Black Swan (2010)

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2017 #128
Darren Aronofsky | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Black Swan

Oscar statue2011 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress (Natalie Portman).
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.



Described by director Darren Aronofsky as “a psychological thriller horror film”, Black Swan straddles the divide between classy Cinema and genre Movies as artfully as, say, a Hitchcock thriller. It’s the story of ballet dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to be the lead in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She’s suited to the White Swan but struggles as its black counterpart, a role newly-arrived rival Lily (Mila Kunis) seems perfect for. As Nina pursues perfection with a monomaniacal focus, she’s pressured by the lascivious director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), to the point where her sanity is beginning to crack…

Shot handheld on a mix of 16mm and video-capable HD DSLRs, Black Swan has a documentary look, often emphasised by its editing — at times it could almost pass for a fly-on-the-wall look behind the scenes of a ballet company. That’s not to say the visuals lack artistry, however. In particular, the constant presence and use of mirrors is fantastic — both thematically relevant and visually rich. Nonetheless, the documentary-ish look serves to make the film’s unsettling parts all the more effective, especially as they take a while to emerge and continue to sidle up on you as the film goes on. The final act is where everything really kicks off — the point of the rest is to build up to that; to establish and put in place and explain everything we need for a shocking, thrilling, somewhat unguessable climax. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, because the movie leading up to that point certainly has worth.

Reflections

I’m not particularly familiar with Swan Lake, but it would seem Black Swan’s story echoes it — to the point, even, that all the cast are credited with both their character in the film and their equivalent in the ballet (and I don’t just mean the dancers who also play that role in the ballet-within-the-film — Hershey, for example, is billed as Erica Sayers / The Queen”). This extends outwards in other ways, like how the music of Tchaikovsky is repurposed by the film to its own magnificent effect. That’s as well as featuring a typically striking score from Clint Mansell.

Natalie Portman is brilliant as the conflicted Nina. She’s introverted and sheltered but has chosen (or been railroaded into) a career that requires she perform publicly; she’s fragile and under-confident but in a profession that invites criticism from all sides; she’s been left repressed, uptight, and virginal, which clashes with her perfectionism when trying to embody a role that is none of those things. It’s a complex role with many subtle facets that Portman negotiates skilfully. It feels like a departure from who she is — proper acting, if you like — which makes the performance all the more striking. Conversely, Mila Kunis feels more in her comfort zone as Lily, the free-spirited, lively but imperfect, almost a bit of a bitch, company dancer that Nina is inexplicably drawn to. She holds her own against Portman when required, but it’s not exactly a role of equatable complexity.

Titular terror

Depending how you want to see it, Aronofsky’s film is an arty movie about ballet and the psychological effects of perfectionism, or a slow-burn horror-thriller with almost as many jump scares as instances of introspection. Best of all, it can be both those things.

5 out of 5

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

Darren Aronofsky’s latest dark mind-bender, mother!, is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.

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The Mummy (2017)

2017 #82
Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

The Mummy

As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

Mummy mia, here they go again

When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

2 out of 5

Bright (2017)

2018 #1
David Ayer | 117 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15

Bright

The director of L.A.-set crime thrillers Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch returns with another L.A.-set crime thriller, only this time with orcs. Yes, orcs. Also fairies and elves and dragons and all that.

But you knew that because you surely can’t’ve missed hearing about Bright these past few weeks. It’s Netflix’s first attempt at making a big-budget summer-tentpole-style blockbuster and they’ve been pushing it hard, but it was savaged by critics, only to then have proven immensely popular with viewers (it’s Netflix’s most-watched original production ever) and had a sequel speedily commissioned.

It’s set in an alternate present day where magic and the aforementioned fantastical creatures all exist. In L.A., humans are your regular run-of-the-mill people, elves are the well-off upper class living in a segregated oasis, and orcs are the poor underclass — a couple of thousand years ago there was a Lord of the Rings-style war to vanquish the Dark Lord, in which orcs picked the wrong side and still pay the price. Nonetheless, the LAPD has recently inducted the first orc cop (Joel Edgerton). When he and his partner (Will Smith) happen across a magic wand, a rare and immensely powerful device, they find themselves hunted by an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) who intends to resurrect the Dark Lord.

