It (2017)

aka It: Chapter One

2018 #118
Andy Muschietti | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

It

The highest-grossing horror movie of all time, It is the story of a bunch of teenagers in small-town America coming face to face with an ancient evil… who looks like a clown. Well, it can look like other things too, but mostly it’s a clown. Why did it stick with that form? I dunno. Maybe coulrophobia is even more common than we think.

Adapted from a novel by Stephen King (which was previously filmed as a miniseries), It actually only tackles half the book, meaning they get to crank out a sequel too (currently due next September). This actually works in the film’s favour, however: the novel takes place across two timelines, and, rather than just adapt the first half of the book, the film only adapts the earlier timeline. That means it makes for a complete experience in itself, rather than feeling like you’ve only got half the story.

It also focuses our view of the characters. Rather than seeing them at two very different times in their lives, it becomes a coming-of-age tale… albeit one where they come of age thanks to having to battle a supernatural horror. “It”, aka Pennywise the clown, is effectively and unpredictably scary, because he’s able to turn up at any time in any form. It seems almost like a cheat — a free-for-all excuse for the film to be scary whenever and however it fancies, without the need to follow any monster rules. At the same time, that makes the film less predictable, and therefore more effective, at the headline goal of a horror movie, i.e. scaring you. Also, if we’re parsing this as a coming-of-age tale more than a monster movie, it allows It’s various forms to further develop the characters: each identity it assumes is custom-made to terrify the individual being targeted, and the only rule is you defeat It by overcoming your fear, an act which is (in this movie at least) explicitly tied to growing up.

I've got 99 red balloons and this is one

Plenty of people will line up to tell you It isn’t actually all that scary, a level of assessment that is to watching horror movies what boasting who can eat the hottest curry is to dining. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary. I found some of it to be suitably unsettling and disturbing, and the “any time, any place” aspect keeps you alert and on edge. The downside is that, for the first chunk of the movie, the film just seems to be a series of unsettling scenes without much of a plot. It gets over that when the gang really comes together, but I can see why the movie ended up being so long: there are too many characters, and because It assaults each with their own personalised horror, we have to wait while the film gives them all individual sequences. Not that any of it is bad, but it threw the pacing off for me. Maybe it would’ve been better if they reduced the size of the gang by deleting a character or two.

One thing that did get ditched between page and screen is one of the most infamous scenes in King’s novel: a ten-page pre-teen orgy. Though, as it occurs during a section of the plot that we don’t actually see depicted on screen, I guess you could imagine it still happened, if you want. Ironically, while the film may have removed that overt sexuality, it still very much male-gazes the gang’s only female member, Beverly: there’s a scene where all the boys ogle her as she sunbathes in her underwear, and she begins the film’s climax as a “damsel in distress” who has to be rescued by a “true love’s first kiss” kinda deal. She’s not completely useless or without agency, but there’s room for improvement.

The Losers Club

What’s perhaps most baffling is that, by the sound of things, the early drafts for this movie (which were rejected and rewritten after original writer-director Cary Fukunaga left the project) did a lot to modernise that stuff. For example, there’s a scene where Beverly flirts with an (adult) pharmacist as a distraction, but, in the original draft, one of the other kids just faked a medical emergency for the same result. No, that’s not the most egregiously sexual thing they could’ve put in (child orgy!), but it’s still putting her in the position of being an object of lust. I guess, much like the scariness of the horror, your mileage will vary on how distasteful this stuff is. Ultimately, it’s a fairly small part of the movie.

Even if the film runs a little long, I mostly enjoyed It. Its scary scenes are unnerving enough that it works as a horror-show ride, while its coming-of-age aspect is bolstered by really good performances from the young cast, and clear thematic stuff about overcoming fear and the value of friendship. Which almost makes it sound like a kids’ film, but, yeah, don’t go putting this on for younguns — coulrophobia would be the least of their problems.

