Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — looks fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photographer, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

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Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • Money Monster (2016)
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Big Screen Edition (2009)
  • Headshot (2016)


    Money Monster
    (2016)

    2017 #36
    Jodie Foster | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Money Monster

    Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a silly financial advice TV show, produced by his mate Patty (Julia Roberts), who one day is taken hostage live on air by a guy (Jack O’Connell) who followed one of Gates’ tips and lost big.

    Director Jodie Foster’s topical thriller takes aim at both Wall Street finagling and satirising media consumption, but has bitten off more than it can chew. Some of its points are on target, they’re just so obvious it barely matters. At least it works quite effectively as a straightforward throwback-style thriller (it’s a bit ’90s), especially on a couple of occasions where it subverts expectations — like getting the hostage taker’s pregnant wife on the phone to talk him down, only she starts laying into him; or when the charming TV host pleads with the public to raise a company’s stock price in order to save his life, but the price goes down. That said, in the grand scheme of the movie these are quite minor niceties — the overall narrative goes exactly where you’d expect it to.

    Perhaps its greatest point comes at the end: the Wall Street guy is exposed as a total villain… and everyone just goes back to their lives. We all know these people do bad shit, but because everyone’s just kind of accepted it (and the people with power to perhaps do something about it are disinclined to attempt it, for $ whatever $ reason $), they’re allowed to just keep on going. You can shout about it all you want and however you want — by making a thriller movie with big-name stars, perhaps — but the best you can hope for is a shrugged “yeah, we know, it sucks”.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    Big Screen Edition

    (2009)

    Rewatchathon 2017 #19
    Michael Bay | 150 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen IMAX

    “Big Screen Edition”? This is the version of the second Transformers movie that was released theatrically on IMAX, and later made available on Blu-ray exclusively at Walmart in the US. Which is why I’m only watching it now, when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy. As well as including two big sequences at a more IMAX-esque ratio, it’s also extended — by 30 whole seconds!

    30 seconds isn’t much in the first, and even a die-hard fan would struggle to spot them because they’re frames-long additions here and there. The full details can be found here, should you care. The expanded aspect ratio of the the IMAX scenes are more noticeable. I love a changing aspect ratio, and these are effective at adding scale to the two sequences they’re used in — the midway forest battle that (spoilers!) results in Optimus’ temporary death, and part of the climactic battle. On the downside, two action scenes in a two-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t very much, really.

    As for the film itself, I don’t know if I enjoyed it more than the first time, because I gave it quite a kind review then, but I kind of liked it (enough) for what it is — a big, dumb spectacle. It’s still too long, poorly written (in part a victim of the writers’ strike), and has all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable bits. It’s not a good film, but it is a decent(-ish) movie.

    3 out of 5

    Headshot
    (2016)

    2017 #92
    Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian & English | 18

    Headshot

    The Raid’s Iko Uwais stars in this actioner as Ishmael, a man who washes ashore with amnesia thanks to a bullet wound in his head — so far, so Bourne. Bad people are out to get him, of course, and when they kidnap the kindly doctor who nursed him back to health (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael goes on a violent rampage to save her and uncover his past.

    Beginning with a focus on the sweet kind-of-love-story between Ishmael and the doctor, Headshot has a slightly different feel to your usual beat-em-up-athon at first, almost like an indie romance drama. That changes pretty sharpish, of course, and we’re thrown into an array of highly choreographed punch-ups. It’s pretty entertaining as that, with some inventive bits here and there, but nothing to challenge the pair of films Uwais is best known for.

    Put it this way: I enjoyed it while it was on, but I sold the Blu-ray on eBay the next day.

    3 out of 5

  • Suicide Squad (2016)

    2016 #178
    David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

    Suicide Squad

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    1 nomination — 1 win

    Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


    The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

    That did not end well.

    The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

    Skwad!

    That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

    On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

    And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

    Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

    Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

    Suicide stars

    On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

    There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely wasn’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

    Theatrical Cut
    2 out of 5


    So, is the extended cut better?

