Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

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  • Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

    2018 #261
    David Slade | “90” mins | TV (HD) | 2.20:1 | UK & USA / English | 15

    Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

    The latest addition to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe is the kind of work that pushes at the boundaries of form and medium — and therefore is the kind of work that challenges how I count things here at 100 Films. Is it a film? An episode of TV? A video game? Or is it genuinely something new? Well, it’s not really a video game — it’s not interactive enough to qualify as that. So is it a TV episode, then? It carries the Black Mirror branding, and that is a TV series. Plus it’s not a theatrical release… but then, neither are most Netflix films. Indeed, Bandersnatch carries its own listing on Netflix (as a standalone title, not an instalment of the series), and is promoted by Netflix as an “interactive film”. So, taking them at their word, I’ve decided that means it counts as a film.

    It’s also, I think, very accurate branding — they debated internally how it should be promoted, and I think they’ve landed on the right term for it. As I said before, it’s not really a video game — it’s not as interactive as a gamer would expect it to be. The debate between film vs. TV episode is tighter, but when isn’t it these days? Either way, it’s not just your regular passive Netflix-viewing experience, because it is interactive. In practice, it plays like a video version of Choose Your Own Adventure books — you know what those are, right? I’ve heard some Young People don’t, which saddens me in my apparently-old-now early 30s. If you don’t know, in a CYOA book you’d read a passage of story, then be asked to make a choice on behalf of the hero; for Option A, you’d turn to page X, and for Option B you’d turn to page Y, and so on from there, with your choices dictating your path through the story.

    No reading required

    Bandersnatch is similar, only without all the manual flicking back and forth: every so often (roughly every three to five minutes, determined as the optimal period of time by Netflix’s product testers) you’re presented with two choices on screen and have ten seconds to pick one. Which you choose decides what you see happen next. (If you don’t choose, Netflix decides for you. Make no choices whatsoever and you’re led on a predetermined route that gets you through a full story in the shortest time possible.) Sometimes these choices are small (which breakfast cereal to eat?), sometimes significant (accept a job offer?) Netflix remembers them all, even the minor ones, which have knock on effects later. They made a rod for their own back in this respect, because having to account for viewers’ early choices led to requiring alternate scenes later on that only vary in how they include the viewers’ fundamentally-meaningless earlier choice. But that’s Netflix’s behind-the-scenes problem, not ours as viewers. Suffice to say, they’ve put the work in, and those little touches help make for an even more immersive experience: the choices themselves may have no bearing on the plot, but the fact the film remembers them and then uses them again later is a kind of meaning in itself.

    By this point you’re probably wondering what it’s actually all about, especially if you’re not merely wowed by the technology. (If you are wowed by the technology, check out this article at Wired which goes into more detail about what was required.) Set in 1984, we’re introduced to 19-year-old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his dad (Craig Parkinson) and wants to be a video game designer. He’s managed to wangle a meeting with the company who publish games by his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan’s pitch is Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a classic Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies, who went mad. Stefan found the book among the possessions of his dead mother, an event which has left him seeing a therapist (Alice Lowe). As Stefan begins to write the program for Bandersnatch… well, what happens next is up to you.

    Everybody play the game of life

    You can already see how content is reflecting form (you’re playing a Choose Your Own Adventure game about a guy writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game, just in case you needed that spelling out for you), and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything (as much as you can spoil anything about a film where every viewer will have a different experience), but it goes further down the rabbit hole than that. Trust Brooker and the Black Mirror team to have taken a new, emerging technology and made a drama about it — I mean, that’s pretty much the series’ MO. You can rely on them to not make things as straightforward as they first appear, either. Most of the time the film offers two options, each leading you down a different path, but sometimes it mixes it up (to say how would be to spoil the experience, like attempting to relate a joke from a comedy). And if you’re curious about how alternate pathways play out, don’t worry, you won’t have to watch the film from the start every time: after certain “game over” points, Bandersnatch offers the chance to jump back to earlier decisions and choose differently. If you’re interested enough to continue, this is definitely worth doing: as I said earlier, Netflix remembers all your choices — there are sometimes advantages to choosing that ‘continue’ option instead of starting from scratch at a later date.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch, considering all the myriad choices and paths and possibilities it presents to the viewer, is that it all makes sense. That might sound like Filmmaking 101, but it’s a massive pitfall that would’ve been so, so easy for them to fall into. And they made it a more complicated job for themselves too, insisting the choices viewers make were genuinely meaningful and affected what happened and where the story went. It’s very cleverly written and constructed — it’s not designed to force you down a certain path, or give you a fake choice that doesn’t really change anything, but instead to do those things while still building to a cohesive whole. Yes, of course it’s not total free will to do whatever you fancy, and sometimes there’s no escaping a certain choice or development… but, with the way Brooker has married story and presentation medium, that’s all kinda part of the point.

