Judy & Punch (2019)

2019 #143
Mirrah Foulkes | 106 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15

Judy & Punch

Australian actress turned writer/director Mirrah Foulkes makes her feature debut with this live-action version of the famous Punch and Judy puppet show. I don’t know how famous the show is outside the UK (I guess it reached Australia, at least), but here it’s a staple of seaside children’s entertainment — although given its propensity for violence and misogyny, it’s suitability has been the subject of a small degree of controversy over the last couple of decades, and its prevalence is on the wane.

There’s no set version of Punch and Judy — each puppeteer has their own spin on the events of the tale and which characters show up — but there are certain elements that are, I suppose, considered standards and widely associated with the show. Here, Foulkes takes all of those familiar tropes and remixes them into a freshly imagined origin story. The real Punch and Judy comes out of the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, a fact which has very loosely inspired Foulkes’s take.

The setting is somewhere in Europe (never specified, and there’s a wide-ranging mix of accents to be heard), sometime in the past (it seems quite medieval, but there are buildings and notions that date from later), in a town called Seaside… which is nowhere near the sea. Judy & Punch comes with a hefty dose of absurdity and whimsy that calls to mind the work of Terry Gilliam as a reference point, and with dialogue and music choices that range from cod-medieval to very modern-sounding (especially in some of the references thrown up, which I won’t spoil), it’s clear Foulkes is taking a playful attitude to the material. Well, fair enough — “a live-action version of Punch and Judy” does sound a bit ridiculous, and so the film takes an appropriately irreverent tack. It won’t work for some people, for various reasons, but I was easily on board with the concept.

Punch and Judy

So, in this town we meet the self-proclaimed great puppeteer Mr Punch (Damon Herriman, most noticed for his small role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who is of course at least equally responsible for the brilliance of their show. Now, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the original that Punch beats his wife. One day he takes it too far and he leaves her for dead. But this being a modern telling with feminist inclinations, that’s not the end of her role. No spoilers, but some viewers will consider where this ends up to be too preachy — literally, considering there’s a grand speech given at the climax. It’s a shame Foulkes pushes it to such a blunt point; not because I disagree with what she and her characters have to say, but because it ends up a little heavy-handed. The rest of the film makes its point well enough and is entertaining with it, so do we really need it to end with a polemic? Personally, I can let that slide because I was enjoyed the rest enough that it barely mattered by that point, but I know some other viewers found it a bit much.

And really, that could be said about the entire film. Like much of Gilliam’s work, it’s an acquired taste, with a distinct oddness and tonal mix that some will find distasteful. In my screening, one particular key moment drew what seemed to be a 50/50 mix of genuinely shocked gasps and stifled guffaws. I think that’s the kind of reaction its meant to provoke — a mix of shock and laughter — although I imagine anyone who genuinely found it gasp-inducing might not take to the fact that, actually, it is played for the laugh. But then there’s some quite genuine emotional fallout. Anyone who struggles with a variable tone, or with visual signifiers that don’t match said tone (the production design is muted and realist, not bright and whimsical), might not get along with the way the film dances merrily back and forth.

Horse and Judy

For me, it nailed what I was expecting in that regard. This is a film that kinda wants to tell the Punch and Judy story seriously, but knows it’s kinda silly to take Punch and Judy seriously, and so it manages a balance between a grounded grit and a comical daftness. There’s a lot of inventiveness in how it incorporates the familiar elements of the original, but, unfortunately, not quite enough to sustain it all the way — if it were a bit shorter (or pacier in the middle), or had just a few more bright ideas to see it through to the finale, I would’ve loved it. As it is, it’s a bold effort that I liked a lot. That is, indeed, the way to do it.

4 out of 5

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from today.

Shorts of FilmBath Festival 2019

Across the 2019 FilmBath Festival programme, 46 short films were screened — 23 attached to feature films, 17 at a dedicated ‘Shorts Showcase’, and six at the IMDb New Filmmaker Award ceremony (five in competition, one the film made from the winning screenplay of the IMDb Script to Screen Award). I saw 14 of these, one way or another, and have compiled my reviews into this (commensurately long) post.

First, the five films that competed for the IMDb New Filmmaker Award.