    2016 #195a
    David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

    Please sir, can I have some more?

    Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

    I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

    It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

    Extended Cut
    3 out of 5

    And finally, lest you ever forget…

    Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014)

    2017 #68
    David Lynch | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | 15

    Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces

    When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was released in 1992, one of the things that disappointed fans was the absence of many of Twin Peaks’ beloved characters. A few of those absentees were due to scheduling conflicts or behind-the-scenes disagreements, but others were shot and left on the cutting room floor. Rumours circulated for years (still do at times) that David Lynch actually shot five hours of material, only two-and-a-quarter of which made it into the final cut. However, as early as ’92 itself, co-writer Robert Engels stated that the first cut ran 3 hours 40 minutes, adding that they hoped to put that extended version out on LaserDisc. Such a release never happened, and fans were left wanting. Campaigns were launched to get the deleted material on DVD, but there were issues with who held the rights, and then Lynch was only prepared to release them if they had been properly mastered and finished to theatrical standard.

    Finally, after over two decades of waiting and hoping, the stars aligned and the series’ Blu-ray release was accompanied by those long-awaited scenes. Dubbed “The Missing Pieces”, there were 90 minutes of them — which, you’ll note, when added to the 135-minute film more-or-less equals the 3 hours 40 minutes Engels promised back in ’92. It’s also basically another movie’s worth of material; and, indeed, there were limited theatrical screenings as part of the promotion for the Blu-ray — hence why this counts as a film (look, it’s on IMDb and everything).

    Diane, it's 9:27am and I am stood in your doorway blowing you a kiss...

    Still, The Missing Pieces may just sound like an uncommonly long selection of discarded bits, same as most DVD deleted scene sections, but there’s more to it than that. There’s quality material here — even, some people say, some of the best scenes in the entire Twin Peaks canon. In fact, some people even reckon it stands confidently as a second Twin Peaks movie, albeit one that depicts events that occur concurrently to the existing film. Well, I don’t think I’d go quite that far, but there’s definitely more to this than a couple of missing lines or amusing asides.

    The fact it isn’t a standalone work is evident from the off, which begins like a traditional deleted scenes package: a collection of context-free bits-and-pieces of FBI Agents Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley in the town of Deer Meadow. These go on for about ten minutes, including a bout of fisticuffs between Desmond and the uncooperative local sheriff that was a very wise removal from the final cut. These early scenes make it instantly clear that The Missing Pieces is a companion to Fire Walk with Me and needs to be watched alongside it, not a unique entity that’s capable of holding its own. These are “Missing Pieces” indeed, not “Meanwhile Pieces”.

    That said, the interest level of the material increases quite quickly. There’s a scene between Stanley and Agent Cooper that doesn’t add a great deal to the story but does again reference the mysterious blue rose — was Lynch intending to go somewhere with that, or not, hence why the scene was deleted? It has a prominent place on the Blu-ray packaging, too… There’s also more David Bowie, though it doesn’t make his part a whole lot clearer. On the bright side, it includes a Buenos Aires hotel bellhop delivering the immortal line: “Oh, Mr. Jeffries! Oh, the shit, it come out of my ass.”

    Oh, the shit, it come out of my ass.

    As things move on to the Twin Peaks-set portion of the tale, we get what the fans really wanted: not mere odds and ends that were removed to expedite the plot, but bits featuring fan favourite characters. Whether the scenes are important or not is another matter, but it must’ve been great to see new material featuring some beloved characters. (I’m glad I’m only watching this now, when this is all available and there’s a new series with new answers on the horizon, rather than having had to endure the wait.)

