Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

2017 #16
Tim Burton | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK, Belgium & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

After his beloved grandpa Abe (Terence Stamp) dies in mysterious circumstances, Floridian teen Jake (Asa Butterfield) seeks closure by visiting the children’s home in Wales where his grandpa was raised. As a child, Abe regaled his grandson with tales of the home’s other residents and their fantastical abilities — tales which were completely true, as Jake discovers when he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar wards.

The quickest route to defining the experience of watching Miss Peregrine is by referencing other films, if only in a broad sense. For starters, it’s adapted from a young adult fantasy-adventure novel, and there’s a definite shape to things which reflects other entries in that genre — the whole “ordinary kid discovers a fantasy world of incredible powers and approaching danger” type thing.

It’s also directed by Tim Burton, and does feel like a Tim Burton movie. However, what’s incredibly pleasant about that is it doesn’t feel aggressively Burtoneseque. As if in reaction to the blandness of his Planet of the Apes remake, much of Burton’s output since then has slipped towards self-parody, and suffered for it. Miss Peregrine has recognisable flourishes, undoubtedly, but is a little more restrained with how it deploys them. Some have criticised it for this, citing it as another example of Burton removing his unique stamp from the picture, much as he did with Apes, but I disagree.

Her special ability is being a badass

The final other work I would reference is the X-Men; in any incarnation, but the most relevant filmic one is probably First Class. Or not, because that was all about the establishing of Xavier’s school and the equivalent establishment here is already established. Nonetheless, it’s about a country house owned by a British matriarch-figure who cares for a gaggle of misfit kids with special powers. Rather than the X-Men’s potentially-violent array of action-ready skills, however, the ones on display here are a little more whimsical — like Emma (Ella Purnell), who’s lighter than air, or Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), who can project his dreams through his eyes.

Also like X-Men, the threat comes from within this secretive world. The starter X-baddie is, of course, Magneto, a mutant seeking to use scientific methods to turn the whole world into mutants. Here, the baddie is Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a peculiar seeking to use scientific methods to grant immortality to himself and his cronies. Part of their thing is eating people’s eyeballs, which has benefits for them — again, that’s quite Burtonesque… though a mite less whimsical.

The eyes have it

Being on board with this whole milieu is important to enjoying Miss Peregrine, because the film does spend a lot of time establishing it. For those not interested in world-building, the action-packed third act must be a long time coming. There is a lot to marvel at along the way though, and Burton keeps things pleasingly real in his filmmaking techniques: there’s a fight between two creatures that was created with stop-motion, while another sequence involved constructing underwater rigs, and the vast majority of Emma’s floating was achieved by dangling Purnell on wires. That’s not to say there’s no CGI — ironically, the foremost example is a sequence that could otherwise be considered a tribute to Ray Harryhausen — but Burton’s filmmaking encapsulates varied techniques to lend a satisfying physicality to much of the film.

On the whole Miss Peregrine seems to have received a rather muted response, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It might be best to qualify that by reiterating that it’s playing with a lot of things I enjoy — “X-Men by way of Tim Burton” sounds fantastic to me, and that’s not a bad definition of this movie. I’d even go as far as saying it’s his best work this millennium (though, in fairness, I still haven’t seen Big Fish. Well, it’s only 14 years old.) The shape of the story is no great shakes, but it’s built from magical elements and fantastical imagery, and a game cast of quality thesps hamming it up magnificently and eager youngsters with a slightly earnest likeability.

Let's go fly a kite

Actually, in many ways it reminds me of another heightened, stylised young-adult adaptation that suffered from a mixed reception. See you in 2029 for the Netflix re-adaptation, then?

4 out of 5

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

Wuthering Heights (2011)

2016 #81
Andrea Arnold | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Wuthering Heights

A world away from heritage adaptations of classic literature (or, indeed, that Kate Bush song), Andrea Arnold’s earthy, plausible take on Emily Brontë’s beloved novel (the first half of it, anyway) won’t be to all tastes — particularly anyone after an epic romance feel — but its sparse dialogue, Malickian attention to nature, and oppressive mood make for a benumbing work of cinematic art.

The claustrophobic 4:3 framing and mist-shrouded photography lock us into an isolated world, where rough people treat each other roughly and misery begets misery, from which neither we nor the characters can escape. It’s grim up north, indeed.

