be. It’s a small element of the film, really — something like all the music being performed is much more obvious and therefore maybe more relevant.

    I guess I’m searching for meaning because the film in general is just casually observational of a bunch of characters meandering through a few days. Maybe there doesn’t need to be meaning — maybe that is the meaning. It’s certainly one way to interpret the finale. So, I kind of liked it — or, rather, admired it, perhaps — even if I didn’t necessarily ‘get it’.

    4 out of 5

    A Matter of Life and Death
    (1946)

    2017 #74
    Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 100 mins | DVD | 4:3 | UK / English | U / PG

    A Matter of Life and Death

    I finally get round to watching this on a ropey old DVD, and then they announce a new 4K restoration (which was released in UK cinemas earlier this month). Hopefully a Blu-ray will follow. It will be very welcome, because I imagine this film will look magnificent in properly restored HD.

    It begins with an incredible opening scene, in which an entire relationship is founded and ended over the radio in about five minutes. From there it’s the story of a World War Two pilot (David Niven) who avoids death by a fluke, then properly falls in love with the voice from the other end of that radio call (Kim Hunter) before the afterlife comes a-callin’ to take him where he was meant to be. Or maybe that’s all just a vision induced by the injury he sustained. Either way, he must argue his case to remain on Earth.

    It’s a grandly romantic film — it is all about the triumph of love over everything else, after all — but with a particular fantastical bent that I think remains unique. It has the wit to present a mildly irreverent stance on the afterlife, not taking the whole “life and death” thing too seriously. While the final result of the airman’s trial is never in doubt, the delight is in the journey there.

    5 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes, Nashville, and A Matter of Life and Death were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Gran Torino was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

  • Your Name. (2016)

    aka Kimi no na wa.

    2017 #168
    Makoto Shinkai | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12 / PG

    Your Name

    If you’ve not heard about Your Name then… well, where have you been for the past year? It was a colossal hit in its native Japan during the back end of 2016, spending 12 weeks at #1 to become the fourth highest-grossing film of all time there (behind only Spirited Away, Titanic, and Frozen). It’s also the only anime not made by Studio Ghibli to gross over ¥10 billion at the Japanese box office. Critical acclaim has followed as it’s been released around the rest of the world too, hailing writer-director Makoto Shinkai as the new Miyazaki. It’s hard to imagination higher praise for an animator. The film reached UK cinemas last November, but then took a whole year to hit DVD and Blu-ray (I guess thanks to Japanese studios’ usual restrictive licensing agreements), and as of this week is available to stream for Amazon Prime members. So when I finally sat down to watch it this week it had a bit of weight on its shoulders — at this point it runs the risk of being a victim of its own hype.

    The film introduces us to Mitsuha, a teenage girl in a sleepy country town — more a village, really (it doesn’t even have a cafe!) — who wishes for a more exciting life in the big city. Her friends tell her she was acting weird the day before, but she can’t remember any of it. Then she wakes up in the body of Taki, a teenage boy living in Tokyo. Assuming it’s a dream — a very long, very realistic dream — she stumbles through his life for a day. To cut to the obvious, Mitsuha and Taki soon realise they’re actually swapping bodies, apparently at random but for a whole day each time. (The literal translation of the film’s Japanese title is What is your name, which kinda makes more sense.) They find ways to deal with it, but a big explanation for why it’s happening is looming…

    That feeling when you wake up and realise a boy's been inside you... er, as it were

    That comes in the form of a hefty twist about halfway through the movie. I’ve read some very different reactions to that development and what follows it — criticism of it for shifting the film into something generic after a more original first half; praise it for elevating the film into something more original after the generic first half. I guess your mileage will vary. For me, it kind of glossed over some of the body-swap stuff to get to a place where there was still time to deal with what happens next. Conversely, there are plenty of intersex body-swap movies — how much do we need to go over that again? But there are generic elements to the second half too.

    That said, the way it uses Japanese folklore to bring all the threads together is a bit different, at least for us Westerners. I don’t know if it’s based on genuine beliefs or if it’s a mythology imagined for the film, but it conveys some effective and affecting ideas. It builds to an emotional climax and, ultimately, a perfectly satisfying ending. Well, unless… At times you feel there were perhaps other, more unusual directions the film could have explored. Fair enough, that clearly wasn’t the story Shinkai wanted to tell; but some viewers may think those less well-trodden paths would’ve made for a better movie. Of course, that would’ve neutered its appeal to others; but then Mark Kermode compared it to Romeo and Juliet in terms of how it might appeal to teenagers, and that certainly doesn’t have a happy ending…

    Taki reaching for Mitsuha's boobs, probably. He loves feeling her boobs.