    That said, in the scope of the story Fire Walk with Me was telling, all of the townsfolk deletions make sense. There are a couple of scenes of Big Ed and Norma’s romance that help set up where they were at the start of the series, but it has little or no relation to Laura. Even less relevant is a scene at the sawmill showing Josie and Pete arguing with a customer over the size of a 2×4. It’s utterly pointless, the only possible reason for its existence to be to shoehorn those characters into the movie, and therefore it was an eminently sensible deletion. The same goes for scenes at the sheriff’s station, which felt like they had greater relation to the actual story of Fire Walk with Me but I still couldn’t quite make head nor tail of.

    It’s not all townsfolk asides, however: there are more scenes with Laura, too. One at Donna’s house shows Dr Hayward being kind towards Laura, seemingly the only man in the entire town who treated her appropriately. That might’ve made a nice counterpoint if left in the movie. Similarly, there’s a scene of domestic bliss in the Palmer household, where Leland, Sarah and Laura practise speaking Norwegian round the dinner table and end up in hysterics. That would’ve made a nice mirror to the later dinner table scene where Leland goes all creepy.

    How's Annie?

    As you’d expect from a deleted scenes section, but in opposition to what some people claim about it, The Missing Pieces is a collection of just that — pieces; fragments divorced from their whole. It’s definitely an experience aimed squarely at fans, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one worth taking for the initiated.

    It all ends with an epilogue — a couple of scenes that, for the first time, move beyond the end of the series’ finale. Again, how utterly thrilling it must’ve been to finally get such a continuation over twenty years later. In the first, we catch up with Annie in the hospital, where she repeats the statement her bloody possibly-corpse (though, as we can see, not a corpse) made in Laura’s bed. It also turns out she has the ring… until a nurse pilfers it. Then we cut to the Great Northern, where Coop’s just smashed his head into the mirror. He stages it as an accident when Harry and Doc Hayward rush in to help him, and they insist he returns to bed to rest.

    And that’s it.

    3 out of 5

    Or that was it, because tonight it’s 25 years later and that gum you like is going to come back in style.

    It is happening again.

    Twin Peaks (1990)

    aka Twin Peaks: Pilot (International Version)

    2017 #70
    David Lynch | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

    Twin Peaks: Pilot (International Version)

    While they were seeking funding for their feature-length TV pilot, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost agreed to demands that they film an alternative ending that wrapped up the episode’s primary mystery. The thinking was that, if the pilot didn’t get picked up to series, it could be released in Europe as a complete movie (why it couldn’t also be released in the US as a movie I don’t know), thereby recouping some of the cash spent on it. Apparently Lynch and Frost forgot they’d signed up for this until towards the end of the shoot, when they were reminded of their contactual obligation and so dashed something off.

    But the series did get picked up, and that half-arsed ending should’ve been consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, Twin Peaks became a massive worldwide phenomenon, and whoever owned the rights to release the movie version exercised said right, naturally including the tacked-on conclusion. Although the rights situation was settled long ago, the ‘extended’ version is still routinely included alongside the proper one on disc releases. I thought it was about time I checked it out — and judged it as a standalone movie, of course.

    Welcome to Twin Peaks

    Obviously, for most of its running time the so-called “international version” is identical to the broadcast version of the episode. I would contend that is one of the greatest episodes of television ever made. Everything about it is sublime. For starters, it establishes Twin Peaks’ world quite methodically. We’re gradually introduced to the police station, the mill, the Great Northern hotel, the Double R diner, the school, character’s homes — not just literally the locations, but the people who inhabit them, including their relationships to one another, both public and secret. There’s a ton of information to absorb here, but it’s all laid out so neatly that it doesn’t feel like a chore. There’s also a lot of potential plot lines started or hinted at, which makes a good deal of sense for kicking off a series but (as we’ll see in a bit) is not such a good idea for a two-hour movie…

    The episode is also incredibly strong in a filmmaking sense. Thematically, there’s the typical Lynchian obsession with the darkness hiding behind seemingly normal, perfect American lives. It’s not just the weird murder, either: pretty much everyone is sleeping with someone they shouldn’t be, or having some other domestic issue. That’s also very soapy, but that’s deliberate. It’s neither parody nor homage per se, but it’s definitely influenced by how soaps perceive and portray the world. Interestingly, at this point Twin Peaks could be considered just a crime drama with a few quirky characters — all the supernatural weirdness the show’s so known for begins in the next episode (and doesn’t fully kick into gear until the second season).