4 out of 5

It is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Benji (2018)

2018 #53
Brandon Camp | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

Benji

Aww, look at the cute lickle doggie! And all the cute tricks and stuff he can do!

“5

Okay, more seriously…

One of Netflix’s latest original movies (they’re releasing 700 this year, so there’ve probably been another 154 since this came out a couple of weeks ago), Benji is a reboot of the ’70s/’80s dog movie franchise, arguably best remembered because its 1987 instalment, Benji the Hunted, earnt a “thumbs up” rating from Roger Ebert the same week he gave Full Metal Jacket a “thumbs down”. I don’t know if I’m going to be giving any classic movies a poor rating this week, but I’m definitely giving the new Benji a big thumbs up.

The film begins as it means to go on: with misery. (Seriously, this is quite a gloomy, peril-filled film alongside all the cute canine antics.) On a dark and stormy night, a dog warden snatches a mother and her three young pups, accidentally leaving one behind. He tries to give chase, but can only look on forlornly as his whole family is carted away. Aww! He sets off along the road, growing up on his travels, and eventually finds himself in New Orleans. There he stumbles into the lives and hearts of two kids, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), who decide to name him Benji. They live with their mom (Kiele Sanchez), who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep her kids happy since the death of their father (see, more misery). Anyway, the kids get kidnapped and Benji’s the only witness to where they’ve gone, but the silly humans can’t follow his hints properly, so Benji sets off to rescue his newfound family by himself.

Benji's on the case

Benji isn’t half bad for a kids’ movie. And while it is undoubtedly a kids’ movie, it can get quite dark and serious at times — well, quite a lot of the time (it’s a PG for a reason) — but there’s a good storyline and some strong themes. It’s not super realistic (I mean, you read my plot description, right?), but it mixes in just enough real-life hardship to sell itself. There are decent performances too, including from the two kids, who I’ve seen other reviews criticise. I mean, they’re not going to be troubling next year’s Oscars, but they’re not bad. Certainly, I’ve seen poorer turns from child actors in proper adult movies, and definitely ones that have been more irritatingly objectionable. The choice to set the film in New Orleans is a nice one as well, offering a different and distinctive flavour to the usual stomping grounds of New York or L.A.

But that’s all gravy to the real reason we’re here: the dogs. My introductory joke was, actually, kinda serious: Benji himself is a clear 5-out-of-5, both super cute and super smart. Yes, I know the film’s edited to make him preternaturally clever (there’s an awesomely daft sequence where he thinks back over everything he’s seen and comes up with a plan), but the tricks he performs without the aid of editing show that he’s a damn well trained doggy. Variety’s review writes about the Kuleshov effect, which is “the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after”, and how Benji uses that to make the dog give a ‘performance’. Director Brandon Camp applies that technique more than once, I’m sure, but Benji’s got enough tricks at his disposal that such artifice isn’t always necessary to build character. Also, blimey can that dog run!

Run, Benji, run!

Okay, if dogs don’t tickle your fancy in any way then there’s nothing for you here; but as a lover of dogs — and particularly little scruffy ones like Benji — this film was a near-constant delight. It’s pretty great entertainment for kids too, though don’t stick it on unless you’re prepared for them to want a Benji of their own afterwards.

4 out of 5

Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

Coincidentally, Full Metal Jacket will be reviewed later this year as one of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” films.

Make/Remake: Deaths at a Funeral

In 2007, Frank Oz directed a gaggle of British thesps (plus Peter Dinklage) in a darkly comic farce set during an English funeral.

Just three short years later, director Neil LaBute and a gaggle of American comedians (plus Peter Dinklage) remade it in the US.

Why did they so speedily re-do an English-language film in English? Goodness only knows. But I watched both versions almost back to back, so here are my thoughts…

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

2018 #44
Frank Oz | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA, Germany & Netherlands / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2007)

The plot of both versions is identical: a group of family and friends gather at the home of the family’s patriarch for his funeral. A variety of subplots unfold from there, but the main one revolves around the appearance of a guest that no one knows, and what he wants.

