Safety Last! (1923)

2020 #172
Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor | 74 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / silent | U

Safety Last!

I’ve seen films by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, so it’s overdue that I acquaint myself with the so-called “Third Genius” of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. I would say that, of those three, Lloyd is considered a distant third place today: Chaplin is a name that transcends cinema to be known in the general consciousness; Keaton has accrued fame down the years for his still-impressive stunts; but Lloyd, I feel, has faded from consciousness a bit. If everyone’s heard of Chaplin, and a lot of people have heard of Keaton, I feel like only those in the know even consider Lloyd. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, some would assert that, in their day, Lloyd was the most successful of them all — per Wikipedia, he made $15.7 million to Chaplin’s $10.5 million. (Nothing is ever as straightforward as all that, of course. Here’s a good article at Silentology all about the history of popularity of the silent comedians, which ultimately makes it quite clear that (a) Chaplin was the biggest; (b) Lloyd and Keaton were the runners-up; and (c) the pack of other comedians was far behind that trio.)

The dwindling of his reputation seems to be at least partly his own fault: according to revered film historian Kevin Brownlow (paraphrased in this article), “Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing. An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early ’70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don’t need extra gimmicks.” Nowadays, silents are re-released with more respect to their original presentations, but, for whatever reason, I think Lloyd still awaits the reappraisal that the other two have enjoyed and/or never even needed. Indeed, if we look at their current availability on disc in the UK, Chaplin has several extensive Blu-ray sets to his name; Masters of Cinema have made a fine fist of getting Keaton onto Blu-ray, with four box sets so far; and Lloyd… has a total of two films. And one of those (this one) is only out today. (I’ve focused on the UK because that’s where I am, but it’s not a whole lot better in his native US, where a total of four of his films are on Blu-ray.)

What a way to make a living

My opinion on the three is still forming — as I said, this is the first Lloyd film I’ve seen, so it wouldn’t be fair to base an entire comparison off it. But I have now seen the majority of Chaplin’s most-acclaimed features, and a couple of Keaton’s too, so a view is beginning to coalesce. And that is that, either I’m always in the wrong mood when I watch a Chaplin film, or I just completely prefer Keaton, and now Lloyd too. Aside from The Great Dictator, I’ve found every Chaplin I’ve seen to be a bit of a slog. That’s not to say I dislike them — I can see admirable stuff aplenty, and greatly enjoyed some of the exceptionally amusing sequences — but they always feel very long to me. That’s not a sensation I’ve yet experienced during a Keaton film, nor with Safety Last. But who knows, maybe Safety Last is Harold Lloyd’s Great Dictator in terms of how my opinion pans out. Only time, and more films, can tell.

But, for now, Safety Last is why we’re here. It’s the story of a small-town boy (Lloyd) who travels to the city to find employment, planning to have his girl (Mildred Davis) follow him out just as soon as he makes his fortune. His letters home inform her of his increasing success, but in reality he works a lowly job at a department store, rushed off his feet to serve the baying mass of consumers. The ensuing century has conferred on that a degree of timelessness: working hard to appease others but getting nowhere yourself. It’s not the American Dream, but, for many low-level workers, it’s the American Reality. Replace working on the fabric counter of a department store with filling packages at an Amazon warehouse and, really, how much has changed?

This is the milieu the film plays in for the first 50-or-so minutes, more or less. There are digressions outside the workplace, the best being a fateful morning commute that sees Lloyd accidentally bundled into a van heading further and further in the wrong direction, leading to an array of tricks and stunts to head back to work on time. Keaton may be the more famed daredevil, but here Lloyd appears every bit his equal.

Climbing a building? Sounds like an impossible mission...