5 out of 5

The Last Dragonslayer (2016)

2016 #195
Jamie Stone | 101 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK / English

The Last DragonslayerI’m not sure whether to commend or condemn Sky1 for having the balls to schedule a light family-friendly fantasy drama against Doctor Who on Christmas Day — that seems like damning yourself to low ratings. But then Sky never exactly stands at the pinnacle of the charts, and, in the catch-up-driven landscape of modern TV, does it even matter? I mean, as if to show their disregard for schedules, the premiere broadcast was actually at 3am the night before.

Anyway: adapted from the novel by Jasper Fforde (the first in a series, as will eventually become clear), The Last Dragonslayer is the story of Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell), a teenage orphan living in the Ununited Kingdom (a name never uttered on screen, perhaps for fear of looking like political commentary in the current climate). This is an alternate-world Britain where magic exists but is on the wane — it’s powered by dragons, but they’re dying out; besides which, the public have become more enamoured with things like technology and supermarkets. Adopted by the kindly wizard Zambini (Andrew Buchan), Jennifer learns about the importance of magic, and the importance of dragons to magic, which is a bit of a problem when the country’s seers have a mass vision that the last dragon will be slain on Sunday, and shortly thereafter Jennifer discovers her long-prophesied role as the last official dragonslayer.

Jennifer StrangeAbout now you’re probably thinking The Last Dragonslayer is completely derivative of every other major young-adult fantasy franchise of the last… well, forever. It’s hard to deny that the plot is, at least in its broadest thematic strokes, a pretty familiar affair. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is its humorous execution. This isn’t a spoof of the genre, more a satirical mash-up of familiar fantasy building blocks and modern life. So, for example, the king’s chief knight is also a pop star, followed around by a gaggle of adoring female fans; when Jennifer finds herself in need of money, her dragonslaying assistant signs a sponsorship deal with soft drink brand Fizzipop that requires her to film an advert, make at least two promotional appearances, and wear a branded T-shirt until the dragon is slain. It’s this whimsical slant on our world that is arguably Dragonslayer’s most successful aspect.

Another would be its characters. Chappell makes Jennifer a capable hero without having to resort to the kind of self-serious moping that dogs so many current young adult leads (Katniss, I’m looking at you). Buchan also gets to move away from the moping that’s so often called for in series like Broadchurch, making the affectionate, skilful Zambini an easily likeable character within just a few deceptively simple scenes. Without meaning to spoil the plot, he’s not in it enough. The slack is taken up by the likes of Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson as a pair of batty magicians, Matt “Toast” Berry as the immature monarch, and Anna Chancellor as the smarmy corporate head of supermarket giant Stuff Co. The only weak like for me was Richard E. Grant as the voice of Maltcaisson, the last dragon — it just didn’t feel like he had the vocal presence to be playing a huge majestic beast. But not everyone can be John Hurt or Benedict Cumberbatch, I suppose.

Dragon breathI guess The Last Dragonslayer’s irreverent, sometimes silly tone won’t be to all tastes, but I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly (all things considered) the book is the first in a series, and so not everything is fully resolved by the film’s end. Let’s hope that, in spite of their scheduling, it’s done well enough for Sky that sequels are forthcoming.

4 out of 5

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. The 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

Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.

V for Vendetta (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #96

Freedom! Forever!

Country: UK, USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd February 2006 (Finland)
UK Release: 17th March 2006
US Release: 17th March 2006
First Seen: cinema, 2006

Stars
Natalie Portman (Léon, Thor)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Captain America: The First Avenger)
Stephen Rea (The Crying Game, Underworld Awakening)
Stephen Fry (Wilde, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
John Hurt (Alien, Hellboy)

Director
James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin, The Raven)

Screenwriters
The Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix, Speed Racer)

Based on
V for Vendetta, a graphic novel by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.

The Story
In the near future, Britain is ruled by a tyrannical fascist government — considering the film was made in 2005, it’s probably set in about 2016 right? Anyway, masked freedom fighter V has his sights set on overthrowing the oppressive regime, partly in revenge for what they did to him…

Our Heroes
In lieu of the more commonplace sobriquet, permit me to suggest the character of this dramatis persona. Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. His visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish the venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that you may call him V. Also Evey, a young woman V rescues and subsequently takes under his wing as a kind of protégée.

