Film Noir Review Roundup

I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more film noirs this year, and today’s roundup contains a few results of that:

  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • Accomplice (1946)
  • Shockproof (1949)


    The Narrow Margin
    (1952)

    2018 #2
    Richard Fleischer | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Narrow Margin

    Recognised as a classic noir, The Narrow Margin follows a detective (Charles McGraw) who must protect a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) as she travels by train from Chicago to LA to give vital evidence. As the ‘tec finds himself getting involved with an attractive fellow passenger (Jacqueline White), the assassins on his trail mistake her for their actual target…

    What unfurls is an exciting plot with some solid twists and some great dialogue (enough that it earnt a Best Writing Oscar nomination, in fact), all told in a snappy running time that ensures the film powers forward like, well, a locomotive. Director Richard Fleischer makes very effective use of handheld camerawork and the train setting to create a confined, claustrophobic atmosphere that emphasises the tension and peril of the characters. It all blends into a very fine thriller.

    4 out of 5

    Accomplice
    (1946)

    2018 #16
    Walter Colmes | 66 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

    Accomplice

    Described by Paul Duncan’s Pocket Essential Film Noir as “hardboiled fun”, and by the few other people online who’ve seen it with phrases like “one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time”, Accomplice graces my eyeballs before many no doubt finer examples of film noir by virtue of the fact it was available to stream on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d catch it while it was there.

    Adapted by Frank Gruber from his novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, it sees private detective Simon Lash (Richard Arlen) being hired to track down a missing bank executive by his concerned wife (Veda Ann Borg), but the bank insists he’s merely on vacation. As Lash digs deeper, he begins to suspect the wife may have other motives — as does, well, everyone else.

    Running little more than an hour, Accomplice’s plot races past, giving you no time to stop and consider it. Maybe that’s for the best. Conversely, it makes it feel like it doesn’t hang together, even if it actually does. But it rushes along at a scene level, too: Lash seems to figure things out as quickly as it takes the actors to say their lines. It’d be Sherlockian, if you actually believed he had the necessary information and wherewithal to make the deductions.

    There is some fun to be had in a speedy car chase and the film’s occasionally kooky location choices, like the climax being set at a castle in the middle of the desert that’s pitching itself as some kind of hotel for mid-getaway crooks (I think that was the owner’s business plan, anyway). There are other surprising flashes of entertainment, though some of them were likely unintentional, but Accomplice is not really a good film.

    2 out of 5

    Shockproof
    (1949)

    2018 #68
    Douglas Sirk | 76 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Shockproof

    When you hear “film noir” you don’t immediately think of director Douglas Sirk (nor vice versa), better known for his colourful ’50s melodramas. Well, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s list of most-cited noir films, he helmed three, of which this is the second. The plot has plenty of noir elements, but the film actually feels more like a romantic melodrama. It’s quite an effective mix.

    So, the noir: it’s about a female murder parolee (Patricia Knight) and her parole officer (Cornel Wilde), who begins to fall in love with her. But is she still attached to the crook she took the fall for (John Baragrey)? Is she just pulling the wool over the eyes of the parole officer? That’s kind of a love triangle, hence we’re back in melodrama territory. But the advantage of it being billed as a noir rather than a romantic drama is you’re not sure where it will go. Will she fall for the good honest parole officer with his sweet younger brother and blind mother? Or will she be tempted back to the criminal love of her life? Or will it have a more tragic ending altogether?

    Well, no spoilers, but it definitely takes a turn I wasn’t expecting — the third act spins off in a whole different direction. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but at least it was unusual, a big departure from the earlier part of the film, and it kind of worked because of that. Again, no explicit spoilers, but it comes to a neatly ironic conclusion… before there’s one extra scene, which feels tacked-on and undermines where the film had got to tonally. And that’s exactly what happened: co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote Samuel Fuller’s screenplay and added a cop-out ending that Sirk felt ruined the film.

    Fatal femme

    At least until that point there’s stuff to enjoy. Knight’s performance is the real star: although her true nature seems to have been revealed at the start (she’s a parolee, i.e. a no-good criminal), the film adds more nuances to her than that — primarily, you can’t be sure if what she’s doing is genuine, or if she’s playing the parole officer for her own ends. There’s also an interesting turn from Baragrey: I couldn’t be sure if his acting was a bit flat, or if he was deliberately being cool, cold, calculated, thinking he’s always in control, the smartest guy in the deal. Well, even if it’s the former, it functions well as the latter.