    I’m not just talking about the finale, though. For example: while in Taki’s body, Mitsuha displays his “feminine side”, which leads to a date with a girl he’s had a crush on for ages. On the day of the date, Taki is in his own body, which leaves Mitsuha upset because she’d wanted to go on the date. Surely you can see how this is possibly building in a direction where Mitsuha realises something about herself; something she might not have noticed living in a very traditional little town. But that’s not where Your Name is going — and, as I said, fair enough — but it’s not a bad idea for a movie (is it?)

    Nonetheless, at times the story is quite complicated, with overlapping dialogue, or a density of information conveyed in images, on-screen text, and dialogue simultaneously. I mention this because watching the English dub might make for a more manageable experience, at least on first viewing. (That said, there’s one gag which only works in Japanese, and the subtitles work at a rate of knots to explain the joke while it’s happening. I watched the English dubbed version of the scene afterwards and it kind of fudges the gag away, because there’s no way to translate it into English.) That said, other bits of the story are just straight up jumbly, but trust that there’s a reason for that — you may get confused about who’s in whose body when, but the film makes enough sense in the end.

    Pretty pictures

    One thing I have no problem praising unequivocally is the imagery. The film is visually ravishing; the animation thoroughly gorgeous. Its use of colour and light is beautiful; the detail in the art and its movement is almost photo-real, without the uncanny valley effect you often get from rotoscoping. Shinkai also seems to have a live-action-esque feel for shots and editing, particularly in his use of montage, which lends a very filmic feel. At other times it benefits from animation’s freedom to be less literal, particularly in one sequence apparently created with pencils and chalk.

    I do think the hype around Your Name ended up as a problem for me. I was expecting to be blown away by its amazingness, the expectation of which got in the way of just appreciating the film for what it is. That said, I definitely liked it a lot. Despite using some building blocks familiar from other movies, it mixes them together with some fresh perspectives to create a film that is thoroughly romantic, in multiple senses of the word.

    4 out of 5

    As I mentioned, Your Name is now available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

    The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

    2017 #35

    Whoa there! Hold your horses! Before The Darjeeling Limited, we need to talk about…

    Hotel Chevalier
    (2007)

    2017 #34a
    Wes Anderson | 13 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    Hotel Chevalier

    The short film that exists as a kind-of-prequel, kind-of-Part-One to The Darjeeling Limited. It’s probably best remembered for its controversies — around whether or not it was attached to the feature’s theatrical release (it was, then it wasn’t, then it was); and around Natalie Portman’s ass, firstly because oh my God you get to see Natalie Portman’s ass, then later about whether or not she regretted baring it (long story short: she didn’t). The former issue annoyed fans at the time for reasons that, a decade later, are immaterial (though if you’re interested you can read about it here). The latter… well, frankly, I guess it got a lot of attention because, a) men are men, and b) what else there is to talk about from the short isn’t necessarily all that obvious.

    In it we’re introduced to Jason Schwartzman’s character from The Darjeeling Limited, one of the feature’s three leads, who here is seen lazing about in a Paris hotel room when he gets a phone call from a woman, who shortly thereafter arrives. Then they talk and stuff. All shot with director Wes Anderson’s usual style, because obviously.

    Natalie Portman's ass not pictured

    Hotel Chevalier exists in a weird in-between state, where it’s almost essential to the main film (the feature includes numerous callbacks to it; some inconsequential, others that I’m not sure make sense without seeing the short), but it also feels like the right decision to have left it out of the film. Its setting and the presence of only one of the trio of main characters mean it feels like a different entity, and if it had been in the feature itself, even as a prologue, it would’ve shifted the focus onto Schwartzman as the primary character. I don’t think that would’ve been right.

    So maybe it’s just a glorified deleted scene, then? Or maybe there was something I didn’t get and I’m doing it a disservice. The thing it most reminds me of, watching in 2017, is those Blade Runner 2049 shorts: it informs the main feature without being an essential component of it. So, while I didn’t dislike it, I don’t know how much it has to offer outside of setting up part of The Darjeeling Limited. Unless you just want to see Natalie Portman’s ass, of course.

    3 out of 5

    You can watch Hotel Chevalier on YouTube here.