Our Villains
The fascist regime ruling near-future England, led by Supreme Chancellor Donald Trump Adam Sutler and enforced by numerous toadies.

Best Supporting Character
Gordon Deitrich is a TV host who delivers government-sanctioned comedy to the masses, despite his distaste for the regime. Could something inspire him to stand up for what’s right? But at what cost?

Memorable Quote
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” — V

Memorable Scene
Bit of a spoiler, this, but the film’s most memorable imagery comes at the end: after V successfully blows up the Houses of Parliament, there is a massive crowd of onlookers, all wearing V’s Guy Fawkes mask. Then they take the masks of, revealing hundreds of ordinary people — including deceased characters. It’s allegorical, see.

Technical Wizardry
The fight between V and a group of government agents in Victoria Station was shot at 60fps to play in slow motion, but the effect was emphasised further by having the stuntmen playing the agents actually move in slow motion, while stuntman David Leitch (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) as V moved in real time, making it seem as if he was moving much faster than them.

Truly Special Effect
The scene where V is ‘born’ from fire isn’t CGI: stuntman Chad Stahelski (later co-director of John Wick, fact fans) actually walked through fire wearing nothing but fire-resistant gel and a g-string. His body temperature had to be lowered before the scene was shot. Fortunately, it was -3°C on the night of the shoot; then, 15 minutes before a take, Stahelski put on ice-cold flame-resistant clothing; when he took that off, he was covered with the fire-resistant gel, which had been on ice all day. Each to their own, eh?

Making of
James Purefoy was originally cast as V, but pulled out four weeks into filming and was replaced by Hugo Weaving. Because V wears his mask at all times, his dialogue is dubbed throughout (they tried attaching mics to the mask, but they didn’t work well), so the footage starring Purefoy was retained and Weaving’s voice was placed over it. Director James McTeigue later commented, “Can I tell the difference? Yeah. Can the audience tell? I doubt it.”

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Actress (Natalie Portman))
3 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Costume)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Just when we were ready to give up mainstream movies as braindead, along comes the controversial and gleefully subversive V for Vendetta, a piece of corporate-sponsored art that will have audiences rooting for a bomb-throwing anarchist. […] Much to the film ‘s credit, and to the exasperation of its critics, the audience is left to decide for itself whether V is a terrorist, freedom fighter, vengeance-seeking psychotic, or maybe all three simultaneously – and whether his extreme actions are a justifiable response to government repression. This pretty heady stuff for a big-budget comic-book movie” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 73%

What the Public Say
“Halfway through it occurred to me that ten years had passed since the film’s release. TEN YEARS. And yet the film’s overriding themes: the dangers of fascism, how fear can affect our actions, privacy versus the oft used term ‘national security,’ freedom of speech, intolerance of members of the LGBT community, and the manipulation and dissemination of information, are still very relevant today. Maybe even moreso. What separates good movies from great movies, often comes down to social relevance throughout the decades. Can it stand the test of time? Does it mean something similar in today’s society as it did when the film was first released? This is why films like Metropolis and Citizen Kane and In the Heat of the Night are still studied in film classes. Their themes are universal, something that can apply to most decades. V for Vendetta fits that category to a T.” — Darth Gandalf, Funk’s House of Geekery

Verdict

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s dystopic graphic novel was a reflection of the 1980s England in which it was originally published; then the film adaptation became a reflection of the mid-’00s world in which it was produced; and then it began to influence that world, with V’s Guy Fawkes mask becoming widely recognised as a symbol for certain protest groups. Although dressed up as part of an entertaining action movie, the story’s real topic is the rights and wrongs of government, and our attitudes and responsibilities towards it as citizens. That message feels as relevant as ever after the events of this year. Perhaps it always will — like George Orwell’s 1984, an enduring warning against things going too far. Let’s pray it’s heeded.

#97 will be… an animation investigation.