    So, Shockproof (a title that has no relevance whatsoever, incidentally) isn’t a total disaster, with some surprising turns that are to be commended even when they don’t work. It was clearly a compromised production, but an interesting one.

    3 out of 5

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  • When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

    2018 #77
    Rob Reiner | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    When Harry Met Sally...

    Written by the queen of the romcom, Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is almost a deconstruction of the genre: its titular protagonists are just friends, but (the film asks) can a man and a woman ever be ‘just friends’? It perhaps feels like a dated question today, when almost 30 more years of gender equality have pushed heavily towards the answer being “yes, of course”, but that doesn’t matter for two very good reasons: first, the film still stands as an insight into the nature of relationships in the ’80s and ’90s; and second, it’s just a really good film.

    It begins in 1977, when Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are recent graduates who meet through a mutual friend. They soon go their separate ways, and then the film catches up with them in 1982, and again in 1987 — and that’s just act one. It’s an interesting opening gambit to chart the pair’s backstory. It dodges the usual romcom thing of people who’ve just met falling instantly in love, but also does more than introducing us to two friends and telling us “they’ve always been friends” — it shows that friendship. I don’t think I’ve read anyone else talk about this part of the film, I guess because it really ‘gets going’ in the ’87 segment, but I think it’s an interesting way of beginning things, and gives a different grounding to the relationship drama we then see unfold.

    It’s an immaculately constructed film all round, both on a macro and a micro scale. For the latter, there’s a single-take four-way phone call between the two protagonists and their respective best friends that is a thing of beauty (and apparently took 60 takes to get right!) It also manages to make New Years and Auld Lang Syne feel relevant to the plot, rather than just an obvious big occasion on which to set the finale. That’s a neat trick to pull off. Even the seemingly-random interludes showing interviews with long-married couples have a pay-off at the end that, once again, reiterates my point about how put-together this is.

    Just friends...?

    On that macro scale, it again subverts the usual romcom structure simply by having the characters be hyper-aware of the possibility they could sleep together, and regularly discussing whether they should or will. They’re not just bungling through this relationship, happening to fall into all the usual clichés, like so many romcom characters before and since — instead, they’re actually thinking their way through it, aware of the pitfalls. And yet they fall into some anyway, and the film does sometimes follow predictable structure and does hit some of those clichés — but it always manages to make them ring true.

    This truthfulness — about male-female friendships, mainly — is probably the film’s biggest asset. Is it still accurate about those dynamics almost three decades later? Despite what I said earlier, maybe it is. And even if it isn’t, I reckon it was bang on point for the ’80s and ’90s, and isn’t that enough? It tells you about the time it was made, even if it doesn’t tell you about today. It all adds up to mean that, when the inevitable happens at the end, it doesn’t feel like an obvious outcome, but something earned and emotional.

    4 out of 5

    Passengers (2016)

    2017 #156
    Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Passengers

    This review contains major spoilers.

    I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

    Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

    Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

    I C You

    Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

    One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

    No! Bad Jim! Bad!

    A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

    Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

    Sci-fi money shot

    Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

    On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

    It's full of stars!

    That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

    4 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name (2017)

    2018 #80
    Luca Guadagnino | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy, France, Brazil & USA / English, Italian, French, German & Hebrew | 15 / R

    Call Me by Your Name

    Call Me by Your Name was the lowest grossing film among 2017’s Oscar Best Picture nominees, but it felt like it was one of the most talked about films on the ballot — though, being part of a list that also includes Get Out and “the fish sex movie”, obviously there’s stiff competition.

    Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, it centres around 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a pair of well-to-do intellectuals (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who spends his days lazing around their countryside villa — reading books, noodling about on the piano, and flirting with the local girls — and his evenings chasing skirt. He’s smart and talented, but still young and developing. Into his life comes Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student who’s to be his professor father’s annual research assistant. Initially Elio is standoffish around the free-spirited Oliver, and yet seems fascinated by him. As they begin to spend more time together, a mutual attraction tentatively develops into a passionate love affair, a new experience for them both.

