A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

2020 #195
Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Bloodshot (2020)

2020 #178
David S.F. Wilson | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English |
12 / PG-13

Bloodshot

If you only know about comic books from the movie universes they spawn, you’d be forgiven for thinking Marvel and DC are the be-all and end-all of that medium. Not so, of course. One of the other publishers with their own stable of superheroes just waiting to make the leap to the screen is Valiant, and (if you hadn’t already guessed) Bloodshot is one of theirs. Indeed, at one point it was intended that it would be an Iron Man-style jumping off point for another cinematic universe, but I can’t imagine that’s still on the cards.

Anyway, in this screen incarnation, Bloodshot stars Vin Diesel as Ray Garrison, a US Marine who is kidnapped and killed along with his wife… but then he wakes up, albeit with amnesia. An experimental scientific programme has seen nanite tech injected into his bloodstream, giving him increased strength and healing abilities. Increased strength? Speed healing? Amnesia? I guess he’s Cyber-Wolverine, only without the cool claws. Anyway, Ray begins to have flashbacks, and he heads off to kill the terrorists who killed him and his wife. But all is not as it seems…

I don’t know why I’m holding back — the trailer spoiled more of the plot than that. And I’m not trying to spare you so you can enjoy the story as the movie unfolds, because Bloodshot is not a film I particularly recommend; and what is enjoyable about it has nothing to do with its storyline. That said, the twist I’ve implied exists would’ve been quite good — certainly one of the film’s higher points — if they hadn’t blown it in the trailer. The only other thrills come from its action sequences, which are passable, albeit constructed with a prominent degree of sloppiness that indicates the filmmakers either weren’t skilled enough or weren’t attentive enough to truly get it right. For example, they didn’t even bother to put British number plates on any of the cars during a chase that supposedly takes place in London; not to mention that the streets they’re darting around look nothing like the UK.

Kind of a superhero

Poor location scouting aside, there’s copious amounts of the computer-generated bombast that’s par for the course in a modern blockbuster. But underneath that digital set dressing, Bloodshot feels like a throwback to the comic book adaptations of 20 years ago; one of those superhero-movies-they’d-rather-weren’t-superhero-movies we got in the late ’90s or early ’00s, before X-Men and Spider-Man finally straightened everyone out. It even has the kind of plasticky CGI stunt doubles you haven’t seen in at least 15 years (Marvel & co use CGI stunt doubles all the time, of course, but they’re better done than these ones).

Like those half-arsed efforts of old, Bloodshot is, when taken as a brain-off sci-fi actioner, mostly adequate. That’s about the best that can be said for it. I was going to say that it’s probably bland enough to scrape a passing grade, but, the further I get from it, the more it lessens in my memory. My score sides with that hindsight.

2 out of 5

Bloodshot is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Enola Holmes (2020)

2020 #214
Harry Bradbeer | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Enola Holmes

The latest screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is not really about the Great Detective at all. Instead, Enola Holmes introduces us to his eponymous young sister — not part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon, but a creation of author Nancy Springer, on whose series of young adult mystery novels this film is based. (Nor, I feel I should point out, was Sherlock’s Eurus drawn from canon, despite what some hardcore Sherlock fans berating Netflix’s Enola promos seem to believe.) Indeed, the film imagines a whole family for Sherlock and his elder brother Mycroft: a father who died when Enola was young; and a mother, Eudoria, who has since raised Enola to be a multi-talented, independent, forward-thinking young woman.