    Visually, Lynch’s shot composition is fantastic, with a strikingly great use of the frame and blocking — very precise, very neat, ordered, but not in a self-conscious, Wes Anderson kind of way. It seems mindful of being shown on the relatively small television screens of the era, but also maintains a quality that carries over to this day. Beyond the purely visual, the content it creates is remarkable too. The sequence in the high school, where the news about Laura gradually comes out before it’s officially announced, is incredible — the way people slowly begin to suspect, the way characters react, the way Lynch is unhurried in letting this unfold. Having watched the episode a couple of times this year now, I think this part is one of my favourite scenes in the whole of cinema. The way it builds to that somehow-perfect shot of Donna sat at her school desk crying is majestic.

    It's not just because everyone hates Lara Flynn Boyle

    However, when judged as a standalone movie, Twin Peaks is a disaster.

    After an hour-and-a-half of sheer quality, we reach the 19-minute tacked-on ending. This climax is rushed, simplistic, and refuses to touch on the vast majority of the episode’s subplots. I mean, of course it doesn’t — it was a rush job at the end of production to fill a contractual requirement. It wraps up the Laura Palmer case as quickly and perfunctorily as it can, then Lynch basically says a humungous “eff you” to the notion of having to do a movie version by bunging in a nonsensical dream sequence.

    For those who are curious but not minded to sit through the whole thing, I’ll outline what actually happens. The deviation comes in the final scene of the episode as broadcast: instead of having a vision, Sarah Palmer has a flashback to when she was hunting for Laura that morning, realising she saw the killer hiding in Laura’s bedroom. (This, at least, is an effectively creepy notion. Was he actually visible in the quick panning shot of the room we saw earlier on? I daren’t go back to check. Seriously.) Sarah has Leland call Lucy, who’s hanging out at home with Andy (their amusing home life, otherwise unseen in the series, is probably the only reason to watch this). Lucy phones Sheriff Truman so he and Hawk can go to the Palmers and get a police sketch of the killer. Meanwhile, Agent Cooper is awoken by a mysterious phone call (there are lots of phone calls in this) from a man who knows unreleased details about the Teresa Banks murder. The man insists they meet at the hospital, so Coop calls Lucy and tells her to tell the sheriff to meet him there with the sketch.

    At home with Punky

    At the hospital, they discover the mysterious caller is the one-armed man, Mike, who identifies the sketch as Bob. He also babbles some other stuff which I’m not sure has much meaning in this version, but was recycled for one of his later appearances in the series proper. Mike reveals that Bob is currently down in the hospital basement. Harry and Coop pop down there, confront Bob, have a little natter with the creepy killer (who’s creepiness is considerably diluted by his chattiness, if only for the duration of this scene). Then Mike barges in and shoots Bob dead. Coop delivers a kind of one-liner, before a title card informs us it’s “twenty-five years later”. Then the famous Red Room scene plays out, just like it does in Episode 2 — and if you thought it made almost no sense in the context of the series, it makes even less here. Where is Coop now? Who’s the little guy? Why does he talk funny? Why does his cousin look like Laura Palmer? What’s she on about? What does she whisper to Cooper? Why are we being shown any of this?! It came to Lynch in a vision, and he liked it so much he repurposed it for the series, where it eventually came to have meaning (some meaning, anyway)… but here it’s utterly aimless.

    Let's rock!

    This international version of Twin Peaks was never really meant to be seen, and it’s obvious Lynch and Frost felt that way when concocting its final act. That ending is rushed in what it does bother to conclude — and, compared to all the plots we’ve just spent nearly two hours watching, what it concludes is not very much. The killer isn’t even one of the people we were considering as suspects. Thank goodness this isn’t all Twin Peaks ever was.