    Sorry to rush you through the plot like that, but the gay romance between Elio and Oliver is what the film’s, y’know, about. It’s an effective and truthful depiction of young love — falteringly, unassured, but driven by powerful emotions and burning lust. Although Oliver initially seems hyper-confident, as he opens up to Elio it becomes clear that this is new for him too, and of course Elio’s only young, inexperienced even with girls at the film’s start, so of course love is a new thing to him. So, in some respects it doesn’t matter that the film’s about a gay relationship — the feeling it conjures of young love is universal. Of course, there are many reasons why it matters immensely that it’s about a gay relationship, but those concerns are largely external to the film itself. They intrude only in the sense that Elio and Oliver keep their affair a secret, though given Elio’s bohemian-ish family, he eventually finds more support than he might’ve expected.

    Flesh

    It’s not all sweetness and uncertainty, mind. I used the word “lust” for a reason: there’s some fairly sexually explicit stuff, so be warned if you’re of a sensitive disposition, or are particularly fond of peaches. Well, I say that — if you’re really fond of peaches, this will be your new favourite film. It’s not Stranger by the Lake graphic, despite what screenwriter James Ivory had in mind (i.e. there’s no explicit male nudity; Elio’s girlfriend gets her kit off though, which could spark a whole other debate about gender equality), but there’s still no doubting what the young couple get up to.

    Talking of which, there was apparently some controversy about Elio and Oliver’s ages in regards to their relationship — Elio, as I said, is 17, and Oliver is 24. Some Americans seem to have a monomaniacal obsession with the age of consent being 18, which they then apply universally. I mean, it’s not even close to universal in the US (it’s 16 in 31 states and 18 in only 11), never mind worldwide. So, some people apparently have a major problem with that age difference between Elio and Oliver, whereas others won’t even think about it. For what it’s worth, the age of consent in Italy is 14 — imagine the reaction if they’d made Elio that young! For another perspective, in the UK in 1983 the age of consent for heterosexual couples was 16, but for gay people it was 21 — so, what, if this was set in the UK and Elio was female it would be okay, but because he’s male we’d have to be appalled? I guess my point is: think this shit through, and stop being “outraged” that people under the legal age of consent have romantic and sexual feelings.

    Pining

    But I guess there are fans of the film who’d know all about that, considering pretty young Timothée Chalamet has apparently become a favourite of the Tumblr crowd (who I’m basically assuming are all kids, which I’m sure is unfair). He’s not just young and beautiful though, but an extraordinarily competent actor too, all unearned confidence undercut by youthful vulnerability. His Oscar nomination was deserved. Armie Hammer went overlooked, but he gives a more nuanced performance than you might expect. From the supporting cast, the reliably excellent Michael Stuhlbarg stands out. Initially just an amiable dad, the film gradually peels back the layers to reveal what a fantastic father he is, including one heart-to-heart scene that alone (and even more than Hammer) should’ve seen him scooping awards.

    The film was also overlooked in the cinematography category, which is a shame too. Shot on 35mm with a single lens by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, it ably recreates the hazy feel of a long-ago summer. That sensation extends across Guadagnino’s direction, the gentle pacing reminiscent of a time when six weeks was forever, when the world was full of possibilities and there was time enough to explore them all and still have some left over.

    Call Me by Your Name manages to resolve a striking array of contrasts — it’s both universal and specific, nostalgic and timely, powerful and gentle. The sum is a beautiful film in most every respect.

    5 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

    Perfect Sense (2011)

    2017 #131
    David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

    Perfect Sense

    It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

    Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

    Life goes on...

    It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

    Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

    ...until it doesn't.

    So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

    As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

    4 out of 5

    * Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

    Review Roundup

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

    Yeah, not much, is it?

    Anyway, in today’s roundup:

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


    The Girl on the Train
    (2016)

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

    The Girl on the Train

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Lions for Lambs
    (2007)

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

    Lions for Lambs

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Tea for Two
    (1950)

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

    Tea for Two

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

  • My Cousin Rachel (2017)

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

    My Cousin Rachel

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

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

    Who's playing who?

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

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

    4 out of 5

    My Cousin Rachel is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    La La Land (2016)

    2018 #10
    Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

    La La Land

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    14 nominations — 6 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

    Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

    For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

    Watching the best picture...

    La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

    Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

    Finale

    Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

    5 out of 5

    The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

    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.

  • 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.