Gladiators on Wheels

The winner chosen by the judges was Gladiators on Wheels (2019, Souvid Datta, UK & India, Hindi, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a documentary about the ‘Well of Death’ — an attraction at Indian circuses where daredevils ride motorbikes and drive cars around 60ft vertical walls, literally defying gravity. It’s both impressive and terrifying, especially considering they’re doing it without any kind of safety gear — no helmets or padded suits here, never mind nets or something. But the film isn’t just about the actual act, also touching on the way of life, and how its fading. It’s a well-shot bit of filmmaking, especially impressive when you learn it was all filmed in a single day. The script was compiled from interviews with the drivers, then voiced by actors, but if anything it’s a little cliché — lots of talk of “living on the edge” and how dangerous it is but how they wouldn’t have it any other way, etc. Still, like many of the best documentaries, it’s a fascinating glimpse at another world.

The audience at the ceremony also got a say, favouring Hey You (2019, Jared Watmuff, UK, English, 5 mins, ★★★★★), which is about gay men hooking up via text messaging. At first it feels like a lightly comedic bit of fun, possibly with some drama in that one of the men is closeted, but then it develops into something more serious. It’s a very well made short, in particular the shot choices and editing at the climax, which combine to produce some incredibly striking imagery. It’s tricky to say why it’s such an effective and vital film without spoiling where it goes in that finale, but it’s a meaningful piece that’s worth seeing if you can. It would’ve been a worthy winner.

Facing It

The three other finalists were … Tight Spot (2018, Kevin Haefelin, USA & Switzerland, English, 4 mins, ★★★★☆), a comedy bit about a shoe shiner and a suspicious customer, which was amusing albeit a little predictable; although it did, again, look nice … When Voices Unite (2017, Lewis Coates, UK, English, 4 mins, ★★★☆☆), a mini tech thriller that was suitably tense in places, but really needed some kind of twist or final development to give it a reason to exist … and Facing It (2018, Sam Gainsborough, UK, 8 mins, ★★★★★), which presented an imaginative visualisation of a relatable social difficulty. Rendered in a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation, it’s by far the most technically impressive short here, but all in service of telling its story and conveying the requisite emotion. Another one that would’ve been a more than worthy winner.

(You can watch Gladiators on Wheels and When Voices Unite on Vimeo. Sadly the others aren’t publicly available, although there is a short making-of for Facing It which I recommend for appreciating the filmmaking skill on display there.)

Of the other shorts I saw, my favourite was definitely Pleased to Eat You! (2019, Adrian Hedgecock, UK, English, 7 mins, ★★★★★). It’s a beautifully designed and hilariously funny musical comedy short… about cannibalism! Its colourful and clever staging evokes the handmade movie-reality worlds seen in films by the likes of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman, while the full-blown song-and-dance number is like the best of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, albeit twinned with a pun-filled cheekiness in its subject matter. An absolute delight from beginning to end.

Pleased to Eat You!

If I were to rank all the other shorts too, I’d probably put Woman in Stall (2018, Dusty Mancinelli & Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Canada & UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) in second place. A very timely thriller, it sees a woman innocently enter a public bathroom cubicle to get changed, only for a man to turn up outside and start chatting, her wariness of him trapping her inside. Is he a predator she’s right to fear? Or is she just being paranoid? Part of the short’s cleverness lies in the way it plays with our emotions and expectations, swinging us back and forth into where our trust should lie. Working with a limited setting, it’s neatly shot — never dull, but without going OTT to try to jazz things up — and gets edge-of-your-seat tense as it goes on. Regular readers will know how much I love a “single location thriller”, and this is a perfect mini example of the form.

Quince: Fifteen (2018, Peiman Zekavat, UK & Peru, Spanish, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) is a real-time single-shot drama about a 15-year-old Peruvian schoolgirl whose carefree PE lesson turns into a tumult of life-upending dismay in just a few minutes following an unexpected discovery on social media. It’s another timely issue, and this is mostly a well-made short — I do love a single take, and the real-time aspect puts you in her shoes quite effectively. Unfortunately, it’s a bit inconclusive — it just stops, with no hint of how she’s going to deal with her new problem longer term, or what’s going to happen to her beyond a handful of initial reactions. It’s not bad as it is, but there’s also more to be told here.