And never more so than in the film’s final act. A series of events leads us to the point where Lloyd has to climb the sky-scraping outside of the department store building in order to earn the big payday he’s been needing. What follows is a 20-minute climb; a phenomenal extended sequence that is both funny and tense. It was shot on location, on fake buildings built atop real buildings — not as dangerous as fully doing it for real, but not exactly health-and-safety conscious (if Lloyd had fallen, he would’ve dropped only a storey or so onto a mattress; but if he bounced off that…) It has the same kind of thrill that Tom Cruise employs today when he climbs skyscrapers or dangles off the side of planes, only with more humour. You might think that would undercut the tension, but, if anything, it exacerbates it. You can push things closer to the edge when being funny, and, boy, does Lloyd get close to the edge…

The first two-thirds of the film are a very solid 4-out-of-5 farce, but the final act mixes laughs with thrills in a perfectly executed, constantly escalating sequence that is a 6-out-of-5-level climax.

5 out of 5

The Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! is released in the UK today.

Memories of Murder (2003)

aka Salinui chueok

2019 #15
Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Memories of Murder

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

Investigators

A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

5 out of 5

Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

The 100-Week Roundup XI

This week: an underrated crime thriller based on the same true-life story as a Hitchcock classic; an investigation of the trauma left by conflict in a film I’ve nicknamed “Gulf War Rashomon”; and a test of this “just post my notes already” roundup format with one of my favourite films I watched in 2018.

They are…

  • Compulsion (1959)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Courage Under Fire (1996)


    Compulsion
    (1959)

    2018 #194
    Richard Fleischer | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

    Compulsion

    Based on a novel that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (which has also been the inspiration for various other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Compulsion is the story of two students who think their intellectual superiority will allow them to get away with the perfect murder.

    Playing the students, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are both fantastic. They’re two different types of well-to-do prodigies: Dillman charming and cocksure; Stockwell both awkward and supremely confident of his own exceptionalness. Their performances keep things compelling, even as the events unfolding are a foregone conclusion. You should and will hate them — even if they weren’t murderers, they’d be insufferable pricks (they sound like any number of modern-day politicians, don’t they?); that they’re cold-blooded killers just makes them worse. But even though you’ll never root for them, they’re still addictively watchable. Also, bearing in mind when the film was made, there’s a strong undercurrent of their homosexuality. It disappears as the film goes on, becoming more concerned with the case than the relationship between the two guys, but it’s discernibly there at the start.

    And then Orson Welles turns up. Despite getting top billing, he has more of a third act cameo that turns into the film’s most grandstanding moment: his closing speech at the trial; a real tour de force against capital punishment. Apparently it was issued on vinyl, it’s that good. The three stars got and get all the recognition (they shared Best Actor at Cannes that year), but there are also fine supporting performances from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi as a couple of fellow students who get caught up in the case in different ways; and E.G. Marshall is very good as DA Horn, the man who eventually catches the guys and therefore becomes Welles’ courtroom nemesis. He’s particularly understated during Welles’ big speech, gradually shifting from annoyance and hatred to agreement, ultimately rising to his feet at the end as if in a silent standing ovation.

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

    Aside from that obvious Big Scene, there are several other memorable ones: Dillman calmly talking to his teddy bear while Stockwell frantically searches for misplaced glasses, for example; or the cat-and-mouse scenes where the DA interviews the lads separately. Much of it is fantastically shot, too. There’s an occasional showy bit (like focusing on glasses on a nightstand as it gets dark outside, then showing the culprit and investigator reflected one in each lens), but also a general level of quality that often helps emphasise the darkness in the lads’ souls.

    I don’t think Compulsion is widely discussed anymore (it has fewer ratings on IMDb than Love on a Leash!), but I thought it was a brilliant film; one that can withstand comparison to more-acclaimed versions of the same story. It’s definitely underrated today.

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

    2018 #196
    Michael Lehmann | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Heathers

    Heathers was one of my favourite films I watched in 2018 (it placed 5th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018), but I didn’t make any notes on it at the time, and (obviously) it’s now two years since I watched it. Oh dear.

    So, in the spirit of the point of these roundups (to clear old unreviewed films, regardless of how much or little I have to say about them), we’ll have to make do with repeating my brief summary from the aforementioned “best of” list. Though I’ll also add that I watched this on Arrow’s then-new Blu-ray edition, which comes from a 4K restoration and looks absolutely fantastic.