Orc of Watch

Bright is, straightforwardly, a mash-up of crime thriller and fantasy blockbuster. Visually and tonally it could be a sequel to End of Watch, were it not for the fantastical creatures. With them in the mix, the plot, creatures, terminology, etc, feels broadly familiar from other fantasy adventures. The unique point, obviously, is in combining these two disparate genres into a homogenous whole. In this regard, Max Landis’ screenplay is a mixed bag: I like the basic concept, and a lot of the ideas within it are decent too, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

For example, the alternate present-day L.A. is imagined just by switching out one real-life race for a fantasy one. So black people become orcs in a simple one-for-one switch. These race analogies are thuddingly heavy-handed, to the point where you wish they hadn’t bothered because then at least they might’ve done it by accident and it would’ve been subtle. Exposition is equally as on the nose, with characters spelling out world history and terminology to each other purely for the viewer’s benefit. It’s a challenge to convey this kind of information to the audience in a fantasy movie, but that’s not an excuse for doing it badly.

OWA - Orcz Wit Attitudes

Ayer seems an apt choice for director — of course he is, because he made End of Watch and Bright really is very similar to that movie. He doesn’t seem to have a complete handle on the material, though. The pace feels all wrong — not terrible, just slower than it should be, like scenes need tightening up, maybe a few more deletions here and there. It feels like it’s been mis-paced in the same way as many a Netflix original series, which makes you wonder if this is a problem with someone who oversees stuff at Netflix rather than individual film/programme-makers. Conversely, it could be because most regular people just won’t notice it — these productions aren’t slow in the way an arthouse movie is slow, they’re just not moving through situations and dialogue at the rate they should; killing time by letting scenes roll on that bit longer than they have any purpose to, that kind of thing.

As the film goes on, it trades this early wheel-spinning for other problems: choppy editing; disjointed storytelling; ill-defined characters and motives. Noomi Rapace is severely underused as the villain — she has so little to do that the role could’ve been played by anyone. Edgar Ramirez isn’t quite so poorly served as an FBI-type elf also on the trail of the wand, but one wonders if someone was already thinking about sequels when shaping these supporting roles. At least Smith and Edgerton make for decent leads, even as they battle against the script’s character inconsistencies and dead-end subplots (for instance, a chunk of time spent on Smith’s home life at the start has barely any baring on later events).

Urban elf

Bright is hampered not by its potential-filled genre mash-up premise, but instead by the filmmakers chosen to execute that idea. They fitfully realise that potential, but it’s diluted by a rash of clichéd or plain undercooked filmmaking. The final result is a long way from perfect, but it’s also pretty far from being the disaster of epic proportions that critical and social media reaction seems suspiciously keen to paint it as (the Cannes-like “Netflix make TV not movies” sentiment is strong in some quarters). It’s a middle-of-the-road blockbuster movie, with some very solid plus points that are let down by some irritating negatives.

3 out of 5

Bright is available on Netflix now and forever.

P.S. Random pointless thing of the week: there are British and American variations of the Bright poster. Spot the difference.

Get Out (2017)

2017 #104
Jordan Peele | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Get Out

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s timely horror (or, according to some people, horror-comedy — I’ll come to that) has topped various “best of year” critics polls, including those in Sight & Sound and Empire magazines, and is now part of the awards season conversation, having been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is many people’s pick for an Oscar nod too. It’s a good film… but is it that good?