But when Enola (Mille Bobby Brown) wakes on her 16th birthday, she finds that Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) has disappeared. She summons her brothers, famous detective Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and uptight government man Mycroft (Sam Claflin), and various clues to Eudoria’s actions and intentions are unearthed — but not always shared among the siblings, because the brothers want little to do with their younger sister, resolving to send her to a finishing school to learn how to be a ‘proper’ lady. That doesn’t fit with Enola’s plans, though, so she escapes and runs away to find her mother. On her journey, she runs into similarly young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), who is also on the run from his family, for reasons that, it will emerge, are even more sinister than Enola’s…

Enola and Sherlock

As a story set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, Enola Holmes is… well… um… Look, I’ve been fond of Henry Cavill since The Tudors, but he’s not my idea of Sherlock Holmes; and apparently Dr Watson doesn’t even exist? Sacrilege! While I can’t forgive the latter, the weird casting decision of Cavill is somewhat justified by the film itself. I’m not sure it was conceived to include a ‘traditional’ Holmes, and Cavill fits the character as he has been written: as an admirable, kindly, almost mentor-like older brother to Enola. Perhaps if they’d cast a more traditionally Holmesian actor then that person would have managed to shift it towards a traditional portrayal, but I suspect that’s not what the filmmakers wanted. Arguably that makes this a bad Holmes adaptation (if you’ve changed the style and nature of the character, is it actually an “adaptation”?), but then, it’s not really about him.

It’s about Enola — as per, y’know, the title — and in that role Mille Bobby Brown proves that her success as Eleven in Stranger Things was not a fluke. In the wrong hands, the confident, capable, and headstrong Enola could have been brattish, but Brown brings enough charm to sweep us along. She frequently turns to speak to camera, like some kind of Victorian teenage Fleabag, which, again, could have been irritating, but mostly works to bring us into her confidence and, occasionally, underscore the fun and thrill of her adventure. However, there’s more room for nuance in how the character is written. Enola is by no means perfect, but we’re rarely allowed to see deficiencies. This works when she’s putting on a brave face to a world that would underestimate her, but a little more sense that she’s new to all this and doesn’t always get it right wouldn’t go amiss.

Victorian teenage Fleabag

So, while I don’t imagine Sherlockians will be inducting this into their favourite screen iterations of the Great Detective, it works as a female-led YA mystery-adventure. Originally produced by Warner Bros for a cinematic release, but sold to Netflix after the pandemic hit, I suspect this might have actually done quite well in cinemas. It’s good fun, accessible entertainment; the kind of thing that once upon a time would have been a PG-rated family blockbuster hit (nowadays it’s rated 12/PG-13, though with their “allow children in so long as they’re with adults” rules, those certs are really the modern-day equivalent of what used to be PG). Now, it looks to have been a hit for Netflix: it seems to have been widely viewed, based on how the number of ratings on IMDb and Letterboxd shot up over the first 24 hours (and kept going), and it’s been the #1 film on Netflix UK for a whole week (and, apparently, set a record for being #1 in the most countries on its release day). I suspect this won’t be the last adventure we see for Miss Holmes…

4 out of 5

Enola Holmes is available on Netflix now.

The 100-Week Roundup XI

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

They are…

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


    Compulsion
    (1959)

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

    Compulsion

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

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

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

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

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

    Heathers

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

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

    Courage Under Fire

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup X

    These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

    This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

    Lost in Space featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

    Skyline featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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

    The Man Who Laughs

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

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

    I was only Jokering

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

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

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

    Tale as old as time...

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

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

    I said it's NOT a horror movie!

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

    4 out of 5

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

    The 100-Week Roundup IX

    I’ve not been doing too well with reviews lately — this is my first for over a fortnight, having missed self-imposed deadlines for the likes of Knives Out (on Amazon Prime), The Peanut Butter Falcon (on Netflix), Joker (on Sky Cinema), and Spaceship Earth (on DVD & Blu-ray). I’ve also slipped on these 100-week updates — this one should really have been at the end of July, and there should’ve already been another in August, with a third due soon. Oh dear.

    So, it’s catchup time, and it begins with my final reviews from August 2018

  • The Most Unknown (2018)
  • Zorro (1975)


    The Most Unknown
    (2018)

    2018 #185
    Ian Cheney | 92 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

    The Most Unknown

    This film is an experiment. Nine scientists meet for the first time in a chain of encounters around the world. It begins under a mountain, and ends on a monkey island.