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

    2018 #197
    Edward Zwick | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Courage Under Fire

    It’s “Gulf War Rashomon” when a traumatised tank commander (Denzel Washington) encounters conflicting accounts of what happened while he investigates whether a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) deserves to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which would make her the first woman to receive it. As higher-ups put pressure on him to just push the honour through, he remains committed to uncovering the truth…

    The mystery of what really went on is not as clever or engrossing as the film thinks it is, but it still works as a meditation on how we acknowledge wartime heroism and the place of truth in doing so. It’s also a consideration of how many people are affected, in different ways, by the sacrifices of war.

    There are some decent performances along the way: Washington is always good value, and a before-he-was-famous Matt Damon demonstrates his commitment to the profession by losing a ton of weight between filming the flashback and “present day” scenes (endangering his health in the process) to portray a medical specialist indelibly affected by what went on ‘over there’. Apparently Mark Kermode said the casting of Meg Ryan as a chopper pilot was “the benchmark for a casting decision so ludicrous that it takes the viewer out of the film,” but I suspect that says more about how she was regarded at the time (best known for romcoms) than her actual performance (she’s no standout, but she’s fine).

    3 out of 5

  • Ready or Not (2019)

    2020 #90
    Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Ready or Not

    In my review of Get Out, I took issue with the fact that some people labelled it a “comedy horror”, because it wasn’t particularly funny. I mention that because Ready or Not takes a broadly similar premise to Get Out (albeit with white people and no commentary on racial issues) but does take things in a comedic direction.

    The similarity comes in that it’s about bride-to-be Grace (Samara Weaving) meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time at their wedding. On the wedding night, she’s introduced to an odd family ritual: she must select a card from a puzzle box and they play whatever game is on the card. Unfortunately for her, Grace gets “hide and seek”, which in this case is not just regular hide and seek: while she hides, the family arm themselves to hunt and kill her. Hilarity ensues.

    Badass bride

    Well, okay, maybe not hilarity per se, but this is definitely a comedy-horror, with more laughs than scares and an appropriate amount of gore. It obviously owes a debt to other movies, or at least has points of similarity (You’re Next particularly comes to mind), but it also has a few nice subversions and doesn’t always go the way you’d think — and when it subverts things that have already been subverted, like some kind of triple-cross of subversion, then you know it’s not as dumb a movie as some people think. Its biggest failing for me was the photography, too much of which is caked in over-graded green. The final shot is fab, though; indeed, the whole climax is an all-timer.

    There were times I wanted a bit more from Ready or Not to push it over into classic status, but even without that final extra something, if you enjoy your horror-thrillers laced with laughs, it’s an exceptionally fun time.

    4 out of 5

    Ready or Not is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The Man Who Laughs (1928)

    2020 #189
    Paul Leni | 110 mins | Blu-ray | 1.20:1 | USA / silent | PG

    The Man Who Laughs

    Just over 90 years ago, in the final years of the silent era, The Man Who Laughs was a “super-production” — an expensive and major release, designed to follow in the footsteps of successes like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, with an acclaimed imported director (Paul Leni, Waxworks) and star (Conrad Veidt, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari), a shared leading lady from Phantom (Mary Philbin), and adapted from another novel by the author of Hunchback (Victor Hugo). It did, I believe, live up to its pedigree and expectations. But today it’s primarily remembered for one thing: being the visual inspiration behind a certain comic book supervillain…

    Perhaps because of the connections to the aforementioned films, and because it inspired such a violent character, and because of the publicity stills that inspired that look, and because its production studio (Universal) would shortly become renowned for their iconic interpretations of the cornerstones of horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), The Man Who Laughs has often been cited as a horror movie. It isn’t. Well, some of the first 15 minutes do play a bit like one — execution by iron maiden; mutilation and abandonment of a child; dangling corpses of hanged men — but then it jumps forward in time and becomes a romantic melodrama, with a bit of antiestablishment satire and a swashbuckling climax thrown in for good measure.

