The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Fantastic Four (2015)

2016 #110
Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

2 out of 5

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016)

2016 #165
Kenny Ortega | 88 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp AgainWhen this TV movie kicks off with Ivy Levan sashaying her way around a cinema while she mimes to a pre-recorded and over-produced backing track of Science Fiction/Double Feature, full of licks and runs and finding four notes to hit where there used to be one, like a desperate X Factor wannabe who has no concept of the meaning of the lyrics she’s warbling but is ever so desperate to show she can saaang (that’s like singing but with added Cool), you get a pretty fair idea of the terrible experience about to be unleashed upon you by the not-so-catchily titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. That’s to say it’s been modernised, Americanised, and sanitised.

If you know the original then you know the plot, and if you don’t know the original then you have no business watching this so-called tribute version, which premiered on Fox in the US last week and makes its way to the UK on Sky Cinema from today. “Tribute” is the latest word someone has co-opted to avoid saying “remake”, a marketing strategy that was presumably settled upon after they realised they’d produced a witless, regressive clone of material that, though over 40 years old, is still more subversive and boundary-pushing than this plastic Disneyfied tosh.

Sweet transgender womanThe interpretation of the songs is appalling. The recordings are all overworked, full of needless warbles and added “oohs”. They’ve been modernised in such a way that, when current popular fads for over-singing things (“licks” or “runs” or whatever else they call them) have passed — as they surely will — these new versions will sound even more dated than the already-40-year-old originals, which have a certain timelessness. The lyrics are sung with the same amount of attention to what they mean as you get from a computer’s text-to-speech function, including or echoing parts of the original without understanding why they’re there or what function they perform; or if it does know the function, it doesn’t know how to replicate it.

To say its performances are like a bad am-dram production would be an insult to am-drammers everywhere. Almost everyone is miscast. It was, perhaps, a nice touch to include Tim Curry, but his limited scenes are uncomfortable to watch because it’s painfully obvious that the poor man is still labouring under the aftereffects of his stroke. As Brad, Ryan McCartan overacts as if he thinks that’s the whole point. Reeve Carney makes Riff Raff a leering creep, and his needless affected British accent is awful. As Magenta, Christina Miian’s is worse. As Frank, Laverne Cox’s imitative mid-Atlantic twang is even worse again. Why did they do it?! Presumably because, as I said, it’s all a thoughtless copy of the original.

The casting of a transgender woman as a transvestite is its own kettle of worms — either she’s a woman doing radical things like fancying men and being jealous of another woman stealing her guy, or you’re saying she’s not actually a woman but still a man and… well, like I say, it’s a mess. A commenter on the A.V. Club’s review summed up the cumulative effect quite succinctly: “Fox was actually able to pull off a pretty conservative casting choice while appearing uber progressive… By casting Cox, who identifies as female, in the role of Frank-N-Furter the seduction scenes actually became far less risqué”.

Well, it's certainly been warpedEverything is blunted further by Kenny Ortega’s ineffective direction. The camerawork is flat and uninteresting, the shot choices unimaginative. Some of the choreography looks interesting — it’s certainly more elaborate than in the original film — but the camerawork seems to be actively trying to obscure it. The editor must have struggled, unable to generate any additional excitement due to a shortage of options. At times it looks as if it was filmed live, under which circumstances its weaknesses might be understandable, if not excusable… but it wasn’t.

Occasionally there are cutaways to a cinema audience — not a real one, but a gaggle of extras, sat in a theatre watching what we’re watching. These moments are pathetic and pointless. I get that it’s meant to be a nod to the interactive midnight showings that have made Rocky Horror the phenomenon it is, but they demonstrate none of the wit or verve that make those screenings so popular. Plus the original film is good entertainment even without such intrusions; this isn’t. You might think that makes the asides necessary to liven it up, but there are so few of them, and they’re so lacking in imagination, or any discernible content whatsoever, that they just feel like they’re dragging the experience out even further.

Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. There’s one new gag in the dinner scene that’s actually pretty funny. It’s delivered by Faye Marsay lookalike Annaleigh Ashford, who makes a good fist of Columbia. Rounding out the leads, Victoria Justice has all the necessary charms to make a pretty fair Janet. Victoria Justice's omnipresent cleavage. May also be omnipotent.I refer partly to her omnipresent cleavage, but also her acting. It’s not great by any means, but she’s suitably sweet and twee at the start, then manages to sell Janet’s near-instantaneous transformation from uptight goody-two-shoes to sex-mad strumpet using just a handful of expressions and line deliveries in the slight gap her character has between Over at the Frankenstein Place and Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me. The latter is one of the film’s rare highlights, for various reasons. One of those is actually Staz Nair as Rocky — undoubtedly the least challenging role in the piece, but at least he gets it right, and his musclebound chest counterbalances Justice’s for those of the other persuasion. The only downside are his tattoos: he was supposedly just grown in a tank, how does he have tattoos?!

More than the ’75 film, Let’s Do the Time Warp Again brings to mind the 2010 episode of Glee that essayed the same musical. If you suffered through The Rocky Horror Glee Show, as I did, you’ll know it was a travesty. Is this even worse? Well, that’s a bit like someone forcing you to eat a dog shit and a cat shit before asking you which tasted nicer. That’s a little unfair: the Glee version was meritless; this one has a couple of minor plus points — so maybe it’s like someone making you eat a very small shit while occasionally showing you a picture of a sexy half-naked person. But unless someone forces you to choose between only this and Glee, there’s no earthly reason to do this particular Time Warp again.

1 out of 5

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 12:25pm and 8pm.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

2016 #152
John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

4 out of 5

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

2016 #120
Peter Collinson | 94 mins | TV | 1.66:1 | Italy, West Germany, France, Spain & UK / English | PG / PG

Ten Little IndiansThe third English-language screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, one of the best-selling novels of all time, relocates the action to the middle of a desert but is otherwise a word-for-word remake of the 1965 version — though it does lose the gloriously ’60s “Whodunnit Break”. (Both versions were made by the same producer, who would later remake it again in the ’80s.)

It’s interesting, therefore, that this lacks the atmosphere or tension of that version. I don’t think it’s just because I’m now more familiar with the story (having seen not only the ’65 version a couple of years ago, but also the new BBC adaptation that was on last Christmas) — it feels rushed at times, like a summary of the novel rather than a full retelling. Considering the screenplay is nearly identical to the ’65 version (merely tweaked to reflect the relocation), I can only assume that’s down to the way director Peter Collinson chooses to handle certain sequences. For example, in this version I never bought the relationship between youngsters Hugh and Vera, and sequences like the group searching the cellars contain no real sense of menace.

The cast is made up of recognisable faces from ’60s/’70s European cinema, led by Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, but also including the likes of Herbert Lom, Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, and Adolfo “Emilio Largo” Celi. Not that anyone’s bad, but there’s the sense they were probably there to earn a bit of cash while having a nice exotic holiday, and making a film on the side.

As a précis of the storyline, with some nicely photographed locations (the Iranian hotel they filmed in looks fairly stunning), this isn’t half bad. However, there are at least two better screen adaptations of the novel, and if what I’ve heard of the 1945 film and ’80s Russian adaptation are to be believed, I guess this comes pretty far down the chain.

3 out of 5

Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Man on Fire (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #57

A promise to protect.
A vow to avenge.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English & Spanish
Runtime: 146 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd April 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 8th October 2004
First Seen: in-flight, c.2004

Stars
Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day)
Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, The Runaways)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Melinda and Melinda)
Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Hairspray)
Marc Anthony (Bringing Out the Dead, El cant ante)

Director
Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State)

Screenwriter
Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Legend)

Based on
Man on Fire, a novel by A.J. Quinnell.

The Story
As a wave of kidnappings from rich families sweeps Mexico City, burnt-out former soldier Creasy is hired as the bodyguard of little Pita Ramos. She begins to bring him out of his reclusive shell, so when he fails to prevent her abduction, he vows to make the people responsible pay — very, very violently.

Our Hero
Washed-up alcoholic former Marine and ex-CIA operative John Creasy is a broken man, only taking bodyguard work in Mexico City because he needs the cash. He still has a particular set of skills at hand when needed, though.

Our Villains
An array of ruthless kidnappers and corrupt cops, though some of the villains may be closer to home…

Best Supporting Character
Dakota Fanning has relatively limited screen time as little Pita, at least after the first act, but it’s enough for the viewer to warm to her as much as Creasy does, getting us on side for the violence to come.