It’s the story of a guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The only complication is that Chris is black and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white. But it’s okay, her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are very liberal and keen to be welcoming to their daughter’s fella, even though they’ve accidentally arrived the same weekend as a large gathering of the family’s friends. And there’s something strange going on with their black housemaid and gardener too…

Get Out unfurls with a slow-burn tension, where you can’t be sure that Chris isn’t just being paranoid. Well, we can be sure, because we know we’re watching a horror movie. In terms of that genre, it’s effectively creepy without indulging in many outright scares — it foregrounds an encroaching sense of unease rather than pure terror. It’s as much about the mystery of what’s going on, and in that regard it’s neatly littered with clues that either you can piece together or, with hindsight (or a second viewing), marvel at all the little blatant hints you missed.

Everybody loves Chris

The aspect that’s attracted so much praise beyond the usual genre constraints is its commentary on contemporary race-related issues. What it has to say is clear without being batter-you-round-the-head obvious. It satirises the casual racism of white, liberal, “woke” (as I believe the kids are saying nowadays) people, with a particular view on something akin to cultural appropriation — the point where white acceptance or praise of black people and their culture runs into being racism, just not of the ‘traditional’ sort. It’s more nuanced and current than your old-fashioned KKK-ing.

It’s also where we run into the “comedy-horror” point. We usually think that satire = comedy, but Get Out demonstrates it doesn’t have to; or, at least, not in an overt, laugh-a-minute kind of way. I don’t think the comedy-horror label is accurate because, while it’s undoubtedly satirical, it’s not outright comedic. There’s a funny character/subplot about the antics of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but as he’s not actually very funny I don’t think that lends much credence to the idea this is a comedy. There’s the odd other laugh here and there, but no more than you’d expect from any movie that wasn’t concerned with being po-faced for every single second. In other words, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead.

Everything's FINE

As a film it’s mostly well made, with good performances in particular from Kaluuya, Whitford, and Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid. The most effective moment comes at the end, an aspect that was changed after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now effectively plays on the audience’s expectations for what’s about to happen. That said, while there’s the odd moment like that to praise Peele’s direction, I didn’t think it was especially striking on the whole. The film’s certainly not without glaring faults, like the grating ‘comedy’ character I already mentioned, or a deluge of exposition at the start of act three that’s disappointingly clunky.

This is why I’m not convinced by Get Out’s presence in those best-of-year conversations. Personally, I think it’s merely the timeliness of what it has to say that has put it in that position — perhaps, if we’re being cynical, even just white critics/voters being keen to signal their approval of its message. Or maybe the way it encapsulates and comments on things that are very pertinent in society right now is merit enough? Whether it’s the year’s best film or not, it deserves to be seen, not only for its commentary on contemporary issues, but simply as an entertaining horror-mystery.

4 out of 5

Get Out is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

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

In today’s roundup:

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


    District 9
    (2009)

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

    District 9

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

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

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

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

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

    Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

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

    Her

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

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

    Forbidden Planet

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

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

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

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

  • Blindspot Review Roundup

    Spoilers for my next monthly update: I’ve completed watching all 22 films on my 2017 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” lists. Hurrah!

    What I haven’t done is reviewed them all. Indeed, 17 still languish in my review backlog — that’s 77%. (In fact, I’ve only actually reviewed one Blindspot film — The Exorcist — with the other four being from WDYMYHS.)

    So, with the end of the year fast approaching — and, with the new year, a new batch of films to watch — I thought it high time I cracked on with those reviews. Here’s a quick roundup of a few, linked by all being adapted from novels, which may be the first of several such omnibus editions.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Dances with Wolves: Special Edition (1990/1991)
  • Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
  • The 39 Steps (1935)


    Dances with Wolves
    Special Edition

    (1990/1991)

    2017 #26
    Kevin Costner | 227 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Lakota & Pawnee | 15 / PG-13

    Dances with Wolves

    Oscar statue1991 Academy Awards
    12 nominations — 7 wins

    Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
    Nominated: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design.


    The behind-the-scenes story of Dances with Wolves is almost as grand as the movie itself. An actor turned director whose inexperience led to production delays and budget overruns, leading to rumours the film was a pending disaster like Heaven’s Gate a decade before it (some nicknamed it “Kevin’s Gate”), and the studio who wanted a 140-minute cut having to settle for the 180-minute one that director delivered. The resulting film never even reached #1 at the box office… but still went on to be the highest grossing Western of all time, and became the first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar in almost 60 years. It was so popular that a 53-minute-longer extended cut was released a year later, which Costner later denied being involved with.

