Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

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Sholay (1975)

2018 #200
Ramesh Sippy | 205 mins | DVD | 4:3 | India / Hindi | PG

Sholay

For many Western readers (and the stats say most of mine are, though India is in 3rd of all countries for 2019 so far), there’s every chance you’ll’ve only heard of Sholay (if you’ve heard of it at all) as “one of those Indian films that’s on the IMDb Top 250 nowadays”. But in Indian culture it’s a much bigger deal, a huge and longstanding success; like Star Wars or something is to us, I guess, only without the reams of sequels and spinoffs and merchandise and theme parks. Instead, it’s enjoyed remarkable success of its own: it topped the Indian box office for 19 years, was the first film in India to celebrate a Silver Jubilee at over 100 cinemas, and eventually set a record of 60 Golden Jubilees across India. From a British perspective, in 2002 it topped the BFI’s “top ten Indian films of all time” poll, and in 2004 it was voted the “Greatest Indian Movie” in a Sky poll of 1 million British Indians. I first heard about it years ago in that context, and my desire to see it was only exacerbated when it made it onto IMDb’s list. All of which is why I chose it to be my second-ever #200.

It’s a tricky film to sum up, because it offers a massive mash-up of tones and genres in a way we’re not accustomed to from Western cinema. There are whole sequences (not just fleeting moments) of broad slapstick humour, epic action, heartfelt romance, brutal violence, colourful musical numbers, intense tragedy, plus backstory that’s filled in via regular, lengthy flashbacks. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say its primary genre was Action, or Comedy, or Musical, or Western — it’s all of those things, by turn; sometimes at the same time. Apparently it’s a defining example of the “masala film”. Masala is, of course, a mix of spices in Indian cuisine, and the films that take that name blend genres together, typically (according to Wikipedia) action, comedy, romance, and melodrama, plus musical numbers.

Who doesn't enjoy a colourful sing-song?

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but what’s perhaps most remarkable about Sholay is that it pulls them off. Thanks to engaging characters and relationships, powerful and humorous performances, quality filmmaking (there’s some strikingly effective camerawork and editing in the big scenes), it all flows. You can see why it became such a success: there’s something for everyone. And you can see why it struggles to transcend the culture it originates from, because when Western movies ever even vaguely attempt this kind of range of tones, there are trolls aplenty waiting to rip them apart for the perceived fault of being tonally inconsistent.

The heroes are Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), a pair of crooks with hearts of gold, who are recruited by a retired policeman who once arrested them, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a wanted outlaw, Gabbar (Amjad Khan), who’s terrorising Singh’s village, and who he has a personal history with. The way that storyline plays out is highly reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns and the samurai movies that inspired some of them — anyone who’s seen the likes of A Fistful of Dollars, Seven Samurai, or Once Upon a Time in the West (or any of the other films that have riffed on / ripped from them) is going to see a lot of reflections here. I don’t mean that to be a criticism — after all, Dollars was an unendorsed remake of Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai was remade as classic Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, so there’s strong pedigree among these movies for reworking each other to excellent effect.

I'm not sure that's safe...

Sholay certainly adds its own stuff to the mix. I mean, those other films I’ve mentioned don’t have musical numbers or slapstick comedy (not much of it, anyway). Lest you think this plays as a spoof, Singh eventually unveils a tragic backstory (and a neat twist to his character), and Gabbar is a properly despicable, nasty villain. Plus, like most of the best bad guys, he’s not just evil for evil’s sake — he’s motivated to subjugate this particular village for a reason — but he’s still a properly nasty piece of work, excessively and inventively cruel. Rather than a spoof, then, the different genres come into play via an array of plots and asides. At times it does feel like a selection of unconnected subplots to bulk out the running time (and, as you may’ve noticed, it does have a long running time), but most of them come together in the end. Your tolerance for those that don’t (a lengthy comedic aside in a prison, for example) is another matter.

Musical numbers are another thing that put some people off. There are only five though, and they don’t actually drive the plot that much — I was kind of forced to assess their impact, because for some reason my DVD copy didn’t bother to subtitle the songs, leading me to search out translations online so I could get the gist. Still, when they fill several minutes of screen time each, it is nice to at least have an idea what’s being said sung!