The thing that surprised me most about Death at a Funeral is how well-liked it is online. I vaguely remember it coming out but thought it had been mostly ignored, but it has a fair amount of ratings on IMDb (a similar number to films like All About Eve or Dumbo), and relatively high user scores on sites like Letterboxd too. I thought maybe people (well, Americans) had come to it via the remake and it seemed a lot better by comparison, but that has less than half as many ratings on IMDb, so…

I was mulling on this a lot because often I like films a bit more than the online consensus, but I wasn’t feeling it with this one. I certainly enjoyed it, but it takes a while to warm up, the laugh rate isn’t quite high enough, and some of the storylines feel overly familiar (how many times have we seen someone accidentally take drugs and try to hide it? I don’t know, but it feels like I’ve seen it a lot). Nonetheless, it develops into a decent little farce. I suppose it’s a black comedy too, what with it being set at a funeral and some of the events that unfurl, but other people have pushed the boundaries of “black comedy” so far in the past couple of decades that it didn’t feel that dark to me.

Peter Dinklage with one of the few British actors who hasn't been in Game of Thrones

The cast is a quality array of recognisable British faces, many of them not known for comedy (Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, Rupert Graves), which lends some surprising strength to a couple of scenes. Others that are more familiar from the genre (Andy Nyman, Ewen Bremner, Kris Marshall) keep the guffawing in check. And there are some Americans too, including an exposed performance from Alan Tudyk (who’s doing a British accent) and a pre-Thrones Peter Dinklage (who isn’t), but they both fit in well.

The film’s best gag, in my estimation, comes courtesy of the entire cast, in a way; an in-joke that I wasn’t 100% sure was deliberate: the end credits begin with each cast member’s name accompanied by a brief shot of them corpsing. Corpsing, during a film called Death at a Funeral. Well, I do like an in-joke.

Anyway. Although this original British version of Death at a Funeral wasn’t quite as hilarious as I’d hoped for, it’s worth a watch as a well-performed and amusing farce. And it does improve somewhat when compared to to its remake…

3 out of 5

Death at a Funeral
(2010)

2018 #46
Neil LaBute | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Death at a Funeral (2010)

Where the original was a little underwhelming, this is just kinda shit. It’s the most pointless remake since Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

That comparison isn’t a bad one, because this is a scene-for-scene remake — sometimes shot-for-shot, line-for-line. Even the title sequence is an inferior riff on the original. Not only that, but some bits aren’t even done as well. If it worked the first time, why are you changing it? Maybe the original cast and crew made it look more effortless than it was. Some of it doesn’t even translate very well. For example, there’s a joke in the original about how “tea may solve many things”. Here, that’s translated to be about coffee. Yes, it’s been adapted to suit the different culture, but in the process has lost the cultural significance (to Brits, tea is more than just a popular beverage).

I guess he's showing him the screenplay

There are some new gags, most likely the result of the cast improvising (this version is more populated by comedians than the British one). Some of them are even funny. Unfortunately, more often the cast don’t hold up. Most of the performances are like an under-rehearsed am-dram version of the same screenplay. They certainly don’t have the acting chops to sell the more emotional moments. James Marsden is quite good in the Alan Tudyk role, though. Peter Dinklage plays the same part, but not as well — it’s less nuanced, less believable.

Director Neil LaBute previously found notoriety as writer-director of the Nic Cage Wicker Man remake This does nothing to rehabilitate his reputation (what is this guy’s obsession with re-doing and ruining British films?) Again like Van Sant’s Psycho, it’s more interesting as a cinematic exercise than as a film in its own right.

2 out of 5

The Jungle Book (2016)

2018 #40
Jon Favreau | 106 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

The Jungle Book

One of the successes that has convinced Disney to remake basically their entire animated back catalogue in live-action, Jon Favreau’s take on Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories barely counts as “live-action” really: the vast majority of it is animated — often the only real bits are Mowgli and some (but by no means all) of the props and scenery he interacts with — but it’s done to be photo-real and so we pretend that’s live-action.