    I was only Jokering

    The story begins in 1690, with King James II punishing a rebellious lord by handing his son, Gwynplaine, to comprachicos (invented by Hugo for the novel; it means “child-buyers”) who mutilate the boy’s mouth into a permanent grin. And then he executes the lord in an iron maiden for good measure. When all the comprachicos are later exiled, they abandon the boy. Wandering through the snow, the kid finds a woman frozen to death, but her baby still alive in her arms. (Like I said, the first 15 minutes are pretty bleak.) He rescues the baby, who it’ll turn out is blind, and soon the pair are taken in by a wandering performer, Ursus (Cesare Gravina). Jump forward a couple of decades and Gwynplaine (Veidt) is now a popular attraction himself thanks to his laughing face, and the baby has grown into a beautiful young woman, Dea (Philbin), and the pair are in love. Let’s not think too much about the background to that relationship, eh? Gwynplaine feels unworthy of Dea’s love because he’s so hideous, but she doesn’t care because she’s literally blind.

    Meanwhile, Gwynplaine’s fame and unique facial features lead to it being discovered that he’s really a noble, kicking off a bunch of courtly intrigue — I could explain it, but then we’d just be getting into the plot of the entire movie. Suffice to say, it involves a scheming courtier, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), who was partly responsible for Gwynplaine’s dad’s death; a horny duchess, Josiana (Olga Baclanova), who we first meet while a peasant messenger spies on her having a bath (nothing explicit is actually seen — it cuts away just in time — but it was still too risqué for British censors, who cut away even sooner); and Queen Anne (Josphine Cromwell), best known today as “the one Olivia Colman played in The Favourite (there’s considerably less swearing, gout, lesbianism, and bunny rabbits in this version).

    With the “beauty and the beast” angle to the film’s central romance, the film does withstand comparison to other variations of that story — like, um, Beauty and the Beast, but also, again, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference here is in how people react to the ‘beast’. Only he himself seems to find him monstrous. The public find him inescapably hilarious, which isn’t nice for him to live with, but has made him popular and beloved rather than reviled. The love of his life is besotted with him unconditionally. Josiana comes to see his show and for some reason finds him instantly attractive (in fairness, I think she’s attracted to any man with a pulse).

    Tale as old as time...

    A more apt comparison is to a film made over 50 years later, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — a parallel I spotted for myself, but also is mentioned in two essays in the booklet accompanying Eureka’s new Blu-ray release, so I’m certainly not alone in feeling this. Both concern a man who is physically disfigured and has fallen in with fairground sideshow folk, who despises himself but comes to find love and compassion from others. They even both climax with a grandstanding speech where the man in question declares his worth to the world, with the famous “I am a human being!” bit from The Elephant Man seeming like an echo of a scene here where Gwynplaine, forced to join the House of Lords by order of the Queen, eventually rejects her command, declaring his independence with the assertion that “God made me a man!” As Travis Crawford writes in the aforementioned booklet, “while sinister clowns would ultimately become an unlikely horror cliche, Gwynplaine’s gruesome disfigurement makes him a figure of pity, not menace… more Pierrot than Pennywise.” The Man Who Laughs is less concerned with examining and affirming the fundamental humanity underneath ‘freaks’ than Lynch’s film (this is a classical melodrama, after all), but it’s certainly an aspect of the story that, despite how he looks, Gwynplaine is still a human being; that, despite his fixed grin, he’s full of all the emotions of any human being.

    Before I go, a quick word on the film’s soundtrack. “But it’s a silent movie.” Yes, but as you surely know, silent movies aren’t meant to be watched actually silent. The Blu-ray release (both the new UK one and an earlier US one from Flicker Alley) comes with two audio options: a new 2018 score by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, and the original 1928 Movietone sync track, which is not just general music backing but also includes some music clearly framed as diegetic, plus occasional sound effects, and even dialogue (in the form of background crowd noise, mostly). Now, the film was originally released as silent, then withdrawn and re-released with this accompanying soundtrack, so I guess the option of a new score isn’t wholly unmerited. Nonetheless, it still seems slightly off to me that you’d supplant an authentic original track with a modern creation. As if to underline this point, the booklet reveals that the new score is actually little more than a final-year project by a group of students! It’s lovely for them that they were able to present their work at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and it was well received, and that it’s now included as an option on the film’s official releases… but presenting it as the primary audio option? No thanks. I suggest you choose the 1928 soundtrack.

