Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

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  • Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • Free Fire (2016)

    2017 #105
    Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Free Fire

    The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

    If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

    Guys with guns

    So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

    Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

    More guys with guns

    These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

    4 out of 5

    Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

    Badass Brie

    Dunkirk (2017)

    2017 #102
    Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

    Dunkirk

    Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

    And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

    Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

    We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

    I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fisherman and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

    So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

    Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

    But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

    To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

    Background details

    I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

    Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

    We shall wait for them on the beaches

    In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

    So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

    5 out of 5

    Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

    The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

    2017 #28
    Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Girl with All the Gifts

    When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

    As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

    So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

    On the road

    In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

    The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

    Special school

    Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

    The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

    5 out of 5

    The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Baby Driver (2017)

    2017 #89
    Edgar Wright | 113 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / R

    Baby Driver

    It felt like half (at least) of the film-loving internet had somehow had a chance to see Baby Driver before its release on Wednesday, but I’m going to throw my two cents into the ring anyhow. Not that it makes a great deal of difference because, like most other folks, I bloody loved it.

    Written and directed by Edgar Wright, director of the Cornetto trilogy and not of Ant-Man, the story focuses on getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a fundamentally good kid who has ended up suckered into a life of crime, working for robbery kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating array of criminal compadres. An accident as a kid left Baby with “a hum in the drum” — tinnitus, if you want to get medical about it — meaning he listens to music all the time to drown it out, and also choreographs his daring drives (not to mention his walks down the street, etc) to the music he hears. One day he bumps into Debbie (Lily James) and falls in love, which happily coincides with his “one last job” for Doc. But once you’re in it’s hard to get out, and Baby again finds himself doing one more “one last job”, with a particularly volatile crew…

    Baby Driver is a movie about three things: driving, music, and love. As Guillermo del Toro put it, it’s a kind of fable, or fairytale, with Baby as the prince and Debbie as the princess. In this respect it’s a change of pace for Wright, ditching the almost-spoof comedy of his previous successful movies for something more emotionally earnest. Not in a bad way, but in a kind of pure way, like a fairytale. This fairytale world isn’t all castles and dragons, of course — instead it’s full of violent criminals and fast cars; but it’s also a world where you can synchronise your getaway driving to the music on your iPod, so it’s hardly mired in gritty realism.

    No little green bags here

    There’s a definite edge of Wright’s buddy Quentin Tarantino to this world: a cast of crooks delivering snappy, quotable dialogue to a near-constant soundtrack of deep cuts selected from the director’s music collection (plus a few familiar tunes for good measure) — the style of QT comes to mind more than once while watching. Fortunately Baby Driver’s style is more than homage or copycatting. Although it’s not a straight-up comedy, Wright does bring his own comedic touch (there are several big laughs), and the purity of emotion — that fairytaleness again — isn’t from Tarantino’s wheelhouse either. Plus, visually it presents a brighter and more colourful space than Tarantino normally inhabits. Most of the action takes place in the golden daylight of Atlanta and is filled with popping primary colours. There’s much great work by DP Bill Pope.

    Though the soundtrack may have a Tarantino feel in its construction, that’s less prevalent in its usage. Characters communicate through song — not by singing them (most of the time — Baby first notices Debbie because she’s singing “B-A-B-Y”), but by connecting through them (that singing is followed by a discussion of songs featuring her name — both of them). The songs Baby chooses for boogieing around his small apartment, or for dancing down the street on a coffee run (in a title sequence that is marvellously choreographed, with dozens of small details timed perfectly to the track), help illuminate his true character — sweet and romantic — which is hidden by the sullen silence he adopts whenever around criminals.

    B-A-B-Y Baby

    Some have criticised the film for a lack of character, reckoning Baby’s silence distances him from the viewer so we never build a connection and don’t root for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what film they were watching. No spoilers, but Baby first opens up with something endearing and ingratiating in scene one. Right at the start. It could barely be any closer to the studio logos (and it kinda wouldn’t work if it were). I’m not arguing he’s the most charismatic lead ever to grace the silver screen, but Elgort makes fine fist of selling Baby as both a quiet, focused driver and a sweet, likeable, cheer-on-able hero.

    And if you want character in general, the rest of the cast has it in spades, with an array of supporting roles that are as colourful as the cinematography. Recognisable faces like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and John Bernthal get to cut loose as crooks who each have their own kooks, while lesser-known names like CJ Jones (as Baby’s foster father) and Eiza González (as the Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde) make a mark too. Lily James may be placed in a dream-figure damsel role, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own at times too. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s not a Manic Pixie Whatever That Phrase Was either.

    Mozart in a go-kart

    So, the one major thing I’ve only touched on fleetingly thus far is the main thing the film has attracted attention for: the driving. Done for real by stunt drivers with not a lick of CGI, that knowledge means it packs a viscerally real punch. But it’s not just snobbery: this is genuinely breathtaking action, slickly planned, masterfully performed, magnificently shot and edited. It’s this year’s Fury Road — a kinetic action spectacle made with skill rather than hand-waiving fast-cuts. Even more impressively, it’s been choreographed to music, but not in a draw-attention-to-itself dance-routine-y way. Perhaps saying it’s been synced to the music would be more accurate. Either way, it only heightens the effect. This extends beyond the car chases, too, including one marvellously musical shootout, the gunfire serving as percussion. The sound design throughout is exemplary. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered come awards season. Perhaps, again like Fury Road, some love will extend beyond the technical categories, too. Wright seems deserving of Best Director recognition, just like George Miller was.