Jason Bourne (2016)

2016 #185
Paul Greengrass | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & China / English & German | 12 / PG-13

Jason BourneMuch like the Bond films to which they’re so often compared, the Bourne movies have their devotees while only fitfully pleasing the critical establishment. This fifth movie — which is notable for marking the return of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass after the semi-reboot of The Bourne Legacy — certainly met with mixed reviews when it came out at the end of this summer. Mixed erring towards negative, anyhow, though it does have its supporters. I’d love to say I’m among them, but my take was more… well, mixed.

The story picks up a decade-ish since the last Damon movie, Ultimatum (I don’t recall if the time gap is specified on screen, but we’re led to believe it’s been roughly real-time). Bourne is still living off the grid, participating in underground bare-knuckle fights in Greece for money and/or something to do. When his former associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) hacks into the CIA to retrieve documents on the black ops missions she and Bourne used to be a part of, she discovers something about Bourne’s past that leads her to meet up with him. In Langley, hotshot young tech-head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and her boss Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) are on to Nicky and presume Bourne is involved in her plot, dispatching The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to rub them out — but he has his own history with Bourne.

Bourne againAction sequences ensue, shot with all the ShakyCam you’d expect from Greengrass. By now I imagine you have your own view on whether his style works or not. Personally, I think it’s considerably less bamboozling than when it made its debut in Supremacy 12 years ago — it’s been so copied that we’re more used to seeing it. I think Greengrass has a better handle on the purpose of the style than many of his imitators, however. I’d also argue that the cinematography in Jason Bourne is a smidgen more stable, with shots held a few frames longer, so that it’s even less seasickness-inducing than before. In fact, some shots — even in the quick-cut action montages — are downright pretty. The film was shot by Barry Ackroyd, who hasn’t lensed a Bourne before but has done most of Greengrass’ other movies, so maybe that has something to do with it.

It’s in the big set pieces that Jason Bourne functions best. One in London in the middle of the film is just people walking around a lot looking over their shoulders, but Greengrass still invests it with some tension. Better is the climax, a kind of drag race down the Las Vegas strip… in the middle of traffic, of course. It’s largely implausible (I’ve been to Vegas — I remember the strip as being permanently gridlocked), but it’s certainly adrenaline-pumping. However, the highlight is probably the first: a chase through a smoky nighttime riot in Athens, with Bourne and Nicky on foot and then a motorbike as they’re pursued by the local police, an undercover CIA team, and the Asset, the latter two directed by Lee, Dewey, and their Langley lot via satellite imagery, CCTV, and… social media.

Government surveillanceFrankly, Jason Bourne is at pains to mix in hyper-current iconography; the reasoning for Damon and Greengrass’ return now being that the world has changed and how does Bourne fit into that? So as well as social media and Greek riots we’ve got references to and riffs on hacking, Edward Snowden, government surveillance of its own citizens, the prevalence of Facebook/Twitter-esque tech companies, and so on. Sadly, I’m not sure the film’s actually got anything to say about any of these things. Greengrass and his co-writer, editor Christopher Rouse, have appropriated all these zeitgeisty concepts to make the film feel very Now, but that surface sheen is more or less where it ends. I mean, there’s a whole subplot starring Riz Ahmed as the Zuckerberg-like CEO of a social media company that I didn’t even mention in my plot summary because it’s kind of an aside. It’s kind of ironic, really, that it always seemed as if Greengrass’ more natural stomping ground was his documentary-ish real-world-exposé type movies, with his contributions to the Bourne series an unusual sideline; yet when he finally marries the two halves of his filmmaking career, it’s the action rather than current-affairs commentary that takes precedence.

Even leaving that aside, the plot is no great shakes. It’s too slight, serving primarily to string together the three or four big set pieces; and it’s too simplistic — Greengrass’ Bourne movies used to be entertainingly baffling, a web of crosses and double-crosses and historical connections and hidden plans. Jason Bourne re-appropriates many of the series’ familiar beats — all of them, in fact — but it feels like Greengrass and Rouse just analysed the previous movies for repeated elements and copied them, rather than having anything fresh to do with the constituent parts. So while few of these building blocks are poorly handled, there’s little remarkable about them either. Some are at least elevated by quality performances: Vikander tries to inject complexity into her character, with some success thanks to final-act kinda-twists, while Tommy Lee Jones brings natural class.