    I said it's NOT a horror movie!

    It’s probably unlikely that The Man Who Laughs can escape its status as a trivia footnote for the Joker at this point (heck, Flicker Alley’s release even plays up the connection on its cover, taking the film’s most Joker-esque photo and decorating it in the character’s colours of purple and green). Certainly, no one should watch it for that reason alone — the inspiration for the Joker begins and ends with the grinning-man imagery; there’s nothing in the film itself that contributes to the character. There’s also little here to support its reputation as an influential early horror movie — those seeking horror thrills shouldn’t watch for that reason either. But for all the things The Man Who Laughs is not, what it is is a well-made and performed drama; one that deserves to stand and be appreciated on its own merits, not those that others have mistakenly conferred on it.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Laughs is released on Blu-ray in the UK today.

    Split Second (1992)

    2020 #135
    Tony Maylam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

    Split Second

    I confess, I hadn’t even heard of Split Second before a remastered Blu-ray release was announced a couple of months ago (more details about that at the end). A sci-fi/action/horror hybrid starring Rutger Hauer is the kind of thing that sounds interesting to me, but the fact I’d never come across it before seemed like a red flag. Fortunately, it’s on Prime Video, so I didn’t have to make a blind buy, and this is a recommendable course of action for anyone similarly unacquainted with the film. I did go on to purchase the Blu-ray, but I can see why others would not. Split Second isn’t exactly in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it has a distinctive quality that will not be to everyone’s taste.

    Set in the future-year 2008, when London has been flooded thanks to global warming and pollution has turned day into night, Hauer chomps cigars, chocolate, and scenery as Harley Stone, a badass rogue cop on the hunt for the serial killer who murdered his partner three years ago. Assigned to keep him in check is rookie cop Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan), and together the pair realise their quarry may not be altogether human…

    And if you’re wondering what the film’s title has to do with any of this… yeah, bugger all. One of the working titles was Black Tide, which suits the film so much better. I mean, it’s still not wholly fitting — the global warming/pollution stuff is dystopian-future scene-setting without any true bearing on the actual plot — but at least it evokes the tone and style of the film more than “Split Second”, which sounds like a Steven Segal movie.

    Stone Dick

    It’s almost hard to describe what that tone and style is, mind. It starts out almost like budget Blade Runner — it’s the future (so we’re told); it’s night; it’s raining; a hardbitten cop visits a seedy nightclub; etc. But then we get Stone’s first line of dialogue, which comes after a guard dog barks at him. He flashes his warrant card — at the dog — and says “police, dickhead.” To the dog. It’s hilariously terrible and awesome in one fell swoop. Hauer doesn’t give it an overtly comical delivery, and so you can’t quite tell if Stone is deadpanning or genuinely offering this information… to a dog.

    This kind of almost-a-comedy-but-not-actually tone pops up increasingly as the film goes on, as if it was shot in order and the cast gradually realised how ridiculous it all was. By the time you get to the point where a deranged Durkin is demanding bigger guns, you’ll be cackling. Or you’ll be thinking “what is this godawful crap?!”, which goes back to my initial point: some people will delight in it all, while others will feel they’ve wasted their time on a low-budget no-mark that should’ve been left forgotten in the early ’90s.

    I’m the former. You couldn’t reasonably call this a great movie — parts do border on “so bad it’s good”, and there’s much joy from the cast clearly realising it’s ludicrous. Plus, there’s a sense it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. It jumps from genre to genre as it goes on, and even the final monster (designed by Stephen Norrington, who’d go on to direct Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) looks to be a mishmash born of uncertain direction, part hell-demon, part tech nightmare (is that a motorcycle helmet?!) But good golly does that crazy mix make for some barmy fun.