    Suspicious Stefan

    If you think about how Bandersnatch was made — the challenge it presented to Brooker as writer, to director David Slade, and to the cast having to negotiate their characters’ various emotional arcs across different permutations of similar scenes — it becomes even more impressive on a technical level. And that’s partly because you don’t have to consider the behind-the-scenes logistics to find this an enjoyable experience. They’ve executed it so consummately that you can just watch it, play it, experience it without needing to perform mental gymnastics to make it fit together, because they’ve accounted for all that and filmed the necessary alternate stuff and been certain it all pieces together. So you can instead apply brain power to what the film has to say about choice and free will, and to working out which alternative options you could choose and which parts of the story you perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

    Plus, to an extent, how much you get out of Bandersnatch is rewarded by how much you’re prepared to put in. As I mentioned earlier, at the simplest level you can just put your remote down and watch it play out a 40-minute-ish Black Mirror episode via its default choices (selected by Brooker), giving you the most basic version of the story (I haven’t done this, but I’m tempted to give it a go). Or you can play through until you reach one of the five endings that bring you to the choice of a credits scroll. (Netflix’s official line is that there are five endings. Depending how you count it, there are definitely more.) Or you can keep going and going, taking those “continue” options and seeing where different choices lead you. Sometimes, they lead you to entirely new places. And while there are multiple endings, there’s an “official” ending, too; one where the credits roll and you end up back at the Netflix menu screen (or, I guess, go to something else playing, if you’re one of those weirdos who hasn’t turned that feature off), rather than another continue option.

    Play on

    I played on until I came across that particular finale — partly because I’m a completist, partly because I was so engrossed in what I was watching. Did I experience every permutation the film has to offer? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t; but I’m also pretty sure I experienced the bulk of the major ones. Did I get “lucky” that it took me so long to find that final-ending, meaning I saw a lot of the film before I got there? Put another way: is there a quicker path to that final-ending which would mean you saw less of the whole film than I did? Maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t — maybe the only way to that ending is trial and error through multiple permutations. Or maybe there are multiple “final” endings, and when you’ve exhausted what the film feels it has to offer it throws you the appropriate one. Such are the secrets of Bandersnatch, which Reddit users will surely reveal in time. They’ve already made a start, although a thorough-looking flowchart doing the rounds on Twitter has already been proven to be missing at least a few possibilities.

    However much time you choose to spend on it (Netflix say a thorough session would take two-and-a-half hours, although the BBFC certification reveals that there’s over five hours of footage required to make the whole thing function), Bandersnatch is a genuine experience, once again putting Netflix at the cutting edge crossroads of modern visual entertainment. Is it a film? A TV episode? A video game? All of those things? None of them — something else? Something new? Those who must experience such new things will need to try this out, of course — they probably already have. But it’s one for regular viewers, too, with a rewarding story to tell; one which could only have been adequately told with this newly-imagined technology. In my opinion, it’s a magnificent success, and a must-have experience.

    5 out of 5

    Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to watch/play/whatever on Netflix now.

    It placed 10th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    The Shape of Water (2017)

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

    The Shape of Water

    Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
    13 nominations — 4 wins

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

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

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

    Dreaming

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

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

    Toxic masculinity

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

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

    Something fishy goin' on

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

    aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

    2018 #253
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

    Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

    The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

    The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

    Sartana locked up

    A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

    Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

    Greed

    Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    February Review Roundup

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

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

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


    WarGames
    (1983)

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

    WarGames

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Being John Malkovich
    (1999)

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

    Being John Malkovich

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    I Origins
    (2014)

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

    I Origins

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • RoboCop (2014)

    2018 #151
    José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    RoboCop

    This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

    The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

    I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

    Machine man

    It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

    The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

    Shoot 'em up

    If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

    Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

    2 out of 5

    RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

    The Purge (2013)

    2018 #5
    James DeMonaco | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    The Purge

    When The Purge first came out, I ignored it because its premise was inherently daft. Then they made some sequels, which I ignored because the premise was still inherently daft. Then two things happened: one, some people who I think are worth listening to said some decent things about it; and two, Trump came to power, and suddenly that daft premise doesn’t feel so far outside the confines of what’s possible.

    The aforementioned premise (for those that don’t know) is that, for one 12-hour period each year, all crime is legal. There’s some gumpf about how this was a policy designed to alleviate crime the rest of the year, blah, blah, blah, but really it’s just an excuse for a horror movie — a kind of home invasion action-thriller, essentially, but with twists and some effective moments. Although it has plenty of lump-headed, convenient-for-the-plot moments too, but I shan’t delve into spoiler territory here. Let’s just say some of the bigger twists are achingly predictable.