    Having not seen the theatrical cut I can’t offer an opinion on which is better, but the near-four-hour extended one certainly feels its length. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — this is an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a large story to tell on a grand canvass; although it’s concurrently a drama about just a couple of people from different cultures coming to interact. It’s almost too big to digest in a single go — I’m even not quite sure what I made of it. You can see why I’ve spent 10 months not writing about it.

    Anyway, I admired its scope and ambition. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it merits revisiting someday.

    4 out of 5

    Jackie Brown
    (1997)

    2017 #49
    Quentin Tarantino | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jackie Brown

    Oscar statue1998 Academy Awards
    1 nomination

    Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Forster).




    Jackie Brown has long been my Tarantino blindspot. I caught up with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction after he was already established and they were regarded as modern classics, then was old enough to see the Kill Bills at the cinema and have followed his career from there. But, for some reason, his third feature has always eluded my attention. My tenth anniversary “heinous oversights” list seemed a good time to rectify that.

    Some people argue that Jackie Brown is secretly Tarantino’s best movie. I add “secretly” there because it gets a lot less attention than the aforementioned movies that came either side of it. That’s not a bandwagon I’m prepared to jump on. To me, it feels a little like QT was trying to emulate what worked about Pulp Fiction without just making a rip-off of his own movie, and therefore it’s a bit of an inferior copy. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means. The eponymous character is particularly interesting, as you’re never quite sure what Jackie’s up to; what her plan is. She seems to be telling everybody everything, but she has to be screwing some — or all — of them, right?

    Possibly I was just approaching the film in the wrong way. Tarantino has called it “a hangout movie”, which he explained thus: “Jackie Brown is better the second time. And I think it’s even better the third. And the fourth time… Maybe even the first time we see it we go, ‘Why are we doing all this hanging out? Why can’t we get to more of the plot?’ But, now the second time you see it, and the third time you see it, you’re not thinking about the plot anymore. You’re waiting for the hangout scenes… It’s about hanging out with the characters.” Personally, I’m not in any desperate rush to hang out with these characters again. But who knows, maybe I’ll get it the second time. Or the third. Or the fourth…

    4 out of 5

    Silver Linings Playbook
    (2012)

    2017 #61
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Silver Linings Playbook

    Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.



    Bradley Cooper’s performance — 3.5/5
    JLaw’s performance — 4/5
    JLaw’s dancing — 6/5
    Direction — 2/5
    Screenplay (first two acts) — 3/5
    Screenplay (bit where it suddenly gets plot-heavy and all exposition-y to set up the third act) — 1/5
    Screenplay (third act that seems to be from a completely different, much more conventional movie) — 2/5

    Average =

    3 out of 5

    The 39 Steps
    (1935)

    2017 #60
    Alfred Hitchcock | 83 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | UK / English | U

    The 39 Steps

    This adaptation of John Buchan’s adventure novel is one of the best-known among director Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, and for good reason.

    Galloping briskly along with a running time under 90 minutes, it’s a film where mood, tone, and the wonderful execution of individual sequences are all allowed to trump plot, which is somewhere on the spectrum from unexplained to nonsensical. We follow the likeable wrong-man hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he runs away from a gang of villains who barely feature. That they have a nefarious plan is outlined early on to kickstart the action; what they were up to is explained in the final scene to give the story some resolution; and in between they’re pretty much just a force chasing our hero. It’s almost like the villains are the film’s MacGuffin: it doesn’t matter what or who they are, just that they want to catch Hannay and so he must escape them. It’s how he escapes and what happens during his escapades that matters to us; that provides our entertainment.