    Watery London

    I tell you what, though: the underlying concept isn’t bad. This is exactly the kind of movie I think someone should actually spend the money and effort to remake: something with decent ideas and intentions, but which didn’t come off on the first go. Iron out the plot (mixing genres is fine; jumping between them feels “made up as we went along”), smooth out the tone (keep the deadpan humour, up the thrills and scares), and give it a decent budget (this one has a rough-around-the-edges feel), and you could have something special. Especially if you retitle it Black Tide.

    3 out of 5

    Split Second is released on Blu-ray by 101 Films in the UK today. A matching edition will be released in the US on August 11th. It’s also currently available on Amazon Prime Video in both the UK and the US.

    Searching (2018)

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

    Searching

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

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

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

    Searching the web

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

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

    The Equalizer 2 (2018)

    2020 #25
    Antoine Fuqua | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Turkish & French | 15 / R

    The Equalizer 2

    Now we’re equalised, bitch.

    Sadly, that is not a line Denzel actually says in this movie. The film would be about 50% better if he did. Instead, what we get is an action-thriller where both the action and thrills are, literally, few and far between.

    For those who skipped the first film, Denzel is playing Robert McCall, a former Marine and intelligence agent who retired to a life of inconspicuous normality, but has been tempted back into righting some of the wrongs of the world — or “equalizing” them, I guess. This time, an array of subplots eventually gives way to a story in which McCall sets out to avenge the murder of a friend.

    I mention the subplots there because they’re the film’s biggest problem. As a result of them, it’s… so… slow… To start with, the subplots are a couple of small ‘cases’ introduced in the first half-hour, presumably to try to liven the film up because the main storyline is crawling along. Neither works. I’m not here for a pleasant drama about a Lyft driver who does kindly things for others — I want to see Denzel Washington kicking the asses of nasty buggers. The first film was noteworthy for investing more time in its supporting characters than is typical for the action-thriller genre, but this one takes that notion to extremes.

    Even when the main plot does get moving, it takes over an hour to get to a ‘twist’ that’s obvious just from reading the cast list. At least it doesn’t try to save it for the end, I guess. That reveal leads to a wannabe-Taken-phone-speech declaration from Denzel, which should’ve come a lot earlier. It’s not as memorable as the Taken one (though the final line lands), but at least it’s a moment of drama and the film perks up after it — but by then we’re well over an hour in to a less-than-two-hours movie.

    A rare moment of almost-action

    From there it’s a short hop, skip and jump to a climax set amidst a horrendous storm in an abandoned seaside town. It’s a nice concept and it’s solidly executed, but it’s an at-most 20-minute sequence and it’s not exceptional, just a lot more engaging than the film’s other 100 minutes, so it doesn’t really justify sitting through the rest of the movie. However, I did not realise that flour could be explosive, but turns out it can, so in that sense at least this was educational for me.

    (FYI, the film was cut in the UK to get a 15 certificate, removing some of the more extreme gore (insides hanging out, a spine being severed, etc). The 4K Blu-ray release is uncut and rated 18 (presumably so they could just port the disc rather than having to faff with edits/a new transfer). On Netflix it has an 18 icon, so I guess it’s also the uncut version, should that concern you either way.)

    The Equalizer 2 isn’t a terrible film, but it is quite a boring one. Not just slow paced — genuinely boring. A raft of subplots don’t really go anywhere or serve any purpose, the main story is incredibly thin, and the limited action sequences do little to balance the books.

    2 out of 5

    The Equalizer 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup VII

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

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

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


    The Garden of Words
    (2013)

    aka Koto no ha no niwa

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

    The Garden of Words

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Secret in Their Eyes
    (2009)

    aka El secreto de sus ojos

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

    The Secret in Their Eyes

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Paul
    Extended Edition
    (2011)

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

    Paul

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Way of the Gun
    (2000)

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

    The Way of the Gun

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VI

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

    In this week’s roundup…

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


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

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

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

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

    Full Metal Jacket

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

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

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

    Wind River
    (2017)

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

    Wind River

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

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

    Body of Lies

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

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5