In the West, Sholay has been hard to find at times (personally, it was years ago that I managed to source an out-of-print DVD by a label you’ve never heard of from an Amazon Marketplace seller), but as of this week it’s available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK (either as part of a subscription or to rent and buy individually), and in HD to boot! Based on the running time it’s the shorter widescreen theatrical version; there’s also a longer, open matte 4:3 “director’s cut”, which is what I watched. There’s info on the differences between the two cuts here, but the mostly it’s a couple of bits of violence that were censored. The biggest change, though, is the ending. No spoilers, but I think the original version is better — it included one of my favourite parts of the entire film, in fact. The revised version was at the insistence of India’s censor board, and includes a heavy-handed moral lecture — it’s not just less good in itself, it also feels overtly censor-mandated. Oh well.

Vicious villainy

On the bright side, the 4:3 version isn’t great to watch compositionally. The makers wanted to produce an epic 70mm widescreen kinda movie, but didn’t have the tech to do it properly, so they shot it in full frame 4:3 on 35mm and then had it cropped and blown up in London. Watching in 4:3, it’s obvious that it was always intended to be cropped to widescreen: there’s loads of dead space above everyone’s heads, things like that. That said, every once in a while there’s a shot that seems to be perfectly framed. Maybe they look just as nice cropped, I don’t know. To further muddy the waters about different versions, five years ago Sholay was converted to 3D. Despite the film’s enduring popularity, it didn’t come close to making its money back (the conversion cost US$3.5 million, but the 3D release only grossed US$1.4 million). In the West the studio would seek to recoup more of that with home media, but apparently Blu-ray isn’t popular or successful in India, so the chance of getting a 3D BD is basically nonexistent. But, as I said, it’s on Amazon in HD now, so at least there’s that. (Hopefully it has subtitles for the songs…)

Whichever version you watch, Sholay is best described as “an experience”. Perhaps lots of Bollywood movies are like this (after all, with huge success comes huge influence, and I’m sure many have tried to emulate it), but I’m not familiar with them so this was all new to me. That epic running time makes it feel like an event to watch, and the winding plot and variety of tones it encompasses make it feel like a whole buffet of entertainment, as opposed to the just one meal that most films offer. I guess, like any food that is foreign to an individual, it comes as an acquired taste, but it’s one I enjoyed immensely. It would also be entirely accurate and fair to roll out a somewhat clichéd sentiment: if you only watch one Bollywood film, this is the one to watch.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, Sholay is available on Amazon Prime Video now.

It placed 25th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

Free Love Freeway: A Final Roundup from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon

Free Love Freeway may contain the most memorable gag in the original version of The Office (two of them, actually), but it’s also a surprisingly good song in its own right (catchy, at any rate). And it seemed a very fitting title for this final selection of films from Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon, which all deal with end-of-the-’60s cultural movements about love and freedom. Heck, if Easy Rider had actually been called Free Love Freeway, it wouldn’t’ve seemed ill-fitting.

In today’s roundup:

  • Cactus Flower (1969)
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)


    Cactus Flower
    (1969)

    2019 #113
    Gene Saks | 99 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Cactus Flower

    Perhaps most noted for featuring the big-screen debut of Goldie Hawn (sort of), from which she won an Oscar and a career, Cactus Flower has a lot else to commend it. Indeed, it’s easily arguably that her’s isn’t even the film’s best female performance…

    Hawn plays Toni Simmons, a young New Yorker who’s having an affair with an older dentist, Julian Winston (Walter Matthau), under full knowledge that he has a wife and three kids. When they cause him to miss a date with her, she decides to kill herself, only to be saved by her neighbour, wannabe playwright Igor (Rick Lenz). When Julian hears of Ton’s suicide attempt, he realises he actually loves her and wants to marry her. There’s just one small problem: his wife and kids… who aren’t actually real, they’re a lie he told Toni to avoid commitment. Now she’s determined to meet them, to ease her conscience about breaking up a household, so Julian coerces his redoubtable secretary Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman) to play his wife. And from there, the lies spiral farcically out of control.