    It almost plays like a spoof in that regard — the plot is such stock spy-thriller fare that it doesn’t need to make sense in and of itself, we just get what it’s driving at. Of course, considering the age of the film, it’s more proto-spy-thriller than neo-spy-thriller. Whatever you class it as, over 80 years since its release it remains rollicking entertainment.

    5 out of 5

    Dances with Wolves, Jackie Brown, and The 39 Steps were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Silver Linings Playbook was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here. Other WDYMYHS reviews already published include Hail, Caesar!, Into the Wild, Nightcrawler, and Room.

  • John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

    2017 #86
    Chad Stahelski | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Italian, American Sign Language & Russian | 18* / R

    John Wick: Chapter 2

    John Wick, the action movie in which Keanu Reeves plays a retired assassin who returns to his former life to avenge the murder of his puppy, was a surprise hit back in 2014, and so it’s no surprise that there’s now a sequel (and a burgeoning universe of spin-offs and the like in the works too, but we’ll leave that for another day).

    Part of the first film’s success was undoubtedly in its elaborately choreographed action — Reeves has always taken his action roles seriously, becoming a proficient performer of combat himself rather than relying on stuntmen; co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have their background in stunt work also; and they all brought their considerably expertise to bear on a variety of incredible fight scenes. But another aspect that piqued audiences’ interest was the equally elaborate underworld the film casually introduced — a secret community of assassins and those who served them, with its own codes and rules, the extent of which was only hinted at. So, as good sequels are wont to do, the second chapter in Mr Wick’s story serves up more of both these elements.

    The story picks up immediately after the first film left off: having dealt with his grievances in such a public fashion, the underworld is aware that John Wick is back in the game, and so an old friend comes to call in a favour. Reluctantly forced to accept, Wick is soon off on a mission to Italy, but things quickly become more complicated, making Wick a target himself. In a society governed by strictly enforced rules, how far can — and will — he go to protect himself?

    Shadowy underworld

    For anyone who particularly liked the snippets of this world’s mythology from the first movie, Chapter 2 delivers what they’re after in spades. Before they were just texture — fun window-dressing to the main story of a man taking violent revenge — but here they become absolutely central. We not only get to see more of the world (when Wick travels to Italy we learn a lot more about how the network of assassin-hotels functions), but the codes and how they’re enforced kick off the plot and are central to multiple aspects of it later on. It’s a neat structure across the two films, actually. The first doesn’t throw you in at the deep end with a sudden mass of things you need to learn, but instead intrigues you with a few relatable, fundamentally unimportant titbits, so that maybe you want to know more. Then the second takes what you know and expands on it, using the knowledge that you picked up almost incidentally to lead you further down the rabbit hole, to the point where it can hinge major plot developments on the rules of its own mythology. It’s quite sophisticated, in its way.

    Of course, it’s all still in service of people shooting and stabbing and punching and whatever-else-ing each other. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice. Nonetheless, there’s lots of intricately choreographed, cleanly staged action — and what more do you want from a film like this? Some sequences probably go on a tad too long (a shootout in some catacombs, for example, which doesn’t payoff a careful setup as well as it could), but others are delightfully done (the climax in a hall of mirrors, for instance). But it’s not all po-faced mythologising and macho violence, with Peter Serafinowicz turning up to add a dash of humour as an armourer. There’s also a cameo for Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, but his brief turn definitely falls under the “mythologising” bracket — I imagine he’ll have a continued role in the forthcoming threequel.

    Morpheus no more

    Speaking of which, this is the good kind of middle part to a trilogy. It very much grows out of Chapter 1, but then it starts and completes its own narrative, rather than only telling half a story, before ending such that a third instalment is inevitable. Put another way, it finishes on something of a cliffhanger. My point is, this is my idea of how a sequel that’s aiming for another sequel should be done, rather than one of those things where they want to do a four-hour movie and chop it in half. (Though I recently said Rurouni Kenshin 2 and 3 were fine doing just that, so I guess it’s a matter of how it’s done rather than whether it’s done at all.)