    In this documentary, nine scientists working on some of the hardest problems across all fields (the “most unknowns”) meet each other in a daisy chain of one-on-one interviews / lab tours. It not only touches on the basics of what the unknowns they’re investigating are, but also how they go about investigating or discovering these things — the day-to-day realities of actually “doing” Science. Alongside that, it reveals the scientific mindset; what motivates them. The nine individuals are very different people working on very different problems in very different fields, but the film draws out the similarities in their natures that drive them to explore the unknown.

    If you’re concerned it might be all a bit “inside baseball” if you’re not a science geek, don’t be. These people work in vastly different fields — to us laypeople they’re all “scientists”, but to each other their specialities make them as different from one another as we are from them. This, arguably, is an insight in itself. It feels kind of obvious — of course a physicist and a microbiologist are completely different types of scientist — but I do think we have a tendency to lump all scientists together. Think of news reports: it’s not “chemists have discovered” or “psychologists have discovered”, it’s “scientists have discovered”.

    Science, innit

    It also reminds you that scientists are humans too, via little incidental details. For example, the equipment that vibrates samples to sheer out the DNA is labelled, “My name is Bond, James Bond. I like things shaken, not stirred.” Or the woman who plays Pokémon Go on her remote research island, because the lack of visitors means you find really good Pokémon there.

    You might also learn something about movies. The last scientist, a cognitive psychologist, talks about how people assess the quality of movies. Turns out, rather than considering their overall experience, they tend to focus on two points: the peak of how good it was, and how it ended. Pleasantly, this kinda confirms my long-held theory that an awful lot of movies are judged primarily on the quality of their third act. (My exception to this “rule” has always been films that lose you early on and put themselves on a hiding to nothing. Well, science can’t explain everything, I guess.)

    Plus, as a film, it’s beautifully shot. A lot of this science is taking place in extreme locations, which bring with them a beauty and wonder of their own.

    4 out of 5

    The Most Unknown is currently available on YouTube from its production company, split into nine instalments. (It used to be on Netflix, but was removed just the other day. If I’d published this review on time…)

    Zorro
    (1975)

    2018 #186
    Duccio Tessari | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy & France / English | PG / G

    Zorro

    This Italian-French version of the adventures of the famous masked vigilante (played by the great Alain Delon) is tonally similar to Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers: genuine swashbuckling (including some elaborate stunt-filled sequences) mixed with plenty of humour and daftness. Plus, being set in 19th century California but filmed in Spain, it also has more than a dash of the Spaghetti Western in its DNA. The whole mix makes it a lot of fun.

    Of particular note is the final sword fight, an epic duel for the ages. It sees Zorro and chief villain Colonel Huerta pursue each other around the castle, clashing blades at every turn, at first accompanied by a crowd of spectators but, as their fight moves higher and higher, ending atop the bell tower, each with a rapier in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, thrashing their weapons at each other with all the vigour and vitriol of men who really, really want to kill each other.

    Another highlight is, arguably, the cheesy main theme. On the one hand it’s slathered all over the film inappropriately; on the other, it underlines the light, silly, comic tone. Plus it’s sung by someone called Oliver Onions. Can’t beat that.

    4 out of 5

  • Greyhound (2020)

    2020 #164
    Aaron Schneider | 92 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Canada & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Greyhound

    In the early days of the US joining World War 2, ageing Navy Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks) is finally given his first command, as captain of the lead escort for a convoy of Allied supply and troop ships crossing the Atlantic. As they enter the treacherous part of the ocean too far from land for air support, a pack of German U-boats begins stalking the convoy…

    Perhaps the key word to describe Greyhound would be “efficient”. It spends about as much time setting up its premise as I did in the previous paragraph. There are no drawn-out scenes of Krause meeting with the higher-ups to be given his command; no introductions to a motley cast of crewmen before they board; no scene-setting stuff of the convoy sailing out from port… We first meet these boats in the middle of the ocean, their air support signalling “good luck” via Morse code as it turns to head home. There’s a brief flashback to the previous Christmas, when Krause informs his girlfriend (an age-appropriate Elisabeth Shue) of his new station, and then we’re off to the races: a radar contact suggests an enemy submarine, and a game of cat and mouse begins.