Quince: Fifteen

On a snowy winter’s day, a postie makes his rounds on a London estate. Meanwhile, one woman anxiously awaits his arrival… With its brief running time, Special Delivery (2018, Robert Hackett, UK, 4 mins, ★★★★☆) almost feels like an extended edit of one of those soppy commercials the big retailers always put out at Christmas — you know, the ones that have just started to pop up on the telly. Nicely shot in 2.35:1, it evokes a Christmassy feel without being overtly festive, and manages to avoid becoming quite as saccharine as those adverts, instead earning the story’s sentimentality. A sweet little slice of romance.

Coming just behind those frontrunners would be Spooning (2019, Rebecca Applebaum, Canada, English, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a one-woman-show of a mockumentary about a theatre actress who specialises in playing spoons. Not “playing the spoons”, like a musical instrument, but anthropomorphised spoons, like in Beauty and the Beast. It’s basically a comedy sketch as a short film, but it was largely funny so I don’t begrudge it that.

I’m six films deep into this loose ranking now, but that’s not to discredit Allan + Waspy (2019, James Miller, UK, English, 8 mins, ★★★★☆). It’s about two working class schoolboys who hang out in the woods on their way to school each day, observing a bird’s nest full of chicks hatching and maturing — but one of the lads clearly has problems at home, and it all takes a very dark turn. Initially it’s a likeable slice-of-modern-life tale, managing to find an element of old-fashioned bucolic childhood even in a modern inner-city setting, and unfurling at a gentle pace by mixing shots of the surrounding world into the boys’ activities. But then there’s a thoroughly glum ending. It kinda ruined my day, but I liked it as a film nonetheless.

Cumulus

A young Welsh girl runs off from her dad and encounters a talking gull who’s worried about his kids leaving home in animation Cumulus (2018, Ioan Holland, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★☆☆). Naturally, they both learn something from each other. It’s always nice to see 2D animation nowadays, especially when it’s as prettily designed as this, though it’s a shame that some of the movement is a little stilted and animatic-y. It’s also a bit longer/slower than it needs to be, but it’s still mostly charming.

Perhaps the most disappointing short was My Theatre (2019, Kazuya Ashizawa, Japan, 5 mins, ★★★☆☆), a documentary about an 81-year-old in Fukushima who closed his cinema 55 years ago but keeps it alive as a kind of museum. That’s mainly what I gathered from reading blurbs before viewing, though, because the short itself lacks any real context or conclusion, just presenting vignettes of life in this rundown old movie house. It’s perfectly pleasant, but ultimately unenlightening. My Theatre is listed on other festivals’ websites as running 20 minutes, so perhaps the five-minute version submitted to FilmBath is just an excerpt — that’s certainly what it felt like. A longer edit, with more of a sense of why this is a place and person worth observing, would’ve been better.

Finally, Terra (2019, Daniel Fickle, USA, English, 6 mins, ★★☆☆☆), which received some very negative feedback from a few audience members who didn’t feel it was appropriate for the film it was screened before, Honeyland. That’s a documentary about a traditional European way of beekeeping on the wane, whereas Terra is ostensibly about the tumultuous romantic relationship between two young Americans. The clue is in the title, though: it’s a metaphor for humankind’s relationship with Earth. Personally, I thought the analogy was a bit on the nose, but it seems others missed it entirely. The photography is quite pretty, in a no-budget-indie-drama kinda way, but other than that I didn’t think there was much to it. Other members of the FilmBath team were more impressed, so I think it’s fair to say it’s a divisive little number.

Terra

As I said at the start, there were 46 shorts screened at the festival, so this is just a small sampling of what was on offer (less than a third, to be precise). Although I didn’t love them all, I did enjoy most — and considering they would have entirely passed me by were it not for the festival, I’ll definitely take the handful of letdowns as part of the parcel for getting the good stuff.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

2019 #132
Bill Condon | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I may’ve been pretty quiet for most of October, but it’s Halloween today and that means it’s time to uphold a tradition I’ve had since 2015 — but for the final time! Well, all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, so too must Twilight.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

As usual with films this deep into an ongoing story, I won’t bother making much of an effort to set it up for newcomers. Film series like this are more like miniseries, just with feature-length episodes that are released theatrically and years apart. You wouldn’t just watch Episode 5 of a five-part TV series, would you? That goes double here, as the title indicates: it’s also the second half of the final book.