    It’s easy to see why Goldie Hawn, with her pixie haircut and pixie-like demeanour, became a star after this. Toni is a bit kooky and funny, almost a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, especially as she’s inspiring a change of lifestyle in a man. To reduce her to MPDG status does a disservice to Hawn’s performance, though. She also brings heart and an honesty to the part, giving Toni more of a plausible internal life than you find with true MPDGs. She’s not just some fanciful construct there to direct the male lead to a ‘better’ life — she has her own desires and needs, and a moral compass that, while maybe slightly irregular (she was knowingly having an affair with a married man, after all), still points true and directs the story.

    Walter's women

    But while Toni may be the headline act, what becomes clear over the course of the film is that this is actually Stephanie’s story — she is the titular flower. It starts off as a one-note supporting role: the formidable secretary to the male lead, running not only his practice but also his life because he’s incapable of doing it himself. Asked to be embroiled in his latest love affair, she’s reluctant — that’s one part of his life she’s never been involved in; indeed, it’s an aspect of her life she’s not been involved in for a very long time. But, almost accidentally stumbling her way into it regardless, she begins to come out of her shell and realise what she really wants from life.

    That’s why it’s more Bergman’s film than Hawn’s, or anybody else’s; not only because Stephanie, as it turns out, is the title character, and not only because she goes through the biggest change, but also because Bergman plays it so well. There are obvious bold moments where we see how she’s developing, but Bergman also plots out it with subtle bits of acting along the way, and her comic timing is spot-on too. But whoever you argue is ‘better’, the film really belongs to the two women. Nothing against Matthau and the other men, who aren’t at all bad (you can see how Lenz was once earmarked as a new Jimmy Stewart, and Jack Weston pops in for a comic relief sidekick part). But the story is really about the women, how they behave and develop and change; and dictate the men’s actions, deliberately or otherwise, as pretty much anything any man does in this film is a reaction to one of the women’s actions.

    The film was adapted by I.A.L. Diamond (Billy Wilder’s regular screenwriter) from a Broadway play (by Abe Burrows) that was based on a French play (by Pierre Barillet & Jean-Pierre Grédy), it’s difficult to say who exactly is responsible for the sparkling, funny dialogue (well, anyone who’s read the play would know where to attribute credit, I guess); but Diamond opens things up enough that, unusually, the theatrical roots are well hidden.

    4 out of 5

    Easy Rider
    (1969)

    2019 #114
    Dennis Hopper | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Easy Rider

    Perhaps the defining movie of the ’60s counterculture, this bike-based travelogue sees Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper travel across the US in search of… what? Some specific goals are mentioned, but really it seems they’re searching for something to search for; for what life they really want.

    Easy Rider is very much a movie of its time. It’s not just from 1969, it is 1969 — a loose, freewheeling, drug-fuelled (apparently Hopper and Fonda were off their faces for most of the shoot, which was significantly improvised) portrait of a lifestyle and an era. While the filmmaking qualities may have endured such that it’s still an engaging watch today, with a fresh and experimental edge that makes it kinda timeless, there’s no doubting that this is a movie wholly located at the end of the ’60s. Or, as Tarantino put it, “it captures the sixties in a way that’s tangible.”

    Parts of it almost look like a travel documentary, with montages of the scenery and places that the characters pass by. But it’s also like a documentary of attitudes: from a hippy commune, whose residents are even more invested in the radical social notions of the era than our transitory heroes, to the traditional Southern towns, where long-haired bikers are viewed with suspicion. Jack Nicholson pops in for a cameo-ish supporting role where he makes a speech about the American attitude to freedom that sums up what the film has to say quite succinctly: that talking about freedom and being free are two very different things; and those average Americans, who go on about “freedom” as one of the country’s cornerstones, see real freedom and are scared by it. At first glance Nicholson’s speech is just one rambling tangent in a film made up of them (at first I was on board with that, though I confess I ended up getting a little bored by it), but the ending makes its relevance clearer. As Tarantino realises on the spot during filming of his post-film chat, “in a weird way, the ending is actually what makes Easy Rider have a story. I don’t even know if you could say Easy Rider has a story until the ending. The ending makes what’s happened before a story.” He’s got something of a point, although I still wonder: does it actually have a story? Or is it just a hangout movie with some hippies on a road trip that forces an abrupt ending because (a) it has to end sometime, and (b) well, maybe it can kinda make a point in how it concludes.