Memorable Quote #1
“Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” — Rayburn

Memorable Quote #2
“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” — Creasy

Memorable Scene
After corrupt detective Fuentes is kidnapped by Creasy, he wakes up tied to the bonnet of a car wearing just his boxers. Creasy demonstrates how he built a small bomb, before informing Fuentes where that bomb is currently located. To be blunt: it’s in Fuentes’ ass. That certainly gives the interrogation a different flavour.

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style — jumpy cutting, heavy saturation, etc — is apparently designed to reflect Creasy’s fractured mental state. The most memorable part, at least for me, were the subtitles, which use various fonts, placements, and reveals to make them feel part of the whole package, rather than a bunged-at-the-bottom last-minute addition.

Making of
The film was really shot in Mexico City, under the real threat of kidnapping and/or other violence. Radha Mitchell was escorted by three bodyguards after her driver was carjacked at gunpoint; Denzel Washington was also surrounded by bodyguards at all times; several crew members were robbed at gunpoint, and, according to the police, the crew were also targeted for kidnapping

Previously on…
A.J. Quinnell’s novel was previously adapted in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, Joe Pesci, and Jonathan Pryce.

Awards
2 Golden Trailer Awards nominations (Best Action (for trailer C), Best Drama (for trailer B))
3 nominations for Dakota Fanning as supporting or young actress (Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Golden Schmoes Awards, Young Artist Awards)

What the Critics Said
“On paper, we have a well-worn initial-mistrust-gives-over-to-mutual-affection arc, but Washington’s despair-tinged reserve and Fanning’s astonishing naturalness give the relationship warmth and resonance. Fanning exudes more than enough charm and decency to make Creasy’s renewal of faith completely believable. […] As the action goes increasingly over the top, so does Scott’s visual pyrotechnics. Probably setting a new world record for the number of different film stocks in one movie, Scott and hot-to-trot cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) whip-pan and crash-zoom to new levels of excess, heightening both the teeming life of Mexico City and the anxiety around Pita’s kidnapping. Best of all are the subtitles: rather than simply translating dialogue, they assault the viewer, conveying drama and emotion through aggressive graphic design. You’ve never seen any done like this before.” — Ian Freer, Empire

Score: 39%
(I had no idea this was so critically reviled! I thought it was quite well liked, in fact.)

What the Public Say
“it is relentless in assaulting your senses and your sensibilities, and that can often be unpleasant, at best. While this is obviously the intended effect in many cases, [it] has the effect of making it unlikeable to watch, if not for the actions of its star character, then just for the fact that it seems intent on making the audience feel every ounce of anguish in the torturer and his victim. It’s definitely intended, but it doesn’t exactly result in me feeling empathy for either character, one way or another. It must be said, however, that Tony Scott is not afraid to have his character do horrible things to people. He’s not concerned about what the audience thinks about Creasy so much as they just consider why he is.” — CJ Stewart, The Viewer’s Commentary

Verdict

On the one hand, Man on Fire represents the start of Tony Scott’s stylistic excess that would see him through the rest of his career — the jumpy editing, oddly saturated images, etc. (It’s also present to an extent in Spy Game, though.) It would get a bit much at times (Domino), but Man on Fire uses it effectively. On the other hand, the film works just as well as a character-driven revenge drama. Rather than rush to the shooting-and-killing, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland take their time to build the relationship between Creasy and Pita, so that when we do reach the vengeance portion of the story, you’re as invested as the characters are. Of course, from there it is (as a film from the year before would put it) a roaring rampage of revenge.

#58 will be… practically perfect in every way.

Cinderella (2015)

2016 #43
Kenneth Branagh | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | U / PG

Disney’s animated classic is re-imagined in live-action, losing the songs but expanding the story. The latter serves to find a little more realism in the setup (how Cinders became a servant to her stepmother, etc), as well as in the characters’ motivations and actions.

Cate Blanchett excels (as ever) as the evil stepmother, and Lily James sells Ella’s perfectness as delightful rather than irritating. It’s kinda odd to see Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a clean-cut Prince, though.

Branagh brings requisite class and gloss for a remake that, while not a classic like the original, is a worthy revisioning.