Ah, the title… As regular readers may’ve picked up by now, I’m a stickler for title accuracy (heck, it’s literally my job at the minute). The ‘correct’ title is what’s on the film’s title card… which you’d think is pretty straightforward, but every now and then something challenges that methodology. The Twilight films have consistently been a problem with that. Always promoted as “The Twilight Saga: [Film Title]”, the main title card in the films themselves use just the individual title bit. But Breaking Dawn has decided to be even more irritating, because Part 1 was called Part 1, but Part 2 is called Part Two. No, seriously. Look, I know this kind of thing matters not a joy to most viewers, but I feel like it’s indicative of the amount of effort and attention that was actually spent on these movies. (Despite all that, I’ve gone with Part 2 for the title of this review to match my Part 1 review, because I appreciate consistency, at least.)

Numerical formatting inconsistencies aside, the opening titles are really nice. I mean, they’re not so amazing that you should go seeking them out especially, but they look good. And for once, it’s not all downhill from there!

Bella the vamp

But only because the climax is probably the highlight of the whole saga — unless you’re primarily here for the romance stuff, which was mostly tied up in previous movies. It does make you wonder somewhat who this final part is for, actually. The central couple got married in the last film — that’s the end goal of all conservatively-minded relationship stories. You get married, then you live happily ever after, so naturally there’s no story beyond that point. (Heavy eye roll.) But Twilight isn’t quite an ordinary conservative romance, what with one of the pair being a vampire, so there’s some mythology stuff left to tackle. Well, no spoilers (yet), but Breaking Dawn isn’t ultimately very conclusive in that regard. Maybe author Stephenie Meyer was deliberately leaving room for a further book.

As a commercially-minded theory, that seems a reasonable presumption. But the narrative of Breaking Dawn suggests Meyer was more than ready to move on. Out of almost nowhere, everyone starts developing superpowers (element manipulation, forcefield projection, the ability to deliver electric shocks, etc), which they must then learn how to use. Sound familiar? I can only assume Meyer got bored of writing shitty novels about vampires and werewolves so decided to make this one a shitty version of the X-Men instead.

Further evidence of restlessness comes from the amount of plot we’re treated to. In almost all my Twilight reviews I’ve specifically noted how slow the films are, or that nothing happens; but this time so much happens they have to condense events with montage and voiceover. New characters are introduced at a rate of knots, simply to fill out an ‘army’ for the final battle. Any writer worth their salt would’ve known this was coming and spent time introducing these people earlier — it’s not as if there hasn’t been room for it in the sparsely-plotted earlier instalments. Simply, this saga is exceptionally poorly paced.

Almost all of these characters are introduced in this film

It’s certainly not the film’s only technical flaw. Apparently it cost $136 million, so why does it look like it was made for £3.50? Inadequate CGI has always been a feature of these films, so what possessed them to think they could pull off a CGI baby/toddler?! The result is fucking creepy; the very definition of the uncanny valley. Sometimes I think the people who made these movies shouldn’t be allowed to work again. The dialogue, the editing, the obvious green screen, the cheapo effects… it’s not just that it’s a crummy story with dubious morals, it’s that the films are so shittily made.

But, as I said earlier, there’s almost some redemption. First, Michael Sheen rocks up as the head of the Volturi, who are the top vampire coven or something (I don’t really remember, it was explained three films ago). I think he’s thoroughly aware it’s all rubbish (I believe I read he only did it because his daughter was a fan), so he gives a delicious performance. It’s not over the top — he’s not just phoning it in for the payday — but it also seems aware that it’s all daft, so why not have some fun? He’s the Big Bad, so his presence enlivens the climax, which also benefits from a good old “two armies face off across the battlefield with rousing music” approach.