    Born to be wild

    Still, there’s a lot to be analysed about the film’s ending, not only its retrospective effect on the rest of the movie but also what it itself is saying. Part of its power comes in its shock value, so I don’t want to give away what happens; although Tarantino reckons it’s also part of why the film was such a box office success (in an era when a high-grossing film brought in something like $12 million, Easy Rider netted over $41 million), so audiences likely knew what happened before seeing it. Certainly, “how it ends” is not the only reason to watch the film (if ever the saying “the journey is more important than the destination” was relevant, it’s here); but also, as I say, the finale comes out of the blue and surprise is part of its effect. Well, to offer a spoiler-free commentary I’ll just quote Tarantino again, who says the “nihilistic ending […] kind of promoted a new view amongst young people in America. ‘Well, you can’t win.’ It was a very nihilistic time in America when it came to thinking about the America we had grown up in, the America we had been told what America is, the apple pie image. Easy Rider kind of flies in the face of that.”

    Easy Rider is so embedded in a particular worldview that your opinion of that, and how much you embrace that lifestyle (or the romantic image of it), is liable to influence your opinion of the film itself. If these characters are the kind of people you’d enjoy hanging out with, you’ll likely enjoy hanging out with them for 90 minutes of screen time. If you despise that whole way of thinking, this movie isn’t going to convert you (you’ll be glad of the ending in more ways than one, though). For those of us somewhere in between, well, it’s an interesting experience to try out.

    4 out of 5

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
    (1969)

    2019 #117
    Paul Mazursky | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

    If Easy Rider was the freeway, here’s the free love.

    Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) are a middle-aged, middle-class couple who go on a weekend retreat that changes their perspective on the world — they come back with freer thoughts and a freer attitude. Their friends, couple Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon), are a bit bemused by their new outlook and how it seems to have changed them. And things are really thrown for six when Bob has a one night stand while on a business trip and confesses it to Carol, who not only instantly forgives him but also tells Ted and Alice, who have a more complicated reaction.

    At first glance the film looks like a character study, because it’s so centred around its eponymous quartet and their feelings about a specific set of circumstances (I’ve described almost the entire ‘plot’ above — the rest is to do with how the characters feel about it, and what they do in response). But it’s not so much a study of characters as it is of an issue, with the four characters representing four different perspectives and attitudes. And that issue is sex. Or as Alice puts it at one point, “that’s all that’s on their minds, is sex. Sex, sex, sex, and sex.” Actually, that’s a bit of a simplification, because it’s also about marriage, and what sex means relative to marriage. That’s probably what makes it interesting: it’s not about young hippies demonstrating “free love” by shagging everyone; it’s about affluent adults encountering this philosophy and seeing how it adapts to their own situation.

    Married life (before orgies)

    It’s also another film with an ending that’s open to interpretation —even more so than Easy Rider, perhaps, because it’s more ambiguous. It’s given away by some of the film’s posters: the four friends end up in bed together. “Listen, you tell me why do you think we came up here?” asks Alice. “To have fun,” replies Carol. “And what is more fun than an orgy?” What indeed. Well, possibly going to see Tony Bennett, as it turns out. Or possibly not. It looks like the four friends get to a certain point, then regret it and get dressed and go out to the concert they’d been planning to attend… but then the final sequence is dreamlike, clearly non-literal. So did they actually stop, or did they just get it on off camera? Writer-director Paul Mazursky expressed a definitive opinion later in his autobiography, so we know what he intended, but the film as-is kind of allows you to form your own opinion. Depending what you think should happen — which of the different perspectives you became aligned with — allows you to pick what does happen. Or you can just believe Mazursky and then decide whether you like the ending or not, I guess.