Bourne bikerThe end result is that Jason Bourne does thrill as an action movie, which seems to have been the primary goal of its makers, at the end of the day. As an action-thriller, however, the rinsed-and-repeated plot is a slightly faded imitation of former successes; a through-the-motions way to provide those impressively staged chases and punch-ups. It’s not the definitive Bourne movie one might’ve expected from the returning star/director combo (why else come back if not to perfect, or at least add to, the formula?), but instead means the film ends on an odd note: even though it wasn’t a wholly satisfying experience, and even though it doesn’t end with questions still blatantly hanging (as every Bourne movie bar Ultimatum has done), I want Damon and Greengrass to come back and do it all again, please. Only do it properly next time, yeah guys?

3 out of 5

Jason Bourne is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today and the US next week.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #91

Yesterday is a memory. Today is history.
Tomorrow is in the hands of one man.
Bond. You know the rest.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, German, Danish, Mandarin & Cantonese
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1997) | 12 (cut more, 1998) | 15 (uncut, 2006) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 12th December 1997 (UK)
US Release: 19th December 1997
First Seen: cinema, December 1997

Stars
Pierce Brosnan (Dante’s Peak, The Ghost)
Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Teri Hatcher (Tango & Cash, Coraline)
Judi Dench (Mrs Brown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Director
Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, A Street Cat Named Bob)

Screenwriter
Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough)

Based on
James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

The Story
Secret agent James Bond is deployed to investigate a media baron who is plotting to ignite a war between the UK and China to further his business empire.

Our Hero
The name’s Bond, James Bond. In his second outing as agent 007, Pierce Brosnan has settled comfortably into his interpretation of the hero, a mix of Roger Moore’s eyebrow-raising levity with some of Sean Connery’s slightly harder, man-of-action edge.

Our Villain
Elliot Carver is a megalomaniac media mogul — the owner of the newspaper Tomorrow, who intends to secretly provoke a war in order to boost sales and ratings. James Bond does satire? Kinda.

Best Supporting Character
Wai Lin, a spy who’s investigating Carver for the Chinese. A skilled martial artist, she kicks all kinds of ass. Despite initial mistrust, she and Bond ultimately team up. Lin is arguably one of the first Bond girls who can genuinely claim to be a competent character in her own right. Still ends up sleeping with Bond, though.

Memorable Quote
Admiral Roebuck: “With all due respect, M, sometimes I don’t think you have the balls for this job.”
M: “Perhaps. But the advantage is I don’t have to think with them all the time.”

Memorable Scene
Remote control car, James Bond style: Bond lies in the backseat of his BMW, driving it around a multi-storey car park with his mobile phone, deploying its weapons against a gang of attackers. It was a fun concept back in ’97, but I imagine you could do it yourself with an app now. Apart from the weapons. And the legal implications. So maybe not.

Memorable Music
After the disastrous ‘modern’ score for GoldenEye, music duties were here handed to David Arnold. At the time he had composed the scores for Stargate and Independence Day, but, even more pertinently, he had produced Shaken and Stirred, an album of contemporary-styled covers of great Bond themes. The album was heard by iconic Bond composer John Barry, who then recommended Arnold to producer Barbara Broccoli. Arnold’s score is much more in-keeping with classic Bond music, but given a modern (well, ’90s) flavour. Backseat Driver, the soundtrack to my Memorable Scene pick, is a particularly great action cue. Arnold would become the series’ composer for the next four films, until Sam Mendes chose to use his regular collaborator Thomas Newman for Skyfall and Spectre. With Mendes moving on, perhaps Arnold will be back for Bond 25…

Write the Theme Tune…
Arnold wanted to have a hand in writing the title song and integrate it into his soundtrack, like the great Bond composers of old. To that end he wrote a theme sung by k.d. lang… which plays over the end credits and is titled Surrender, though has a tellingly prominent use of the phrase “tomorrow never dies” in its lyrics.

Sing the Theme Tune…
The producers went with a more marketable proposition for the final opening credits song, however, in the shape of Sheryl Crow, famous for her pop-rock-y hits like All I Wanna Do, A Change Would Do You Good, and Everyday is a Winding Road. In the pantheon of Bond title themes, her Tomorrow Never Dies sits firmly in the middle — it’s not a GoldenEye, but it’s not a Die Another Day either.