    By expanding the world of the series, John Wick: Chapter 2 loses some of the elegant simplicity that drove the first instalment, while also fleshing out an alternate universe for fans to sink their teeth into. Some viewers will prefer the more straightforward nature of the first chapter; others will enjoy the added complications. Either way, in its primary role as an action-thriller, Chapter 2 is more-or-less the equal of its enjoyable predecessor.

    4 out of 5

    John Wick: Chapter 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    * The UK theatrical release was cut by 23 seconds to get a 15. That version was also released on Blu-ray over here, but the uncut version was released on 4K Blu-ray. I watched the regular US Blu-ray, which is uncut. ^

    Life (2017)

    2017 #123
    Daniel Espinosa | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

    Life

    Aboard the ISS in the near future, a team of astronauts receives a probe returning from Mars with samples from the surface. Included among them are some living cells — the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The cells begin to quickly evolve into a living organism, thrilling the scientists… until it turns nasty and begins to attack the crew. That feels like a spoiler, but this is a sci-fi horror and that development is kind of inherent in the genre.

    Playing like a cross between Gravity (a near-future thriller where space technology is almost identical to our present capabilities) and Alien (a violent alien lifeform attacks the crew of a space vessel), Life clearly aspires to be little more than a straight-up sci-fi/horror thrill ride, and on that score it’s a pretty effective piece of entertainment.

    Of course, it’s not without its niggles. It could’ve nixed some of the stupid-ass dialogue, like one of the crew commenting “it’s so cold” while they’re shivering and their breathe condenses. More fundamentally, as the organism rapidly develops none of the scientists seem all that concerned by this, sticking to their initial feelings of awe and wonder. Surely there should be some worry about its potential? Perhaps the film was supposed to be saying something about humanity’s hubris when it comes to nature — that we wouldn’t worry about such a small organism, because why would we? — but I’m not convinced that’s a theme being actively invoked. Or maybe it was: comparing his movie to that other recent first contact flick, Arrival, director Daniel Espinosa notes that Denis Villeneuve’s film “is a great, beautiful, cinematic essay about philosophy. Mine is a rollercoaster with some underpinnings of philosophy.” Well, they’re under enough that you can ignore them entirely if you like. There are certainly some even bigger ideas it could’ve chosen to tackle — see the ghost of 82’s review for some interesting thoughts on that.

    In space, no one can hear you rip off other movies

    Still, we shouldn’t really judge a film for things it wasn’t aspiring to do. As a “rollercoaster”, this is decent entertainment. It builds to a helluvan ending too, which naturally I won’t spoil. That said, spoilers follow, because there are some interesting comments by Espinosa about the ending here. Two points jump out at me. One: the alien doesn’t kill David — why not? Espinosa says David didn’t fear it; in fact, he has a connection to it. Personally, I’d say that’s not apparent in the film at all. It would certainly make the ending more interesting if it were true, but I’m not convinced it was actually set up. Two: nowadays we’re so trained to expect sequels that we don’t consider the implications of ambiguous endings anymore (certainly not on blockbuster-sized movies, anyway). We don’t think about what it might mean, we just wait for a sequel to tell us. At best, we consider the ending in terms of “what’s the next two-hour genre-friendly story here?”, which is equally as limiting. He might well have a point there.

    I have no idea if Life is getting a sequel to tell us what happens next or not. I believe the writers wanted one, but I’m not sure how well it did at the box office in the end. I’m not anxiously anticipating a follow-up, but I’d watch it. Life isn’t interesting enough to be a great movie, but it’s an entertaining thrill ride. My score is a smidge generous, but I did enjoy it overall.

    4 out of 5

    Life is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Eye in the Sky (2015)

    2017 #8
    Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

    Eye in the Sky

    Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

    After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

    Someone's got to make the call

    Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

    Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

    Emote control

    One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

    Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

    4 out of 5

    Now You See Me 2 (2016)

    2017 #54
    Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

    Now You See Me 2

    Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and a reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

    Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

    The cast try to understand the plot...

    Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

    A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

    Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

    2 out of 5

    * I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^