    I think writer-director James DeMonaco was hoping to land some kind of political commentary, possibly even satire — I mean, it’s inherent in the concept, right? And the film leans into it, mostly in a race-related way, with a black guy on the run and antagonistic prep school kids. But it’s maybe not as clever as it’d like to be, and I’m not sure it’s actually got anything to say — again, it’s a violent thrill-ride with some window-dressing.

    They're coming to get you, Ethan

    The other thing about the premise is… they’ve made four of these movies now, plus a TV series, and from what I can ascertain they’ve all focused on “murder and violence is allowed” — but if all crime is legal, well, wouldn’t people be stealing company secrets, breaking NDAs, filing their tax returns…? Crimes against the government aren’t allowed or something, so I guess that’d probably cover the last one. But still, I feel like there’s potential to produce more variety than just “12-hour murder spree!” again and again.

    Anyway, it is what it is. I generally liked it enough while watching it, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to post-viewing intellectual scrutiny.

    3 out of 5

    Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

    aka Jin-Rô

    2018 #212
    Hiroyuki Okiura | 102 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

    Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

    Jin-Roh has enough cool costumes and bursts of ultra-violence to cut together a trailer that looks like a kinda-typical anime action-fest, but that’s really hiding a thoughtful, complicated (oh so complicated) drama about an unlikely romance and military conspiracies.

    If that sounds like a bizarre mix… well, it is. Jin-Roh is a film that likes to pull tricks on its audience (maybe those action-packed trailers were deliberate rather than marketers just doing their best to sell the thing!), and one of the tricks it plays is to constantly wrongfoot you about what kind of movie it’s meant to be. First it’s a kind of action thriller about terrorists vs. police; then it’s a subtle romance between two damaged individuals; then it’s a conspiracy thriller, and also an espionage drama; and finally it’s some kind of allegorical tragedy. As it moves through those various phases, the characters — and, by extension, us — are subjected to crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses. Good luck keeping up…

    Set in an alternate history where Germany occupied Japan after World War 2 (I’m not sure that’s made clear enough in the film, but hey-ho — maybe it’s obvious to Japanese viewers), the film picks things up a couple of decades later, with Japan free from occupation but having to fight antagonistic forces from within. With many guerrilla cells having combined to form terrorist group The Sect, the security services consequently created Kerberos, a controversial police paramilitary unit, to combat them. When Kerberos corporal Kazuki Fuse fails to shoot a bomb-carrying girl and she blows herself up, he’s punished by being sent back to basic training. At the same, he meets the girl’s sister and begins to form a bond with her. Meanwhile, his failure has thrown the future of Kerberos into doubt, setting political machinations whirring every which way.

    Little Red Riding Hood... and the Big Bad Wolf?

    I’ll admit, I got pretty lost with all the various factions, who was plotting what and when and why, and which side everyone was supposed to be on. Perhaps I was lulled into not paying enough attention because, as I noted above, the film appears to be a tender, understated examination of the relationship between two scarred individuals struggling to cope with the same recent tragedy from different sides, before it abruptly takes a hard turn into an intricate conspiracy thriller. Reading a plot description afterwards, I managed to get my head around it, though it didn’t resolve one quandary I felt at the end of the film itself: that it’s hard to know who we’re meant to be rooting for. Did the good guys win? Did the bad guys win? Were there actually any good guys — was anyone right? Personally, I’m fine with a film where there are no heroes, where everyone’s a bad guy and one of those bad guys wins; my problem is that I was left feeling unclear about whether that was the case or not.

    Mixed feelings, then. It’s a well-made film (even watching on a crummy window-boxed DVD), but all those whiplash-inducing turns and confusion-producing twists left me somewhat reeling and bewildered.

    3 out of 5

    The Korean live-action remake, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, is available on Netflix from today.

    (As is Daredevil season 3, Making a Murderer season 2, a brand-new Derren Brown special, and over half-a-dozen other series and films I’ve not heard of — why dump so much on one day, Netflix?!)