    The pilot as broadcast is a five-star masterpiece; not just the start of something truly special, but something remarkable in and of itself. The extended standalone version is so ruined by its final 19 minutes that I can only rate it:

    3 out of 5

    Tomorrow: fire, walk with me.

    100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

    Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

    I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

    10
    Léon
    Version Intégrale

    To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

    9
    Watchmen
    Director’s Cut

    There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

    8
    I Am Legend
    Alternate Theatrical Version

    The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

    7
    Salt
    Director’s Cut

    This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

    6
    Alien³
    Assembly Cut

    The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

    5
    The Lord of the Rings
    Extended Edition

    From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

    4
    Sucker Punch
    Extended Cut

    Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

    3
    Blade Runner
    The Final Cut

    Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

    2
    Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
    Ultimate Edition

    Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

    1
    Kingdom of Heaven
    Director’s Cut

    Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

    Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

    Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

    2017 #19a
    George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

    Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

    During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

    Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

    If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

    In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

    Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

    Black and Doof

    And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

    Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

    Furiouser and Furiosa

    Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

    5 out of 5

    Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

    Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

    Wizardhood (2016)

    2016 #186
    edited by Tim Stiefler | 78 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English

    WizardhoodAt the tail end of last month, a story did the rounds on entertainment sites about a fan edit that took the eight-film, 20-hour Harry Potter series and reduced it into a single movie that ran just 78 minutes — a reduction of over 93%. You see stories about these kind of fan edits all the time (or you do if you read certain sites, anyway), but I usually don’t get round to watching them. I mean, who has time for a dozens-of-hours supercut that puts every piece of footage from every Marvel movie (and short) into chronological order, or whatever? But as I was off to Harry Potter Land — and as it’s less than an hour-and-a-half long — I did make time for Wizardhood (like Boyhood, see?)

    (I did debate whether this merited a new number, because it’s a fan edit of other people’s movies; but it’s such a radical restructuring of that material, and (as I’ll come to in a moment) it’s designed to function as a film rather than as a long video summary, so I’ve decided it does count, as would any official major re-edit.)

    So how exactly do you go about making such a huge reduction? Is it just a really, really long “previously on”-style montage? No, thank goodness, it isn’t. What editor Tim Stiefler (a 27-year-old New Yorker, if you’re interested) has produced is less an abridgement and more a complete retelling of the Potter story. His cut doesn’t even attempt to tell whole swathes of the story, instead ditching them entirely. Stiefler has clearly tried to make a film out of this material, not just a long précis of the story. That means we don’t just get a series of vital scenes that further the plot. Instead, moments are allowed to play out a bit to convey their emotional impact or their humour. He’s even selected a couple of the series’ many action sequences, presumably based on the points in his cut that benefit from that adrenaline boost — just as you would if you were pacing a ‘real’ film.

    Harry Potter and the Streamlined StoryWizardhood focuses in on the main narrative of Harry vs Voldemort, and the need to destroy the Horcruxes. In practice, that means there’s a chunk of Film 1 to establish the world, followed by cursory scenes from Films 2, 3, 4 and 5, mainly for texture and pace, before great chunks of Films 6, 7 and 8 are used to complete the narrative. In the process it also focuses on certain characters. It’s centred around Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. The latter two are only really there because they’re always around Harry, although Stiefler makes a decent subplot out of their relationship. Also retaining much of their storylines are Dumbledore and Snape, who both have primary roles in Harry’s story. Draco Malfoy and Neville Longbottom get subplots, again mainly because they have vital roles to play in the main tale. There are a couple of scenes featuring major players like McGonagall, Hagrid, Ginny, and Umbridge, but otherwise every major character is cut: the Dursleys and Sirius Black don’t even appear; the likes of Lupin and Mrs Weasley are in a shot or two without any dialogue; and so on (I’m not going to list everyone!)