Making of
The film was originally called Tomorrow Never Lies, referencing Carver’s newspaper, Tomorrow. Some kind of production mix-up (a typo, a smudged fax — pick your story) led to it being misread as Tomorrow Never Dies, and the new, less meaningful title stuck.

This Category Sponsored By BMW
Apparently Tomorrow Never Dies was the first movie in history to have its entire budget covered by product placement endorsements — that’s over $100 million in advertising. Featured companies include BMW, L’Oréal, Heineken, Dunhill, Ericsson, Omega, Smirnoff, Brioni, Bollinger, and Avis, plus a tie-in game from Electronic Arts.

Previously on…
17 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The previous one, GoldenEye, was the first to star Pierce Brosnan and relaunched the series to mass popularity after a fallow period.

Next time…
Two more Brosnan Bonds, before he was unceremoniously dumped to reboot the series for the first time. With a 25th film now in the works, the series is set to continue indefinitely.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Supporting Actress (Teri Hatcher), Music)
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Action Sequence for the motorcycle/helicopter chase (somehow it lost to Face/Off), Best Fight for “the fight between Michelle Yeoh and some ‘bad guys’.”)

What the Critics Said
“East meets West, yin meets yang and chop-socky meets kiss-kiss bang-bang in Tomorrow Never Dies, a zippy 007 romp that draws as heavily from the Asian action genre as from the formula that has served the series so well for 35 years. Goldeneye and Pierce Brosnan’s debonair Bond resuscitated the creaky franchise in 1995, but […] Tomorrow, jazzier, wittier and more costly than its predecessor, also comes closer to catching up with ’90s style and politics. […] Hong Kong kung-pow chick Michelle Yeoh, as the cool-headed Chinese agent Wai Lin, proves 007’s equal at kicking post-Cold War butt. The two take on craven communications baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a deliciously exaggerated — or is it? — composite of Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell. Carver’s not only the most plausible Bond nemesis ever but the perfect one for the current global villain shortage.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
TND is somewhat underrated. Jonathan Pryce plays a villain who is essentially Rupert Murdoch smooshed together with Ted Turner. His plan isn’t to take over the world so much as it is getting rich by starting a war and then covering it on his news outlets. This just may be the most plausible Bond villain scheme of all times – which admittedly isn’t saying much. […] TND may not be among the best Bonds, but it’s got more going for it than I think it gets credit for.” — Lebeau, Lebeau’s Le Blog

Verdict

I know some of you will be thinking, “how can you leave out Goldfinger / Thunderball / The Spy Who Loved Me / For Your Eyes Only / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill [delete according to personal preference] but include Tomorrow Never Dies?!” It’s true, TND is far from the most popular Bond film, but it was the first I saw on the big screen, and that gives me a certain soft spot for it. It’s not just that, though.

Here’s a thing: one of the criticisms levelled at the film is that it’s just an action movie, lacking the peculiarly Bondian thrills a Bond adventure should have. But if it is “just an action movie” then it’s the best action movie in the Bond series. The pre-titles gunfight at the arms meet, the ‘backseat driver’ sequence, and the motorbike-vs-helicopter chase are three of the finest action scenes in the entire franchise, and that’s without even touching on Michelle Yeoh kicking ass. Couple that with Brosnan still new and confident in the lead role, and Jonathan Pryce nibbling the scenery as a lightly satirical villain, and I think you have a Bond film that is pretty entertaining, even if it’s mainly on an adrenaline-pumping level.

#92 has… a friend in me.

The Survivalist (2015)

2016 #150
Stephen Fingleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

The Survivalist’70s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life meets bleak post-apocalypse drama The Road* in this technically-science-fiction dramatic thriller, the BAFTA-nominated debut of writer-director Stephen Fingleton.

A man (Martin McCann) lives in a woodland cabin, farming just enough for himself and fending off raiders. When a woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter (Mia Goth) turn up, they build an uneasy alliance in spite of mutual suspicion.

With a Malickian eye for both nature and pace, it has a grim plausibility about the end of the world and, more than that, the fundamentals of human nature. Depressing but truthful — and, post-Trump, possibly prescient!

4 out of 5

* I’ve still not actually seen The Road so this comparison may be faulty, but it was the first super-grim (so I’ve heard) post-apocalyptic drama that came to mind. ^