    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is as specifically about social attitudes of 1969 as Easy Rider was, but the different here is many of those attitudes have endured. There are certain sectors of society that have moved well past the arguments being had here, but many haven’t, and you can almost imagine this self-same series of debates playing out in a modern setting (although nowadays I’d say Bob and Carol’s radical thinking is less likely to come from a weekend away at a camp and more likely to be something one of them read on the internet). Plus it’s got a quote for every occasion, though if you want one that sums up the overall philosophy of the time, perhaps Carol says it best: “It’s just nice feelings. It’s something that we’ve never done before. It’s physical fun. It’s just sex. Oh, come on, it’ll be fun!”

    4 out of 5

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

    I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

    While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

    In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Review Roundup

    To promote his new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, writer-director Quentin Tarantino has curated a selection of movies from the Columbia vault (because Columbia is owned by Sony, and Sony are releasing OUaTiH) that are in various ways connected to said new movie. Some are influences on its style; some are the kinds of movies that the film’s characters would’ve appeared in; some speak to the societal concerns of the era. Along with film writer Kim Morgan, QT has hosted a “movie marathon” of his ten picks on TV, broadcast in the run-up to OUaTiH’s release in various territories (it’s on Sony-owned channels in 60 countries, and has been sold to other broadcasters in 20 more — “check local listings for details” and all that).

    It’s been on this past week in the UK, airing nightly at 11:30pm on Sony Movie Channel, finishing with a double-bill tonight. If you’ve missed it, Movies4Men are repeating the lot next week from 6:30pm. I’m away from home this weekend so will have to catch some of those repeats, but I did watch the films on earlier in the week, and here are some thoughts on the first two…

  • Model Shop (1969)
  • Getting Straight (1970)
  • (If you watched this series elsewhere and are thinking “but those weren’t the first two films,” you’re right: for no apparent reason they’ve juggled the order in the UK.)


    Model Shop
    (1969)

    2019 #106
    Jacques Demy | 97 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA & France / English

    Model Shop

    The English-language debut of French writer-director Jacques Demy, Model Shop shows us a day in the life of George (2001’s Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old whose disillusionment is ruining his life. He’s quit his job at an architect’s because it was too low-level — he wants to design the big stuff, but isn’t interested in putting in the work to get to that tier. Consequently his girlfriend is getting fed up with him, he’s in debt, and his beloved car is about to be repossessed. George manages to talk the repo man into giving him until the end of the day to find the $100 he owes, and so he sets off on a drive around L.A. to find a friend to borrow it from. That’s when he spots a mysterious glamorous woman (Anouk Aimée) and begins to follow her.

    That perhaps makes the film sound more focused than it seems in viewing. There’s a definite European sensibility in play here — a laid-back, wandering feel, as George drifts around L.A. in his car, meeting up with different friends in different situations. The possibility of the draft hangs over their heads, informing their actions. As Morgan and Tarantino discuss in their introduction, some people might view the conversations and speeches in the film as being unnecessarily ‘heavy’, but it’s more than mere existentialism when there’s a genuine life-or-death experience just an unwanted call-up away.

    The atmosphere all that creates can make the film feel aimless, but, as Tarantino puts it, “the more you talk about Model Shop, the more you realise there is more to talk about.” Even while it feels like nothing is happening, stuff is happening. It’s the kind of film where we’re accumulating knowledge about the character and his world, and sometimes it’s only with hindsight we realise its signficance. At first it may not even seem like there’s much of a story — what could pass for the inciting incident (needing to acquire $100) is actually solved relatively quickly — but there is definitely a story, even if it’s a relatively small, somewhat undramatic one. This combination is I think why Tarantino describes the film as “deceptively simple and deceptively complicated.” I suppose it depends how much you want to see; how much you want to engage.

    “Open the pod bay doors, Lola.”

    Personally, I found George to be an immensely, almost painfully relatable character. The way he doesn’t quite know what he wants to do, just what he doesn’t; the way he doesn’t want to put in the long slog, just jump to the more interesting stuff at the end; the way he drifts and kills time rather than doing anything useful; and his big speech after he’s made to consider his own death “for the first time in [his] life”: he’s not a coward, but he doesn’t want to lose his life, because what’s better than life? Only, perhaps, art that reflects it. I’m not saying I am George, exactly, but boy, there were reflections.