    It’s a little hard to say how Wizardhood works as a standalone movie, because if you’ve seen all eight films in full then your brain can fill in the gaps. That said, it does seem fairly smooth. It’s so efficiently and cleverly edited that there are barely any lines or moments that aren’t relevant to the version of the story it’s telling, and the excised stuff is so thoroughly removed that you kind of don’t miss it. It’s not the ideal way to view the Harry Potter saga — it loses so much of the texture, the plot, the characters — but as an exercise in telling the series’ primary conflict in a single-film-length way, it’s an impressive piece of work.

    4 out of 5

    The full Harry Potter series is on ITV daily from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve, beginning with Philosopher’s Stone today at 1:30pm. If you want to see Wizardhood, you’ll have to go looking

    Ted 2: Extended Edition (2015)

    aka Ted 2: Unrated

    2016 #94
    Seth MacFarlane | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

    Ted 2Comedy sequels often struggle, and writer-director-producer-star Seth MacFarlane’s in-between feature was sporadically odious, so I approached Ted 2 with trepidation. While it can’t match the freshness of its predecessor, it’s certainly no AMWtDitW.*

    The plot (about Ted trying to become a legally recognised person) exists to string together comedic set pieces. Perhaps that’s why the pace feels off: individual parts are funny, but it’s slow going. That’s not the fault of the extended cut (details here) — the additions include at least one of the funniest bits.

    Not a surprise success like the first, then, but an amusing couple of hours.

    3 out of 5

    * The length of that title is anathema to a word-limited review. ^

    Duel (1971)

    2016 #140
    Steven Spielberg | 86 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 12* / PG

    DuelAs far as Americans are concerned, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film was The Sugarland Express (which I reviewed just last year). For the rest of us, it was Duel. Originally produced as a TV movie for ABC, it was a ratings and critical success, which led Universal to have Spielberg shoot extra footage so they could release it theatrically in the rest of the world. It merits it, too, because Duel is a brilliant work.

    Adapted by renowned Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson from his own short story, the film sees ordinary family guy David Mann (Dennis Weaver) driving across the back of beyond to a business meeting, when he comes up behind a massive slow-moving truck. Perfectly reasonably, he overtakes and continues on his way… but a few seconds later, the truck thunders past him. “Whatever,” thinks Mann (in modern parlance)… until the truck slows down again. When he tries to overtake, the truck speeds up, or blocks his way. So begins a game of cat and mouse between the two vehicles, which mild-mannered Mann finds impossible to escape, as it becomes clear the mysterious truck driver is definitely trying to kill him.

    It’s an incredibly simple, straightforward premise; so simple that initially one struggles to see how Matheson and Spielberg intend to ring half-an-hour out of it, never mind a whole feature. That is to underestimate them, however; and to underestimate the truck driver, who has many ways of messing with Mann’s head — all without revealing himself (the one time he disembarks from his cab, we only see his boots as he paces on the far side of his vehicle). Never revealing the trucker’s face was Matheson’s idea, but Spielberg leapt on it wholeheartedly, because the scariest monsters are the ones you never see. Couple that with a specially-chosen truck (of the seven Spielberg ‘auditioned’, it was the one whose front most resembled a face) and you have a genuinely threatening presence.

    Although Duel has been analysed as a horror movie, or a Western, or a commentary on class war in America, Spielberg didn’t see it that way, regarding it as a pure Hitchcockian suspense thriller. He’s bang on the money. It’s not scary in the way a horror movie would be, and I think calling it a Western is a bit of a reach, though I can kind of see where the class war thing is coming from; but you can absolutely see the ingredients for a Hitchcock movie here. Mann is an everyman (I’m sure his name can be no coincidence), a completely nondescript ordinary Joe, who gets caught up in extraordinary events against his will, and winds up the only person in a position to do anything about them. The truck is akin to the eponymous avians of The Birds, an everyday thing that seems to be acquiring almost supernatural powers; that you can never predict its next action, or where it will next appear, other than to know it will always be there, waiting for you. It’s a situation any driver — or, indeed, any passenger — can conceive of finding themselves in, which adds a “what would I do?” frisson to proceedings.