Whatever you want to call it, the visuals are stunning. It’s incredible stuff by the animators, though also by Favreau and DP Bill Pope to make all that hard work look great as a film too — they put special effort into making sure the CGI was properly lit, etc. And I reckon it’s even better in 3D. Presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 ratio, unconstrained by the black bars of your nowadays-standard 2.35:1, it honestly feels like a window into another world. You sometimes see reviews of good 3D that say “you feel like you could reach out and touch it”, which I’ve always taken as A Thing People Say rather than an actual inclination, but at one point I did feel like I wanted to reach out and stroke Baloo’s fur, he looked so soft. The end credit sequence (a kind of pop-up book routine) looks particularly great in 3D, which helps to sell the miniaturised dimensions.

Bear necessities

Anyway, the film itself. Disney’s Jungle Book is such a well-known childhood classic that I don’t imagine you need me to recap its plot, though this version doesn’t ape it one-for-one. When Favreau was first brought on board the story treatment Disney had in development was much closer to Kipling’s work, including none of the changes Disney made when they adapted it before (i.e. adding songs and the character of King Louie), as well as being more violent, aimed at a PG-13 rating. So it was Favreau who decided it should be closer to the Disney classic, aiming to find the sweet spot between the two styles. I think he’s nailed that, mixing in enough that’s familiar from the animation with a bit more seriousness derived from Kipling.

That said, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the use of the songs. The rendition of Bare Necessities is disappointingly truncated, though at least fits in context. Conversely, King Louie’s song, I Wan’na Be Like You, is so out of place that I found the sequence kind of uncomfortable. Weirdly, its reprise at the start of the end credits is great. There it’s followed by Trust In Me, which isn’t included in the film proper but might actually have worked there.

I wanna be like you-oo-oo

Still, the film as a whole functions well; surprisingly well, one might even say. You may remember the Rotten Tomatoes score for it went crazy when it came out, hiding the high 90s — it ended up at 95%. And it’s the perfect example of why Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t score a film’s quality, but does score the chance that you’ll enjoy a film. I’m not sure many people would think this is a “9.5 out of 10” kind of film, but one there’s a 95% chance you’ll think is good? Yeah.

4 out of 5

The Jungle Book is available on Netflix UK from today.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

2017 #164
Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

Murder on the Orient Express

Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

A dangerous liaison?

And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

Classical elegance

And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

4 out of 5

Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

The Mummy (2017)

2017 #82
Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

The Mummy

As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

Mummy mia, here they go again

When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

2 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

2017 #138
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | New Zealand & USA / English & German | 15 / R

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s no two ways about it: I’m late to the party with What We Do in the Shadows. After rave reviews at film festivals and when it was released in some countries (including the UK) in 2014, its acclaim as a cult comedy seemed to reach a focal point in early 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign to give it a wider US release attracted over 7,000 backers and the best part of half-a-million dollars. I recall preordering the Blu-ray in the wake of the slow-burning fuss I kept hearing about it. That came out in April 2015, and swiftly ended up on one of my many unwatched piles… until now!

For the sake of those who are even later to it than me, it’s a mockumentary about a group of housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, who are vampires. With each of them being hundreds of years old, they’re thoroughly out of touch with the modern world — until they make some new, younger friends…

This juxtaposition allows the film two rich strands of humour. Firstly, it riffs off vampire movie clichés and references — there are bits about sleeping in coffins, turning into a bat, and so on. In a similar vein, each of the housemates is a version of a classic movie vampire: there’s a silent Nosferatu-ish one; a violent womanising Dracula-ish one; an effeminate dandyish one; and so on. There are also various scenes that play on vampires’ familiar abilities by featuring a neat and often surprising use of special effects — the film’s so low-budget and so naturalistically staged, you’re not expecting any outright fantastical stuff. That element of unexpectedness makes such moments all the more effective.