    I was less engaged by Anouk Aimée’s character, Lola, who, once she’s properly introduced, takes over somewhat. Turns out she’s a character from Demy’s debut feature, Lola, making this a sort of sequel — only “sort of” because, while Model Shop does continue her story, she’s not at all the focus. Apparently a lot of Demy’s films feature crossover characters and connections in this way, which I guess was also an inspiration to Tarantino.

    I’d not heard of Model Shop before it cropped up in Tarantino’s selection, and it’s not been classified by the BBFC since its original release, so I presume it’s never had a video / DVD / etc release in the UK. While I would hardly say it’s some kind of ‘lost’ masterpiece, it does evoke a place and a time and the kind of lives that may’ve lived there — which is precisely why QT showed it to his Once Upon a Time crew, for the way it depicted L.A. in 1969 (he reckons it’s possibly the best movie ever for showing Los Angeles). Some of it is interesting, but at other times it retains that sense of aimlessness. It’s far from meritless, but I can also see why it’s the kind of film that’s been half forgotten.

    3 out of 5

    Getting Straight
    (1970)

    2019 #107
    Richard Rush | 120 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Getting Straight

    According to Quentin Tarantino (I suppose I could try to independently verify this, but I haven’t), Getting Straight is one of four “campus radical” movies that were all released in 1970 (the other three are Zabriskie Point, R.P.M., and The Strawberry Statement). It stars Elliot Gould as Harry Bailey, a post-grad student at an unnamed Californian university, where he intends to qualify as a teacher, but where he’s also revered by the other students for his history of activism — even as he’s basically trying to join the establishment, they’re trying to lure him back to his old radical ways, beliefs he hasn’t left behind but doesn’t seem to wholly stand by anymore… or does he?

    So Harry is, on the surface, a potentially interesting main character: someone caught between the revolutionary youth and the establishment; who tells the youth why they’re dreaming and deluded, and tells the old men why they need to listen and buck up their ideas; but who is, therefore, conflicted about his own place in it all. But while putting someone in the middle might seem like a fair why to argue for both sides, it’s a bit obvious; allowing the film to have its cake and eat it, to an extent. And while it might seem objectively true that Harry is conflicted, evidenced by his flip-flopping from side to side, he seems pretty sure of himself for most of the film. There’s little done to explore his fence-sitting; to question his status as someone who proclaims to believe certain things yet seems to still find himself sat in the middle. Is he a hypocrite? If he is, I’m not sure the film bothers to interrogate that. So, if he isn’t, is that just because the film doesn’t want to show him as one? Perhaps we’re meant to buy that he’s the only sane person in a mad world, which seems a bit of a cliché.

    At the end Harry does ultimately pick one side, dramatically rejecting the establishment to go join rioting students. Why? He’s goaded into snapping by a professor’s smug, self-satisfied interpretation of The Great Gatsby, but if we’re meant to know why this bugs him so then I missed it. Does he reject the reading? Is it the tone of it, which is like being lectured down to? Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I didn’t really follow that as an arc. Earlier in the film Harry talks about finding a student riot sexy, a turn on, and then the movie ends with him and his girlfriend stripping off to shag literally in the middle of a riot, which does make you wonder if he was just thinking with his dick. I mean, he was for half of the rest of the film.

    Ranting and rioting

    With its focus on Harry, Getting Straight is something of a character study, and if this is anyone’s film it’s Gould’s. At times he gets a chance to expose different sides of this divided person, but he also certainly does a lot of shouting, lecturing, and ranting in the role. So maybe instead it’s about the times, with Harry basically a cipher to explore pertinent issues and different sides. It’s based on a 1967 novel, so was a relatively prompt adaptation, though to remain timely it would’ve had to be. Then again, Leonard Maltin’s movie guide apparently describes it as a “period piece”, and there’s a point there: the film is so much about that specific point in time that it couldn’t be set anytime else. Along with the slightly detached view of its main character, it doesn’t seem to be in or of the moment, like you might expect from a countercultural film made during the actual counterculture. It’s reflecting on it, like a period movie.