    What follows over the next 70-or-so minutes is a lean, no-nonsense series of combat sequences. Character development is limited to expressions and glances, or incidental details. For the former, we know Krause is inexperienced, so as we watch his face we can read his silent internal battles about the best course of action; or we see that the eyes of the crew are always watching him, in shots that are held maybe just a little too long, implying the men’s uncertainty about their commander. For the latter, the ship’s cook regularly brings Krause meals that he never eats — he’s too busy being on guard to spend time on food. The rest of the crew are mostly faceless, just bodies to relay orders and information back and forth, or to man machinery. One man or another might get focus for a bit (the sonar operator is significant during the first encounter, for example), but the film doesn’t expend effort to unnecessarily bring individuals back later. Consequently, the feel is realistic: the crew hasn’t been streamlined for the sake of a movie narrative; a ship is staffed by dozens of men, sharing jobs so others can rest, the only constant being the very top men, namely Krause and his XO, played by Stephen Graham.

    You sunk my battleship!

    The impression of realism extends to the dialogue, the vast majority of which is naval jargon. I didn’t have a bloody clue what most of it actually meant (it’s all bearings and ranges and orders about direction and speed and whatnot), but you don’t need to because the visuals are telling the story. The film is adapted from a novel, The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, and if it’s at all faithful then I have no desire to read the book, because I don’t think I’d have a clue what was happening. But it works magnificently in the visual medium of film, where what the barked words signify is conveyed succinctly by the accompanying images. New sonar information leads to men with maps and rulers rushing to work out new courses; the ship turning this way and that in response to relayed commands; Krause rushing from one side to the other, binoculars always in hand, trying to spot any sign of their underwater foe amid the choppy mid-Atlantic waves. I have no idea how faithful it is to the reality of WW2 naval combat, but it feels genuine.

    Some reviewers have found this unrelenting focus on the business of sea combat to be dull. I felt exactly the opposite. The threat of the U-boats is ever present, a constant danger that leaves our men pinging from one crisis to the next. The intensity is underlined by Blake Neely’s ominous, percussive score, which shrieks when the enemy is near and thuds throughout combat, in a good way. Combined with the brief running time, it feels like the film doesn’t let up. This isn’t some stately drama about men at sea who are occasionally forced to take potshots at an unseen enemy, but an action movie; only instead of men clashing with kung fu or guns, it’s boats and subs fighting with torpedoes and, um, trigonometry. The result is tight, tense, and thrilling.

    4 out of 5

    Greyhound is available on Apple TV+ now.

    The Old Guard (2020)

    2020 #162
    Gina Prince-Bythewood | 125 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Old Guard

    Netflix’s latest attempt to launch a blockbuster film franchise is a comic book adaptation about a group of immortal warriors, led by Charlize Theron, who’ve been secretly fighting to help the rest of humanity down the centuries. Despite their efforts to remain hidden, someone shady has picked up their trail. At the same time, a new immortal (If Beale Street Could Talk’s KiKi Layne) has appeared for the first time in 200 years.

    If you’re looking to start an action/fantasy franchise nowadays, what better bet than superheroes? The Old Guard is sort of a superhero movie, but also not really. Their only superpower, which they all share, is a Wolverine-esque healing ability. They can die, they just get better (most of the time). So whether you class this as a “superhero movie” probably depends on your personal definition. I think some critics have just seen “based on a comic book” and gone “superheroes!”, and it’s a shame we haven’t got past that attitude by now. Equally, yeah, the characters do have a superpower, so fair enough. But the film itself plays more like an action-thriller, with the team relying mostly on guns and military tactics in combat rather than special abilities.