4 out of 5

The Equalizer (2014)

2016 #37
Antoine Fuqua | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Russian & Spanish | 15 / R

Back in the ’80s, everyone’s favourite actor whose name is also the punchline to a joke (“what do you call a man with three planks on his head?”), Edward Woodward, starred in a US TV drama about a former secret agent who uses those skills to exact vigilante justice for innocents who can’t help themselves. I’ve never seen it, but I guess it was popular back in the day because, 25 years after it ended, it was rebooted on the big screen. Or maybe they’ve just run out of popular stuff and are now rebooting anything and everything they can get their hands on. Either way, it’s a decent enough IP to fashion into a contemporary action-thriller, and indeed director Antoine Fuqua has made a decent-enough contemporary action-thriller.

In this iteration, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) is, by day, a mild-mannered member of staff at whatever the US equivalent of B&Q is; but by night, memories of his former life as some kind of special agent keep him awake, so he hangs out at a diner where he regularly bumps into working girl Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). After she’s hospitalised by a client, McCall feels he can’t sit on the sidelines anymore, and applies his Very Special Skills to her pimps — just to, you know, equalise things. Unfortunately, turns out those pimps were Russian gangsters, and now McCall has a bigger fight on his hands…

The Equalizer is a decently-made, well-performed, pretty entertaining action-thriller for fans of the genre. There’s nothing fundamental to complain about if you take it for what it is, and anyone who enjoys inventive deaths will be tickled by some sequences. Otherwise, it lacks originality, remixing familiar tropes and plot points into a passably-new shape.

Viewers who as a rule don’t enjoy this kind of movie will find nothing remarkable. Equally, fans of the genre will be perfectly entertained for a couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

2016 #48
Jonathan Liebesman | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12 / PG-13

While I was killing time waiting for my coffee to brew before I sat down to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 2014 edition, I drafted the introductory paragraphs to this review. Yes, before I’d even started the movie, so sure was I that I would dislike it. Naturally they took an appropriately condemnatory tone, talking about how it was a product and not a movie, designed primarily to sell tie-in plastic to grown men who wish they were still children, etc etc. Unfortunately writing those paragraphs was a waste of my time, because I can’t use them, because — shock of shocks — I actually quite liked this movie.

Now, let’s immediately throw some caveats on that, because it’s clearly riddled with flaws. The story is slight and so filled with over-familiar tropes that it barely bothers to play them out in full. On the bright side, that does mean it rattles along. However, the grand plan/climax is lifted straight from The Amazing Spider-Man. The action is often poorly directed, a too-close whirlwind of pixels. That said, there’s one sequence so OTT crazy that — if you ignore that the film is supposed to be live action and embrace the wild camerawork, physically impossible antics, and mind-boggling speed — it’s almost impressive. The CGI is variable: the Turtles themselves actually look alright, maybe even good, but Splinter is piss poor.

Megan Fox is miscast, not that she can act anyway. She’s clearly only there because producer Michael Bay thinks she’s hot (bit too plastic for my taste). Shredder is Bay-ed to the max, essentially becoming a Transformer made of knives. The Turtles’ personalities are pretty one-note, but not unfaithful to the original — the franchise started life as a spoof of things like Daredevil, after all, not a realistic character drama. That said, turning Mike into basically a turtle version of Michael Bay — i.e. he’s focused on lusting after Megan Fox and occasionally causing explosions — is a little cringe-y. Quite a few bits are a little cringe-y, actually; but they’re tempered by a few comedic bits that hit home, and a general veneer of “well, it could’ve been worse”.

“Well, it could’ve been worse” is pretty much the definition of “damning with faint praise”, but for all those many problems, I actually enjoyed myself while watching the film. It was funny enough, it was exciting enough, it was almost well-made enough. It’s not a good movie, but I did think it was an “entertaining enough for a couple of hours on a particularly lazy evening” kind of movie. And, despite the weak reviews it’s been receiving, the trailers for the second movie make it look better. I’m not going to fork out cinema prices to see it anytime soon, but on the strength of this first one, I will eventually. Which may not please the plastic-pedlars, exactly, but is a better result than I’d expected.

3 out of 5

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is in cinemas worldwide now.