Night life

In the second strand, it embraces mundanity — putting these supernatural creates in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know, like struggling to get into the good nightclubs, or a supposedly grand ball taking place in a rundown community centre. Perhaps best of all are bits which straddle the two stools — the practicalities of being a vampire; like how do you get dressed up to go out if you can’t see your reflection, or having to clean up the mess after drinking someone’s blood. The film plays these various comic facets with a great deal of wit and cleverness, but it’s also suitably silly, which allows the humour to function at various levels. What’s even more surprising is that, as it goes on and we build up a connection to these characters, it becomes actually quite touching at times.

Apparently writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote more than 150 pages of screenplay for the film, then didn’t actually show it to any of the cast so they would improvise scenes and be surprised by plot developments. That resulted in over 125 hours of footage, which took almost a year to edit down to just an hour and a half. (No wonder the Blu-ray includes piles of deleted, extended, and additional footage.) On the one hand, perhaps that helps explain why the film is so funny — they were able to really cherrypick the best bits. On the other other, it makes the final result all the more impressive — that they were able to hone storylines and character arcs from that immense supply of material. And it still clocks in at just 86 minutes! Hollywood moviemakers who let their part-improvised comedies sprawl to baggy two-hours-plus running times might learn a thing or two here.

Drinking blood

Perhaps the more familiar you are with vampire fiction the more you’ll get out of What We Do in the Shadows’ humour, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to enjoying it — I should think knowing the basics of vampire mythology is enough to get laughs from the majority of the movie without feeling like you’re missing anything. And in the end, the most important thing is that it’s incredibly funny. Or, as the poster accurately puts it, “hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious.”

5 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on iPlayer until 28th November.

It placed 12th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The UK TV premiere of Taika Waititi’s previous film, Boy, is on Film4 tonight at 10:50pm.
His new film,
Thor: Ragnarok, is out everywhere now and is reviewed here.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

2017 #129
Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

Twilight Zone: The Movie

I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

The Trump Zone

The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

Scary kid? Check.

Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

Fear of flying

On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

4 out of 5

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

The 100 Films Guide to…

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!

Original Title: Per un pugno di dollari

Country: Italy, Spain & West Germany
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1967) | AA (1981) | 15 (1986)
MPAA: M (1967) | R (1993)

Original Release: 12th September 1964 (Italy)
UK Release: 11th June 1967
Budget: $200,000

Stars
Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Gran Torino)
Marianne Koch (The Devil’s General, Spotlight on a Murderer)
Gian Maria Volontè (For a Few Dollars More, Le Cercle Rouge)
Wolfgang Lukschy (Dead Eyes of London, The Longest Day)
José Calvo (Viridiana, Day of Anger)

Director
Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rhodes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Screenwriters
Víctor Andrés Catena (Kill Django… Kill First, Panic)
Jaime Comas (Nest of Spies, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, Once Upon a Time in the West)

Dialogue by
Mark Lowell (High School Hellcats, His and Hers)

Story by
Adriano Bolzoni (Requiescant, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key)
Víctor Andrés Catena (Sandokan the Great, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (Duel of the Titans, Once Upon a Time in America)

Based on
Yojimbo, a Japanese samurai film written by Akira Kurosawa & Ryûzô Kikushima and directed by Kurosawa. (Not officially, but the makers of Yojimbo sued and it was settled out of court — presumably because it’s really, really obviously a remake of Yojimbo.)


The Story
The Mexican border town of San Miguel is ruled over by two rival gangs. When a gunslinging stranger arrives, he attempts to play the two gangs off against each other to his benefit.

Our Hero
The Man With No Name, aka Joe, seems to just be a drifter, who rocks up in San Miguel and sees an opportunity to make some money by doing what he does best: killing people.

Our Villains
Neither of the two gangs — the Baxters and the Rojos — are squeaky clean, but the Rojos are definitely the nastier lot. Led by three brothers, the cleverest and most vicious of them is Ramón, who’ll stop at nothing to punish Joe after he threatens their empire.