    The Darjeeling Limited
    (2007)

    2017 #35
    Wes Anderson | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Darjeeling Limited

    So, the film proper. It’s the story of three estranged brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who reunite a year after their father’s funeral. One of them has organised a train trip across India so they can reconnect, although he also has an ulterior motive…

    My impression has always been that The Darjeeling Limited is a lesser work on Wes Anderson’s CV. I don’t remember it making much of a splash when it came out — maybe I’m wrong, but “another film where Wes Anderson does what Wes Anderson does” was my impression at the time — and I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed a great deal since. As someone who still feels new to Anderson’s world and is working through his oeuvre in a roundabout fashion, I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. If you want to find out what’s so great about Anderson, there are certainly other places to start.

    Brothers on a train

    That said, I did enjoy the film. Anderson’s mannered camerawork, kooky characters, and shaggy dog storylines seem to have gelled well with my own sensibilities. Conversely, finally getting round to this review nine months after I saw the film, I can’t remember many specifics. It’s a movie I’ll likely add to my Wes Anderson Blu-ray collection someday (for comparison, I can’t definitely say the same about Rushmore), and will be happy to revisit, but for the time being I’ve exhausted what little thoughts I had about it.

    4 out of 5

    Another Earth (2011)

    2017 #15
    Mike Cahill | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Another Earth

    Driving home drunk, 17-year-old Rhoda (Brit Marling) hits another car, leaving its driver, John (William Mapother), in a coma and killing his pregnant wife and their young son. Released from prison four years later, her grand life plans abandoned, Rhoda seeks out John to apologise, but when he doesn’t recognise her she pretends to be from a cleaning service and becomes his maid. Meanwhile, a planet that seems to be a mirror image of Earth has appeared in the sky and one member of the public can win a place on an exploration mission.

    Bit of a curveball, that, isn’t it? The main thrust of the film is a very grounded character drama about two emotionally damaged people and how they connect with each other, but there’s this big old sci-fi plot ticking away in the background — one which is referenced in the title of the film and all its marketing too, which immediately elevates its importance in the film: it’s not just a funny little background quirk, it’s central to what’s happening or will happen.

    By combining these two disparate genres Another Earth moves outside the accepted norms of either, which seems to discombobulate some viewers. I’ve seen it decried for not ditching the sci-fi stuff to focus on the characters’ emotional situation and relationship, and the same for not ditching the emotional stuff to focus on the sci-fi concepts. Personally, I think the film is doing exactly what it sets out to do: using aspects of each genre to comment on, reflect, and influence the other. That’s not to say it’s in some way a deconstruction of genre — it’s not working with tropes or clichés, at least not deliberately — but I mean it’s using a sci-fi idea to influence what could just be a straight-up dramatic story, and using a realistic human drama to explore a sci-fi concept from a different angle. Truth be told, I think some people can’t quite handle that. Of course, some people just think it doesn’t do it very well, which is fine. I thought it was at least interesting.

    Emotionally damaged

    Perhaps it doesn’t help that some of it looks like shit, as if it was shot by some inexperienced amateurs using their home movie camera… which it was. After having the idea for the film, co-writer/director Mike Cahill and co-writer/star Marling began shooting it using just an HD camcorder, even before they’d secured any funding. Well, haven’t they done well for themselves? Still, there are worse-looking movies.

    Another Earth may not please those looking for a straight science-fiction movie, nor those after a grounded character drama, but for anyone open to a combination of the two — a plausible, human-scale take on a high SF concept — it’s certainly worth a look.

    4 out of 5

    Anomalisa (2015)

    2017 #2
    Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Anomalisa

    Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on), Anomalisa tells the story of Michael (David Thewlis), a depressed customer service expert who perceives everyone else as looking and sounding the same — until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose uniqueness to him immediately attracts Michael.

    If you hadn’t noticed, Anomalisa (a portmanteau of “anomaly” and “Lisa”, not “anonymous” and “Lisa” as I’d assumed) is an animated movie. Although an everyday kind of drama that would be largely achievable in live-action, it uses the form to its advantage when depicting the central conceit, giving every character who isn’t Michael and Lisa the same face and having them all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan). For me, this was the most effective part of the movie. It’s a really neat way of executing the concept of not being able to tell people apart. Noonan is the film’s real star, too, voicing “everyone else” in a way that makes them sound plausibly unique but also all the same, a tricky balancing act that he nails.

    The one thing that did disappoint me about it was this: the inability to distinguish people is a genuine medical condition, but the film tackles it only as a signifier of Michael’s depression rather than as an issue some people live with. Conversely, I presume that’s a pretty rare condition, whereas depression and isolated feelings are increasingly widespread, so the film perhaps has more to say in that regard. Ultimately, I shouldn’t be criticising a film for not being about something it’s not trying to be about (even when I thought that was what it was going to be about).