And then they fight… and, wow, they should’ve called this The Twilight Saga: Breaking Off People’s Heads. It’s possibly the best of the series simply because of how fucking brutal it is. If you watched the previous films thinking, “I wish most of these characters would just die horrible deaths”, this is the sequel for you. And it’s still rated PG-13! They pull a woman’s head and arms off, and toss the head into a fire, and then they toss a toddler into the fire too… and it’s still rated PG-13! But half a glimpse of a woman’s nipple and you get an R. You’re fucked up, America.

Michael Sheen shines

Post-fight, the film has one final good bit. I’m just going to spoil it, because if you’ve got this far I figure you don’t care. It’s revealed that the entire battle — which, note, killed off a slew of major supporting characters — was all a premonition. “It was all a dream” is frowned upon as a rule, but here it’s actually quite a neat twist. I didn’t see it coming, anyway. I guess I didn’t think anyone involved with Twilight was capable of such structural ingenuity. How I wish it was in a better film, more deserving of its effectiveness.

Oh, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. It means the fight never happens, which means the bad guy isn’t actually defeated, he just decides not to bother (because he’d lose). But is he happy about it? Duh, no. So he… just goes home… still in a position of power, still not happy with our heroes… Is that a victory? Or has the villain gone away to cook up a new plan? As I said, it feels open for a further story. A pair of characters who wanted the good guys to win for their own nefarious reasons basically tell the heroes, “you’re all fools, the Volturi might’ve left but they’ll never forgive what happened”… and all the good guys just laugh, because they’ve won, because they’re the good guys. But they haven’t won, have they? They didn’t defeat him. They didn’t convince him. It won’t take much for him to come up with a new, better plan. Fuck it, I was glad this was over, but now I want to see The Twilight Saga Episode 6: The Volturi Slaughter All Those Cocky Bastards.

Happily ever after

But there isn’t a sixth instalment. This is it. I have completed The Twilight Saga, just over a decade since it first came to the big screen. Back then it was a relatively significant part of pop culture, with a rabid fanbase clamouring for the movies to be recognised, and turning them into major, much-discussed hits. But they were always critically reviled, both in print and on screen, and now it feels like their relevance is waning, presumably as old fans grow up and new ones fail to materialise. Or maybe they still do good numbers in book sales / TV airings / Netflix streams, but we just don’t talk about them widely because they’re not new anymore. Who knows. The only reason I care is because I’m wondering if I’ve spent ten hours of my life watching something I knew would be poor, spurred merely by its cultural significance, only to find that significance has quickly evaporated.

Oh well. At least I’ll always have Face Punch.

2 out of 5

Downton Abbey (2019)

2019 #128
Michael Engler | 122 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Downton Abbey

As the 2020s loom, with the world in a scary old place for a whole host of reasons, why not retreat to the safety of the 1920s, when posh toffs ran the country because their birthright had put them there rather than because the hoi polloi had actually chosen to vote for them in some act of retrograde nationalism. Downton Abbey does actually feature a subplot where a group of working-class servants secretly plot to overthrow the system… but the system in question is the one about who gets to serve the King and Queen their dinner. The working classes fighting amongst themselves about something fundamentally unimportant while the upper classes carry on serenely above them? It’s almost allegorical, although I suspect not on purpose.

No, like the TV show it’s a sequel to, Downton Abbey is much too busy being a comforting blanket of “it was better in the old days” jollity to bother with social commentary. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes throws in the odd nod to more progressive concerns (republicanism, LGBT rights, the fading fortunes and relevance of the aristocracy), but they’re no more than hat-tips in the general direction of modernity. It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?” Well, we do all need an escape into fantasy sometimes, and not everyone likes it in the form of a bespandexed private army battling purple aliens.

Certainly, you’ll need to be prepared to engage with the concerns of this rarefied world if you want to find any drama here, where major points of jeopardy include whether there’s enough time to polish all the silver and if they can manage to put some chairs out while it’s raining. Sure, there are subplots including things like an assassination attempt and a police raid on a gay bar, but they’re not treated as being nearly so significant as who cooks dinner.

Polishing the silver. Not a euphemism.