    Bearing that in mind, the concept has fundamental similarities to another recent big-budget Netflix actioner, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground (which I’ve seen but not reviewed yet, fyi). Whereas that was about a band of off-the-grid mercenaries working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys, The Old Guard is about a band of people who can’t die working in secret to try to influence the course of human history for the better by going around shooting bad guys. Obviously the set dressing is different — The Old Guard has a lot more mythology to explain, and the heroes occasionally whip out swords and axes and stuff; and it lacks (for good or ill) the unique storytelling style of Bayhem — but, honestly, at heart it’s the same deal.

    5 overground

    They’re also equally badly written. It’s what we expect from Michael Bay at this point — a plot that might hang together if he ever stopped to let it be explained, but instead he’s more concerned with amping every single scene up to 11 with hyperactive editing and gonzo action sequences. The Old Guard, on the other hand, does stop to explain stuff. All. The. Time. Half the dialogue is characters speaking in infodumps to fill us in on this world. Or not fill us in, because there are gaps. It’s hard to tell if those are deliberate mysteries meant for a sequel (there’s a definite sequel tease at the end, naturally) or if the filmmakers just got bored of world-building and decided the characters don’t know how it works either.

    On the bright side, it has some nice grace notes, like a betrayal I actually didn’t see coming, or Chiwetel Ejiofor injecting genuine emotion into his character’s motivations. Two of the immortals are a gay couple, played by Luca Marinelli and Marwan Kenzari, the latter of whom was Jafar in Disney’s live-action Aladdin (another one I’ve seen but not yet reviewed). He’s much better here, to the extent you wonder how he was such a limp Jafar. Anyway, the pair get a nice scene when they’re captured by a van full of enemy soldiers: a “what is he, your boyfriend?” taunt receives an epically romantic answer that’s an even better putdown than just “yes”. They also get a couple of beats of welcome humour later on. Not laugh-out-loud stuff, but this is quite a dour film otherwise. Most of the action is well staged if unremarkable, although the finale is a rather good assault on the villain’s HQ, ending with a couple of cool deaths.

    Immortal badass

    Despite the poor dialogue and certain familiarities of concept, The Old Guard is more blandly acceptable than 6 Underground. And yet it never swings as big as Bay’s films — for all his many faults, his “go big or go home” style has its merits as blockbuster entertainment. Nothing here is going to stick in the memory as much as 6 Underground’s opening car chase, or midway apartment assault, or madly overblown yacht climax. All told, I’d rather have 7 Underground than 2 Old 2 Guard, please Netflix. Both would be fine.

    3 out of 5

    The Old Guard is available on Netflix now.

    It Chapter Two (2019)

    2020 #71
    Andy Muschietti | 169 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    It Chapter Two

    As you may remember from the first half of It, ancient evil Pennywise the clown had been popping up to terrorise the town of Derry every 27 years, until he was defeated by a gang of kids known as the Losers Club in 1989. Fast-forward to 2016, and the bugger’s back. Maybe “defeated” wasn’t the right word. Despite their vow at the end of the first movie — to return to fight if It came back — the grownup Losers have all moved away and forgotten the events of their childhood. All except one, that is, who stayed in Derry and consequently can’t forget. Now it’s up to him to call on the gang to honour their vows, and hope that together they can defeat Pennywise once and for all.

    It’s kind of ironic that the plot of Chapter Two sounds like something cooked up by a movie producer who had a surprise hit and was desperate for a sequel. “Ironic” because that’s how many sequel ideas have been cooked up down the years, but in this case both ‘chapters’ are adapted from Stephen King’s original novel, which interweaves the two time periods of the Losers as kids and adults. And it’s not as if they decided to only adapt the kid part and then went “ah, may as well do the adults too”, because the first film ends with a double-barrelled tease for the sequel: Bev has a vision of them as adults fighting Pennywise so they make the aforementioned vow, and the closing title card reveals the film’s full title to be It Chapter One.