    Getting Straight is “one of [Quentin Tarantino’s] favourite movies ever,” or so he says, which unfortunately is a sentiment I can’t get on board with. I’m not even sure I can stretch to giving it a passing grade, because it was a bit too freewheeling and, by the end, in spite of the climactic ranting and rioting, kinda boring.

    2 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, 14th August.

    Live by Night (2016)

    2018 #113
    Ben Affleck | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Live by Night

    Ben Affleck, once a bit of a laughing stock as an actor thanks to appearing in the likes of Pearl Harbor and Gigli, managed to reinvent himself somewhat as an acclaimed director, first with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, and then cementing that reputation by winning the Best Picture Oscar with Argo. This was what he chose as his next project — another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel (like Gone Baby Gone), another story of a Bostonian career criminal (like The Town), another period drama (like Argo… although a wholly different period, so maybe I’m stretching the comparison now). Rather, with its Prohibition-era setting, this was a gangster drama more likely to evoke classics such as The Godfather and Road to Perdition. There was, understandably, awards buzz. Then people saw it… and, it seems, just as quickly forgot it.

    I’ve mentioned a lot of other films in that opening paragraph, and you could make endless further gangster-movie comparisons, I think — and that’s a significant part of Live by Night’s problem. Almost everything about it reminds you of something you’ve seen before, often more than once. As a work in itself, it’s not remarkable enough to outshine the familiarities. Some of the plot is quite neat, with an emphasis on cause-and-effect that sees every solution turn into a new problem, and there are some very good individual scenes, though perhaps that’s easy when you’re working with quality actors Chris Cooper.

    Equally, some parts are underdeveloped. For example, Affleck gets into a relationship with Zoe Saldana that just seems like a vague sex-based aside, until he’s suddenly declaring that he’s put aside his plans for revenge, his primary motivation, because now everything is about his life with her. I need some more more joins between those dots, please. But at least it sometimes looks very pretty, though if you just want to see that then most of the visual splendour is in the trailer. There’s a surprisingly good car chase, though.

    They appear to be living, and it looks like it's nighttime. So that all checks out, then.

    Affleck is a decent director, and, actually, a quite like him as an actor too… in the right kind of roles. I’m not sure he’s got the range necessary for this part, however. His character is a conflicted, contradictory man — he genuinely has a good heart, but he’s often prepared to put it aside to do bad things; but, at other times, that moral compass gets the better of him. It’s a tricky line to tread and make believable, and Affleck’s performance is too monotone to convincingly portray it. That leaves the centre of the movie feeling empty, which is a problem however solid the stuff around him is. Apparently the film’s original cut was closer to three hours long and heavier on character stuff, so maybe the nuance disappeared in the editing — or maybe it didn’t. We’ll likely never know.

    Live by Night received an exceptionally negative response (just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can’t see why people hated it so much. It’s not fantastic, floundering somewhat in the shadow of the other gangster movies of which it’s so often reminiscent, but it’s not a bad attempt at the genre. Though, as a significant portion of the storyline takes place in “the sunshine state”, I’m not sure how good that title is. I mean, I live more of my life by night than these gangsters do. I just spend most of that time watching and writing about movies, though — maybe I should be launching a criminal empire?

    3 out of 5

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

    aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken

    2019 #99
    Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan & Hong Kong / Japanese & Mandarin | 15

    Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman

    Crossovers are an enduring device in comic books — what better way to boost sales (or, if we’re being less cynical, mix things up) than have a guest appearance by another popular character? And the past decade has seen Marvel Studios turn the same principle into a massive movie money-spinner. Of course, they’re far from the first to attempt an on-screen crossover — and what could sound more comic-book-y than a blind swordsman meeting a one-armed swordsman?

    This is the second such meet-up movie in the Zatoichi series. The first saw our hero face off against Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo… or someone with the same name played by the same actor, at any rate. That bait-and-switch was just one of many let-downs in what turned out to be the most disappointing film in the long-running series. With that in mind, perhaps it was foolhardy of me to look forward to this film. Certainly, it’s not the best-regarded Zatoichi adventure. But I really enjoyed the two original One-Armed Swordsman films (especially the first), so bringing that character into the beloved Zatoichi series had the potential to be a match made in martial arts heaven.