Best Supporting Character
The innkeeper Silvanito, who warns Joe away when he first arrives, but becomes his friend and almost sidekick later on.

Memorable Quote
“When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.” — Joe

Memorable Scene
As Joe heads off to confront three of Baxter’s men who shot at him earlier, he passes the coffin maker — and tells him to get three coffins ready. Coming face to face with four of Baxter’s goons, Joe asks them to apologise to his mule. They, naturally, refuse… so he shoots them all dead. As he walks back past the coffin maker, he casually apologises: “My mistake — four coffins.”

Memorable Music
Ennio Morricone’s score is as much a defining element of this movie as the visuals or the cast. His later theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be his best-known work, but there’s a cracking main title theme here too.

Letting the Side Down
It’s just a fact of this kind of production from this era, but the English dubbing is really quite terrible. Well, the acting’s not all that bad, as it goes, but the lip sync is not very synced.

Making of
When it premiered on US TV in 1977, the network found the film’s content morally objectionable: the hero kills loads of people, apparently only for money, and receives no punishment. While that might sound perfectly attuned to US morals today, they had different ideals back then. So they ordered a prologue be shot, showing Eastwood’s character receiving a commission from the government to go sort out the town of San Miguel by any means necessary — thus morally justifying all his later killing, apparently. The short sequence was directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and starred Harry Dean Stanton (RIP).

Next time…
The loosely connected Dollars (aka Man With No Name) Trilogy continued with For a Few Dollars More (which was part of my 100 Favourites last year) and concluded with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which someday will get the “What Do You Mean You Didn’t Like” treatment).

Verdict

The Dollars trilogy were among the first Westerns I saw, and I’ve been meaning to revisit them for many years. I was finally spurred on to start by watching Yojimbo for the first time. Watching that and this back to back, you can’t miss how similar they are — no wonder they settled the legal case, they wouldn’t’ve had a leg to stand on. Yojimbo is the classier handling of the material, giving the whole scenario a weightiness that has gone astray here. Fistful has its own charms, of course, as director Sergio Leone merrily reinvents the Western genre before our eyes — out go the simple white hat / black hat moral codes, in comes baser motivations (greed, lust) and quick sharpshooting. What it lacks in classiness or weight, it makes up with coolness and style.

Death Note (2017)

2017 #115
Adam Wingard | 100 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18

Death Note

Something of a global phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga, is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, was adapted into a series of live-action films (I reviewed the first two last week), adapted again as a live-action TV series, and was even turned into a musical. Although it’s taken a while, finally the inevitable is here: an American remake. After passing through several studios, it’s wound up with Netflix, under the helmsmanship of Adam Wingard. Thus, I was hoping for the new film from the director of The Guest. Instead, I got the new film from the director of Blair Witch. And much like Blair Witch, this is a ham-fisted reimagining of a once-popular franchise.

This incarnation of the story concerns Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle high school student who one day discovers the mysterious Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill just by writing someone’s name in it. Goaded into using it by the demonic death-god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light soon teams up with his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) and they set about murdering criminals. Their actions become famous under the alias Kira, which they hope to use to establish a new world order. But hot on the case is a mysterious super detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), who engages Kira in a battle of wits.

As with so many things nowadays, the US version of Death Note has been dogged by accusations of whitewashing. As seems to be the case at least half the time, these accusations are largely unfounded. If this had kept the Japanese settings and character names but given them white faces, fair enough, but it hasn’t — it’s relocated to America, with American characters. It’s no different to all the other new-country remakes that have always happened (and also goes on the other way, with US movies remade in Bollywood and Asia, we just don’t hear about them very often here).