So, yes, it’s mostly puff about pomp and pageantry — if you were after a film to perfectly encapsulate “heritage cinema”, you could hardly do better. But who would’ve expected anything else? Surely we’re all familiar with the TV series, even if you’ve never seen it, and naturally this big-screen version continues in a similar vein. At its core the series was really just a posh soap, and that style of melodrama is recreated here also: the engaged kitchen maid’s eye is caught by a hunky plumber; what’s behind the uncommonly close relationship between the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and her maid; will someone’s new royal appointment force them to miss the birth of their child; and so on.

If it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of different storylines, well, there are. That’s another legacy of it originally being an ensemble TV show, of course: there’s a big, broad cast and every character must be given their due. Consequently, some reviews have accused the film of having no story, which I think is unfair. The primary plot is simple — literally just “the King and Queen visit Downton Abbey” — but it’s there. And the way the film chooses to depict this story — as a collage of subplots that, as a collective, show how the visit is prepared for and executed from the perspectives of a variety of roles at every level — is hardly an unheard of cinematic format for providing an overview of an event or situation. The reason for Downton taking this approach are rooted in its televisual origins, but if you wanted to consider it divorced from that context then you’d merely see a structural similarity to something like Nashville, for example.

Of course, the fact that Downton is a sequel to a six-season TV series is something most of us won’t ignore, whether because you’re a dedicated viewer coming to this as the 53rd episode, or you’re a neophyte with a background awareness that anything you don’t understand may be because it was explained in the TV show. I find myself in the slightly unusual position of someone who straddles both these stools: I stopped watching somewhere in the third series, so I know who most of the characters are and where their stories began, but I’m unaware of what went on for them in later years and who some of the later additions are. Fortunately, the highly structured class divide of the setting makes it easy to get a grasp on most things. Characters’ backgrounds are not as clearly explained as you’d expect to find in a truly standalone movie, but I think the fundamentals can be ascertained well enough. That said, I say that as someone who had a leg up from watching some of the series, so a total newcomer may find it more bewildering.

What's the deference?

One thing that’s interesting, returning to this world as someone who skipped a few years of it, is how much the emphasis has changed in places. By which I mean, some characters who once had a major are now given short shrift. For example, Hugh Bonneville has always been the de facto lead face of the programme, which makes sense as he’s Lord Grantham, head of the Downton household; and he’s still top billed in the opening credits, although I think that may be more a happy accident (I believe it listed the entire returning series cast in alphabetical order) than an indication of status. Either way, he has very little to do here, with other cast members taking centre stage. The real headliner in the series was always Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, and that continues to be the case here, as she snags both the lion’s share of the funny lines and the film’s most genuinely emotional scene. It feels like something of an ode to the venerable actress herself as much as it is a bit of in-universe business, and who could really begrudge such merited reverence? As to the rest of the cast, there are plenty of reviews out there that approach the film in more detail from either a fan or newbie perspective, so if you’re interested in specifics it may be worth seeking those out.

Some might argue this movie could’ve just as well turned up as a TV special, and, story-wise, it’s hard to disagree. Nonetheless, director Michael Engler and DP Ben Smithard have given proceedings a bit of big-screen pizzazz, using a 2.39:1 frame to accentuate grander shot choices and occasional cinematic flourishes, and much of the photography exhibits a warm-sunlight glow that makes you wonder if they somehow shot the whole thing during golden hour. And while too many big-screen re-dos ignore the emotive power of familiar music (see the Spooks movie for one where I specifically complained about it, for instance), here composer David Lunn’s familiar Downton theme is used to striking effect. I must admit that, even as someone who didn’t stick with the series and hasn’t watched it for years, the opening minutes gave me goosebumps.

Is the sun setting on this empire?

Truth be told, that’s not a terrible analogy for my reaction to the movie as a whole. Its near-fetishisation of regressive social modes should be distasteful, and some of its soapy scenes are accompanied by clunky dialogue and stiff acting that make it feel like you’re watching a period-dress episode of Coronation Street; but it can also unleash a sharp wit or well-constructed bit of farce (I laughed often), and there’s a certain majesty to the scenic, pretty-postcard photography that sweeps you up into its less complicated world. If you take it for what it is — a portrait of a time gone by — then it’s a likeable little jaunt.

4 out of 5

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.

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. ^

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.