    But such back-patting is for much later in the year. For now, just revel in the gleeful moviemaking verve of a flick that already seems destined to be remembered as one of the greatest car chase movies ever produced.

    5 out of 5

    Baby Drivers is in cinemas many places right now, but not everywhere. It’ll be worth the wait, guys.

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

    2016 #182
    David Yates | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

    When J.K. Rowling wrote the seven-book Harry Potter series, she didn’t just make it all up as she went along — it was well planned in advance. And she didn’t just envisage a seven-book story, either — she built a whole world, including a massive history that is only fleetingly referred to in Potter itself. It’s part of that history that the five-film Fantastic Beasts series is setting out to explore. (Despite sharing a title with a short tie-in book Rowling once wrote, Fantastic Beasts isn’t somehow an adaptation of that tiny tome, despite what some pithily moronic internet commenters who think they’re funny would believe.)

    Set many decades before Potter, Fantastic Beasts introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who’s travelled to New York while researching his book on magical creatures — or “fantastic beasts”. There, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the local magic council and a puritanical group who want to destroy all wizards, while some creature or force is terrorising the city.

    Although labelled by some as a prequel, that’s only technically true — it is set before the Potter stories, but it’s a new story in that universe rather than a tale that leads directly into the existing narrative. As such, it’s pretty newbie friendly. It reuses familiar iconography from Potter, but it does so in neat ways — there are things that are instantly recognisable to fans, but their function is not reliant on familiarity for the sake of newcomers or the less well-versed. It’s also opening up new parts of the Potterverse — or, as they want us to call it now, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — primarily, taking us to the USA for the first time.

    Fantastic Americans and where to find them

    As a new story, it develops its own particular tone and style, distinct from that of the previous movies. That partly comes from the characters we’re following: Potter is about schoolchildren, this is about adults. It’s still a 12A/PG-13, of course, but there’s a lot of wiggle-room within that category. Perhaps this is why some have found it tonally inconsistent, but I enjoyed the mix of whimsy with darkness. The overall effect was good fun, with strong action scenes and some really good — even magical — visuals. The story is bolstered by a couple of well-constructed final act twists. I found at least one to be pretty guessable, but that doesn’t detract from it being put together neatly throughout the film.

    As for the widely discussed fact that this is to be the first of five movies, that fortunately doesn’t define this opening instalment. Seeds for future films are obvious because we recognise actors and, as movie-literate viewers, know how films establish things for future use; but leaving that extra-textual knowledge aside, there’s no reason this doesn’t work as a standalone adventure. People who’ve said otherwise are talking poppycock. Even stuff that initially looks like it’s purely franchise-setup has a purpose within this individual movie.

    Fantastic Beasts has been dismissed in some quarters as no more than a cash-grab attempt to extend a franchise, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of 2016.

    4 out of 5

    Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

    2016 #191
    Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

    Our Kind of Traitor

    Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

    Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

    If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

    British intelligence

    Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

    Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

    4 out of 5

    The Saint’s Return (1953)

    aka The Saint’s Girl Friday

    2016 #154
    Seymour Friedman | 65 mins | download | 4:3 | UK / English

    The Saint's Return

    Long-time readers may remember I reviewed all eight of RKO’s Saint films back in 2012. That series ended amidst an argument over rights (and they replaced it with the ever-so-similar Falcon series, which I also reviewed), but a decade later this continuation movie happened. I wasn’t even aware it existed until it was brought to my attention in the comments on another film. It’s technically not part of the same series (it was made years later by Hammer, believe it or not) so it’s harder to come by, but eventually I tracked it down… as a download that was clearly sourced from a VHS (it even lost tracking at one point!) that was quite possibly recorded off the telly.

    The story sees Simon Templar, aka the Saint, rushing back to England to help a friend, but she’s killed in suspicious circumstances before he arrives. Investigating her death, Templar finds she was indebted to the River Gang, and sets about bringing them down.

    The Saint, with a girl

    Although this was made years after the RKO films and by a different studio, it’s not a reboot or remake. Even allowing for those terms having become more applicable recently than they probably were in the ’50s, The Saint’s Return actually seems to be making a concerted effort to appear connected to the earlier series: near the start there’s a small scene where Inspector Fernack, the Saint’s regular nemesis/ally in the NYPD, acknowledges that Templar has left for England, which serves no purpose other than to suggest a connection to the other films. It’s even shot in a way that’s reminiscent of the older films (though, I don’t know, had low-budget studio filmmaking changed much in the intervening decade?)

    That said, there are changes: the Saint is now an American, for no particular reason, and it’s more serious than I remember the other films being; but that might be my memory being clouded by the Falcon films, which were similar but lighter. In a rare feat for these movies, it managed to trick me with a plot twist, as I incorrectly guessed who secretive villain ‘The Chief’ would turn out to be. That’s either an achievement or a sign of me underestimating the film just because it’s old and cheap…

    The Saint, with another girl

    Taking the lead role is Louis Hayward, who originated the Saint on screen fifteen years earlier in RKO’s first film, The Saint in New York. He only played the role once before, but nonetheless makes a convincing return here. The rest of the cast includes Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors, whose charms haven’t dated, and a minor role for one Russell Enoch — aka William Russell, who’d go on to find fame in the title role of the BBC’s The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, before ensuring his screen immortality as one of the original leads in Doctor Who.

    Still, there’s more to The Saint’s Return than before-they-were-famous star-spotting. Although it seems to be the black sheep of the Saint film family, it’s actually a pretty good little thriller. Indeed, there were definitely worse films in the series proper. I’m not going to quite stretch to four stars for it but, for fans of the series, it’s worth tracking down.

    3 out of 5

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5