Light vs L

Unfortunately, Death Note: America has genuine problems to contend with. Despite that reimagining status, it’s still understandably shackled to the broad shape of the original work. Consequently, it glosses over some of the more interesting implications of the premise in its rush to make Kira famous and introduce L. Partly that’s what happens when you condense so much story into just 100 minutes, but it’s also because it’s beholden to bringing in L and starting his cat-and-mouse game with Light. When I reviewed the Japanese live-action movies, I didn’t think Light and L’s battle of wits was as clever as the films clearly thought they were, and it’s even worse here.

There would seem to be more fertile and interesting ground for exploration in why Light and Mia are trying to establish a new world order — what exactly they think that means; what motivates them to do it; and how they intend to achieve it. On the whole, the film doesn’t seem to be making time to dig into the psyche of its characters — why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it changes them — instead just going through the motions of a thriller plot. It feels like it’s had 20 minutes of character stuff cut out that would grease the wheels of the plot. The worst offender is the climax: there’s no weight to the big finale because we’ve been given no time to care about these characters or their relationships with each other.

Ello, L

For all the faults of the way the other version I’ve seen executed Light and L’s chess-like interactions, at least they consistently involved Light using the Death Note and its rules to try to trick L. Here, after the eponymous book and its abilities have been established, it’s basically just used to control other people to make them forward the plot, only returning to its real purpose come the climax. This is another reason the focus on Light and L’s duelling doesn’t work here: at least the original thought they were both geniuses and behaved as thus; each of them was motivated by proving they were cleverer than the other, everything and everyone else be damned. Here, L is still some kind of savant, whereas Light seems a pretty normal teenager, motivated by… well…

So, in the original, Light does his utmost to keep the Death Note secret from everyone to protect his identity as its user. Here, almost as soon as he’s got it he blabs about it to the girl he fancies. Why? Same reason most guys try to show off to girls: because he thinks it’ll impress her. It’s a change of motivation, but okay, why not? But he’s given very little indication that such a thing would impress her. What if she’d been appalled and gone running to the police? She doesn’t, of course, because this is a geek’s fantasy, so she a) loves it, and b) within minutes is shagging him. (Presumably. This may be an 18 for gore, but sexy times are implied by no more than a little light clothing removal. Perhaps they just sat around in their undies while murdering people with their magic book, I dunno.)

Bloodthirsty crush

Believe it or not, Death Note is not a total washout. Indeed, the best things about the film are easily identified. Firstly, there’s Willem Dafoe’s voice performance as Ryuk. If you need a manipulative death-god, he’s a perfect choice. Secondly, the visual realisation of said death-god, a mix of strong CG and keeping him in the shadows. It’s light years more effective than the ’00s movies. On the downside, Ryuk’s role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo: after an initial appearance to explain the rules, he just pops up briefly to remind us he’s still a bother.

Thirdly, then, there’s the death sequences that occur on the first couple of occassions Light uses the Death Note. This film skips the “they just die of a heart attack” phase and goes straight for the “you can dictate how they die” jugular. In this version, that means a Final Destination-a-like chain of random events occur that make the deaths fairly amusing. Also, graphically violent — enough for that 18 in the eyes of the BBFC. These go AWOL again as the film has to get busy with its plot, which is a shame. Basically, someone should’ve tapped Wingard to make Final Destination 6.

Fourthly, and finally, the score is very likeable. It’s full of the ’80s horror movie synths you’d expect from the director of The Guest, though it’s undercut somewhat by a few bizarre song choices, mostly during the climax.

In the dark, no one can see your CGI

Having read a few reactions to the film online, it strikes me that on one hand you’ve got fans criticising it for not being faithful enough, while on the other you’ve got critics picking on it for things that I’d argue are inherent in the source narrative (at least based on what I’ve seen before). That doesn’t excuse this adaptation entirely — they’ve changed so much that fixing logic issues could definitely have happened too — but it’s an amusing juxtaposition of reasons for displeasure: it’s a film scuppered both by being faithful and by not being faithful. Unfortunately that means that, whether you’re comparing it to a previous version or not, it fails to be a coherent experience.

2 out of 5

Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.