    After the prerequisite Bondian pre-titles scene that reminds us of Ichi’s skill with a sword, we’re introduced to Wang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu), the eponymous one-armed swordsman from China, who’s travelling across Japan to meet an acquaintance at a monastery. Falling in with a family of Chinese performers, they come across a procession by a local lord, but the family’s young son gets in the way and is threatened with violence, so Wang Kang steps in to defend him. Offended, the samurai attack, killing all witnesses, including the boy’s parents. Wang Kang escapes and the slaughter is blamed on him, leading to a manhunt for the supposed fugitive. Ichi, wandering as always, encounters the boy and Wang Kang, and tries to help despite the language barrier.

    Creating a new one-armed swordsman

    An array of other characters come into the mix, as you’d expect from a Zatoichi film, including Oyone (Michie Terada) and her kindhearted parents, who take the fugitives in; Osen (Yūko Hama), a prostitute who falls for Ichi (don’t they all?); Kakuzen (Kōji Nanbara), Wang Kang’s friend at the monastery, who has plans of his own; and a trio of drunken gamblers who provide comic relief, including a risible fart gag. But that aside, the film has a dark, brooding tone. I mean, it starts with a massacre of innocents that’s blamed on the wrong man — hardly cheery — and that’s just the first of many tragic injustices visited upon these characters. And when the bad guys aren’t being menacing, Ichi is; like when he casually takes a guy’s ear off to get him to talk, or the moment when he closes in for the kill on the villainous boss, blowing the blindman’s whistle that said boss had earlier goaded him about… It’s triumphant, but also kinda chilling. Put yourself in the shoes of the men Ichi gets pitted against and you can see him as a kind of nigh-indestructible bogeyman.

    The tragedy extends as far as the ending, which is both frustrating and poignant. “If we’d understood each other’s words, we wouldn’t have had to fight,” says each of the men… except, er, they did have a way to understand each other, thanks to the bilingual boy. Have a sword fight first, ask questions later, I guess. But anyway, it’s frustrating because they didn’t need to fight (they were both good guys!), but it’s poignant because their basic natures, compounded by misunderstandings, meant they did fight — and because they fought, one of them had to die. It’s a damn good fight, mind; in fact, this is an excellent instalment for combat all round, thanks in part to there being another exceptional swordsman in town. The Chinese swordsman brings his own style, too, meaning there’s an array of stunts and tricks more familiar from Hong Kong action movies than Japanese ones. Indeed, Wang Kang is well served by the film all round. Sure, it’s still Zatoichi’s movie overall, but the guest star gets a couple of scenes to himself to show off, as well as his own honourable storyline.

    The real one-armed swordsman

    Nonetheless, rumours abound of an alternate cut, released in Chinese markets, that placed even more emphasis on Wang Kang. There doesn’t seem to be any firm evidence of its existence, but some people swear to have seen it, many years ago. Reports vary on just how different it is, ranging from merely the last 30 seconds being modified so that a different combatant wins the final duel, to there being additional Wang Kang fight sequences scattered throughout the movie. Considering this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production, it makes sense each market would prefer a version where their hero wins… although, of course, they could’ve come up with a storyline that saw the eponymous swordsman fight earlier, come to a draw, and then team up for the climax, seeing as they’re both heroes ‘n’ all. Ah well.

    The version we do get to see is as much a Zatoichi film as any other. It keeps in play many of the series’ familiar elements — not just exciting action scenes, but also emotional drama, a gambling scene with a difference, and humorous interludes that are actually moderately amusing — but adds some HK-style martial arts to the mix for a different flavour. The result may not be wholly perfect, but Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is a much better example of how to team-up two icons than the series’ previous attempt.

    4 out of 5

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

    2018 #99
    Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

    FernGully: The Last Rainforest

    I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

    So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

    If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

    Batty, indeed

    Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

    One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

    All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

    3 out of 5