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

    2018 #153
    Robert Aldrich | 128 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

    Real-life rivals Bette Davis and Joan Crawford star as squabbling sisters forced together by circumstance in this slice of Hollywood Gothic. Both were once famous in their own way: as a child, bratty Jane Hudson (Davis) was a huge vaudeville star as the eponymous ‘Baby Jane’; later, her level-headed sister Blanche (Crawford) became a huge star of the silver screen, where Jane struggled to make a mark, employed only as a clause of her sister’s studio contract. A tragic incident ended both their careers, leaving Blanche paralysed and Jane her carer. Decades later, resentment has made Jane casually abusive of her invalided sister — and when she discovers that Blanche has been secretly plotting a major change to their situation, things only get worse…

    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane plays out as a mix of overwrought melodrama, plausible real-life horror, and mature psychological thriller. It’s really driven by the acting of the two leads. Crawford gets a less showy role, having to play it straight as the reasonable, sensible older sister, struggling to do what’s right for her sibling even as she’s mistreated. Davis, on the other hand, is allowed to cut loose. Jane starts the film batty and only gets less mentally stable from there. It’s quite an extraordinary performance from Davis, which threatens to tip over into scenery-chewing at any moment but remains compelling.

    Bette Davis and her preferred co-star

    The film itself is less assured. Director Robert Aldrich manages a good line in generating tension from people almost finding out what’s going on in the Hudson household, and there’s a solid final-reel twist (even if the final act in general is a bit bizarre — no spoilers, but those beach users are seriously inattentive), but the film is allowed to run longer than the material really merits. A slow burn can be used to create atmosphere, of course, but that’s not really the case here. It could do with a little more drive early on.

    But maybe it’s this looseness that has allowed so many different ways of viewing the film. As well as those I’ve already mentioned — sibling melodrama, psychological thriller, unnerving horror — people have taken it as a black comedy, or a cult camp classic. Whichever way you look at it, it’s certainly an experience.

    4 out of 5

    The TV series Feud: Bette and Joan, which dramatises the making of this film, begins a repeat run on BBC Four tonight at 10pm.

    Happy Death Day (2017)

    2018 #43
    Christopher Landon | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Happy Death Day

    How much does pure originality matter? Happy Death Day is a high-concept slasher movie that could be described as Groundhog Day meets Scream via Legally Blonde. Normally those kind of “X meets Y” descriptions give a general sense of tone or some coincidental similarities, but if you could put those three films in a blender, Happy Death Day is almost certainly what would come out. (There’s probably a more apposite sorority comedy than Legally Blonde for the third ingredient, but that’s not my subgenre of expertise.) But while there’s no doubt that Happy Death Day is derivative, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

    The film introduces us to college student Tree (Jessica Rothe), who wakes up hungover in a stranger’s dorm room on what turns out to be her birthday. Later that day, she’s murdered… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Later that day, although she takes steps to avoid it, she’s murdered again… after which she wakes up hungover in the same stranger’s dorm room on her birthday. Yes, she’s in a time loop — one which, she theorises, can only be stopped if she finds and stops her killer.

    It’s a clever conceit — yes, borrowed from Groundhog Day, but utilised in a different way. For me, the plot/structural similarity is easy to overlook because, hey, it’s a great idea, why not recycle it with a different kind of story? This variation is enjoyably done, too — not an outright comedy, but with enough wit to make for a fun movie. There’s a very real danger of it being repetitive — repetitiveness is baked into the very concept, obviously — but, like Groundhog Day, it dodges that with amusing variations and intelligent filmmaking. Okay, the logic is sometimes a little askew (for example: no matter how quickly or slowly Tree leaves the dorm room at the start, the same random events happen outside), but that’s storytelling expediency rather than a major problem with the film’s logic, in my opinion.

    Screaming groundhog

    In the lead role, Jessica Rothe is excellent. She fills what could’ve been a pretty standard slasher movie heroine with different levels of reconcilable personality and a surprising amount of heart. She’s a likeable, root-for-able character to spend the day with over and over (and over) again. And when you know how the movie was filmed (i.e. like almost every other movie: not chronologically, but by location, having to shoot scenes from different time loops side by side), the way her performance is accurately nuanced becomes even more impressive.

    In my opening comparison I picked Scream specifically because Happy Death Day has the feel of those late ’90s / early ’00s teen horror movies — the heyday of franchises like Scream, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc. Back then this surely would’ve been a huge hit, but I feel like very few people were talking about it when it came out last October. That said, it achieved a respectable Rotten Tomatoes score (70%), grossed $122.6 million (off a budget of just $4.8 million), and this week they made headlines by announcing the sequel’s title, Happy Death Day 2U, which seemed to go down rather well. So maybe I just missed everyone celebrating it first time round.

    I hope it continues to find a wider audience, because I think it’s a lot of fun. It may be built from blocks borrowed from other films, but they’ve been arranged in such a way that I think it still feels fresh, and they’ve been assembled skilfully enough that it’s enjoyable either way.

    4 out of 5

    Happy Death Day 2U is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day 2019.