    Even puppets get the blues

    As for the rest of the movie… hm. It takes an age to get going, but once it does there are a few funny scenes (the “toy” shop; the hotel shower; Michael struggling with his room key), and who’d’ve thought a puppet movie would have one of the more realistic sex scenes in the movies? Especially as it pulls that off without becoming laughable thanks to Team America. More pertinently, it gradually unfurls a sometimes touching story about isolation and love. However, by the time it reaches the happy-sad ending (one person’s life seems to have been transformed; the other continues to be miserable), I wasn’t sure what it all signified. Maybe the line that “sometimes the lesson is there is no lesson” is very relevant.

    So, some good stuff, but that long slow open takes getting over, and I’m not sure what it all meant.

    4 out of 5

    The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

    2017 #142
    David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

    For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

    The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

    So, that, but for two hours.

    I know how to settle this... a stare off!

    So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

    This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

    Team Abs

    As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

    The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

    Team Sparkles

    Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

    Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

    2 out of 5

    See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

    Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Sing Street placed 7th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

    2016 #134
    W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

    Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

    For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

    Dr Buckaroo Banzai

    There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

    In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

    Villains

    Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

    3 out of 5

    * Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

    Moonlight (2016)

    2017 #83
    Barry Jenkins | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Moonlight

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 3 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score.

    Last year’s (eventual) Best Picture winner could pithily be described as “Boyhood with a black kid”, and I’m sure it has been plenty of times, but that does a disservice to Moonlight’s own unique qualities.

    That said, it’s not difficult to draw obvious comparisons between the two. Both follow the lives of an American boy as he grows up across a decade-and-a-bit. Whereas Boyhood was shot in real-time with the same actor, Moonlight drops in on its central character, Chiron, at ages 11 (played by Alex Hibbert), 17 (Ashton Sanders), and 25 (Trevante Rhodes). Both films see the lead trying to figure out his place in the world, while also dealing with an absent father, surrogate father figures, and a mother often preoccupied with her own problems. But whereas Boyhood frequently felt like a ramshackle collection of vignettes that together created a loose portrait of a childhood, Moonlight is a bit more focused: Chiron is both bullied and gay, and how he deals with these things gives a shape to the narrative that Boyhood seemed to lack.

    Much of the credit for creating that smooth storyline belongs… well, with writer-director Barry Jenkins, of course (and at this juncture I must shoehorn in a mention of his charming Criterion closet video — if you didn’t love the guy before, I’m sure you will after watching that). But it also belongs with the three actors playing Chiron, who not only chart his development over time, but also make him a highly relatable protagonist in a very subtle way. The connection the viewer builds with him comes from the understated power of their acting — at all ages, Chiron expresses a lot without saying much, which only serves to draw us closer to him as we feel like we understand him nonetheless.

    Boyhood

    The quality of the performances from Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes is only emphasised when you learn that the three actors never met, never rehearsed together, never even watched each other’s work. That makes it all the more remarkable that they share something — in their eyes, or the way they hold themselves, or the hesitancy with which they connect to other people. It’s especially apparent in Rhodes: at first his version of Chiron seems completely different to the earlier two, but then we realise that’s just a front, and the real Chiron he’s buried comes to the fore when he reconnects with an old friend. From that point, he’s so like Hibbert and Sanders that it’s almost uncanny.

    Another thing the film handles with admirable subtly is the time jumps. Numerous subplots continue across all three sections, but rather than bluntly spell out what’s changed between each, Jenkins lets us infer it; and because we’re only getting a snapshot each time, some of these arcs (in particular that of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris) are contained as much in the gaps of what we’re shown as they are in what’s actually presented on screen. That we can pick up on what’s happened off screen is as much a tribute to Jenkins and his cast as is the quality of what we do see. And although the characters may change and develop off screen, what we witness each time is almost like the inciting incident that leads (in)directly to the next part of the story — the effects of actions are magnified over time, and the jumps mean you go directly from where something begins to where it ends up.

    Boys to men

    In telling the story of a young gay black man, Moonlight is exposing a world and lifestyle that’s not seen much, or at all, in (mainstream) cinema — that is, being black and gay. Or just being gay, really. Or black, to an extent. There’s an inherent positivity in getting such untold stories out into the open. Nonetheless, there’s a certain universality to Chiron’s experience. Lest one thinks that’s just a straight white guy trying to make everything relate to him (and I’ve seen others be accused of such appropriation), Jenkins observes it too in the film’s Blu-ray extras. A film doesn’t need that element of recognisability — there’s nothing wrong with illuminating a lesser-seen facet of the world; depicting a unique life experience — but Moonlight’s shy love story speaks across boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation.

    5 out of 5

    Moonlight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.