    Now, I’ve never read It, but it seems to be a fairly widely-held view that the novel’s adult portions are less interesting than the childhood ones. That’s probably why many people seemed to take the first film at face value as an adaptation that had chosen to only tackle half the novel — if they’re the best bits, maybe you don’t need the adult storyline at all. And Chapter Two has probably proven that’s still the case. It doesn’t feel like a missing half; a necessary section of the story mandated by the first being incomplete. What it actually feels like is what I described in the last paragraph: someone realising “our standalone film has been a surprise hit, let’s come up with a story for a sequel”. I don’t know if that’s more a criticism of King’s novel or the way the filmmakers have gone about adapting it. Either way, if you look at both films’ critical and audience reception (both online scores and box office numbers), the drop between chapters One and Two suggests I’m not the only one to have felt this way.

    Pennywise wasn't impressed by the film's box office takings

    Despite the sense of unnecessariness, I by no means hated Chapter Two. You’ll see this review ends with a three-star rating, but that’s primarily to make clear that it’s a lesser film than Chapter One, which I gave four stars. That said, most of my notes are about the things it got wrong. Like, there are too many lead characters — in fairness, a problem that also blighted parts of the first movie. There are six surviving members of the Losers Club, and when they each have to go off on individual quests, that results in six separate storylines that have to be got through. That’s a lot of screen time — no wonder the film is almost three hours long. I wasn’t actually that bothered by the length — I didn’t think it was slow, just overfull.

    There’s been talk of “director’s cut” versions of both films, but some of the stuff left in the theatrical cut already feels like it’s from an extended version. You know, scenes that aren’t strictly necessary but are good or interesting in their own right; the kind of thing you drop from the mass-audience cut but reinsert because they’ll play well in a longer version aimed at fans. That includes some of the flashbacks to the kids, which seem like they’ve been shoehorned in after the younger cast proved popular. (The fact the sequel was filmed a couple of years late also necessitates a spot of CGI de-ageing, which edges perilously close to the uncanny valley.) Maybe releasing a shorter, more focused cut into cinemas and saving that stuff for a later longer release would’ve benefited the online scores and box office receipts.

    Not cutting the flab also means it can be a mite repetitive. There are oh so many jump scares and gross things. It gets a bit tiring. But it’s also considerably less scary than the first film. There are some chilling bits (the odd old lady in Bev’s former flat, as seen in the trailer, is a key one), but they feel few and spread out — another side effect of the bloated running time. I’d also argue the film’s true focus is elsewhere: rather than being scary, it’s more interested in a mix of flashbacks to the popular cast of the first film and attempting to dig into the psychology of their adult counterparts.

    Grown Losers

    I don’t think it’s actually seeking to be a horror movie; or, at least, not a straight-up one. It does want to be scary (some of the potential cuts I mentioned include scary sequences that I guess they left in so it would still primarily be a horror movie), but narratively and tonally it’s less concerned with that than it is with being some kind of middlebrow drama about repressed childhood memories and, simultaneously, a good-vs-ancient-evil fantasy epic (the whole saga is over five hours long, remember). But it doesn’t always land the dramatic beats, either. Take the finale (spoilers follow). Victory comes via the bullied bullying their bullier into submission, as the Losers taunt Pennywise to death. It does feel apt, but it’s also not exactly healthy. Maybe they should’ve killed It with compassion…

    Ultimately, I think I liked the film it wanted to be (using the horror genre as an analogy/examination of growing up and moving on, or not, and how the past differs from our memories even as it defines us) more than the film it actually is (kind of that, but not in enough depth, and with a bunch of unnecessary business thrown in).

    3 out of 5

    It Chapter Two is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.