    Weaver is excellent, plausibly charting a course from bland normality to apologetic paranoia, on to hopeless despair, ending in desperate lunacy. At one point he pauses at a roadside cafe to get a breather, but has reason to suspect one of his fellow patrons is his tormenter. As he tries to subtly surveil them, attempting to figure out what he can do to defuse the situation, Mann’s thoughts are narrated on the soundtrack; but we barely need it, because Weaver physically conveys all of his uncertainty, his fear, his wannabe-bravado. Sequences like this also demonstrate how Spielberg was already a master of camerawork and editing, guiding us as to where Mann is looking, shifting angles high and low, the constant changes in perspective not disorientating our sense of space but nonetheless keeping it off kilter.

    This applies tenfold to the road sequences. Spielberg was originally urged to shoot the film on a soundstage using rear projection, the only way to shoot a feature-length piece of this complexity in the time they had available; but he knew that wouldn’t be effective, so despite the insanely tight schedule he took the production out on the road and shot it all for real. Although he did run over in the end, the original TV movie was still shot in less than a fortnight, and edited in ten days to boot. (The additional photography for the movie version amounted to just two more days.) You wouldn’t know it. The array of complex setups on display is extraordinary if you’re looking out for that kind of thing; even if you’re not, there’s some fairly detailed road choreography in play at times, including dynamic moving material that can only have been achieved with a separate camera car. It’s no wonder this work brought Spielberg a lot of attention, and finally facilitated his long-desired move from TV into movies.

    Speaking of which, why has no one ever done a “TV work of Steven Spielberg” box set? There’s a short featurette on the Duel DVD (and Blu-ray) about the other TV productions he directed, and while I’m sure it can’t be his greatest work, he’s clearly not totally ashamed of it, and the clips shown suggest it’d be worth a watch. For one thing, being able to see the original TV edit of Duel would be interesting, for two reasons. First, it would solve the aspect ratio dilemma. The DVD is presented in 4:3, as it was originally shot for TV, even though it’s the movie cut. The more recent Blu-ray follows the cinematic framing of 1.85:1; however, it’s not just cropped and it’s not just widened: when they reviewed the footage to create the movie version, Spielberg discovered he could see himself sat in the back seat giving direction — so the final print is both widened slightly and cropped slightly. I guess which is ‘right’ is now a matter of personal preference, though the Blu-ray undoubtedly looks tonnes better in every other respect.

    Secondly, it would be interesting to see Duel without the material that was added to pad the length. Specifically, that includes: the opening credits, where Mann backs out of the garage and drives through the city; when he phones his wife from the gas station; the scene at the railroad crossing; and the school bus. With the exception of the railway crossing, which is in-keeping with the focus of most of the rest of the movie, these are exactly the kind of scenes that feel added. That’s not to say they’re badly done, and if you didn’t know there’d been footage added they possibly wouldn’t stick out at all; but it would be interesting to see a version that less dilutes the otherwise near-unwavering concentration on Mann vs. Truck.

    Nitpicks and “what if”s aside, Duel is a fantastic calling card from a director who has gone on to become arguably the most significant and influential filmmaker of the ensuing 45 years. To say it stands in contention to still be regarded among his finest films does no disservice to the body of work he’s produced since, but rather indicates just how assuredly he hit the ground running.

    4 out of 5

    Duel is on The Horror Channel today at 6:40pm and tomorrow at 8am.

    * Duel’s initial rating under the modern system was PG in 1987, which stood until 2015 when it was resubmitted (presumably for the Blu-ray) and inexplicably given a 12 — “inexplicably” because even the BBFCinsight information doesn’t make the reasoning clear. It appears to be because of “threat”, which is a ridiculously vague non-justification. ^