The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

Emma. (2020)

2020 #20
Autumn de Wilde | 125 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

Emma.

According to IMDb, Jane Austen’s Emma has only been adapted for the big screen twice before — and one of those was Clueless. There have been multiple TV movie and miniseries takes on the novel, though, but as the most recent was over a decade ago I guess someone felt it was about time to trot it out again (after all, every major Dickens and Austen must be adapted for the screen at least once a decade or so, right?)

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, and Romola Garai — and, I guess, Alicia Silverstone — in the title role is Anya Taylor-Joy. With her wide eyes, blonde ringleted hair, and silent, still demeanour, Emma is the very vision of loveliness. But, like so many stereotypical outer appearances, her sweet visage masks a manipulative schemer, obsessed with her own matchmaking ability; and, in private, her opinions of others are often not so kind. She is, in short, a bit of a bitch. Taylor-Joy is perfect in the role, doing an awful lot with subtle changes of expression in reaction shots — her Emma may often be silent and still, but she still conveys so much. Some have labelled Taylor-Joy a “scream queen” after her breakthrough roles in the likes of The Witch and Split, but she’s got a lot more range than that label implies.

Reader, I confess, I am jealous of that strawberry

Around her is a cast mixed of well-known faces and up-and-comers. For the latter, the standout is Josh O’Connor, who you may recognise from The Durrells, or The Crown, or God’s Own Country, or one of several other roles — he’s been an up-and-comer for a while and is about due a full-on breakthrough, which I guess all of these things combined have or will provide. Anyway, here he’s an obsequious vicar whose manner changes entirely once his true intentions and character are exposed, and O’Connor tackles both sides with the right amount of humour and churlishness. Johnny Flynn brings a rugged edge to Mr Knightley, Emma’s neighbour and lifelong friend, who disapproves of her meddling ways even as he clearly approves of her. Mia Goth brings a convincing wide-eyed innocence to Harriet Smith, a young girl of unknown parentage who Emma takes under her wing with the real motive of once again showing off her matchmaking skills, which is quite at odds with her previous roles in the likes of Nymphomaniac and The Survivalist.

As to the better-known cast members, Bill Nighy is reliably drily hilarious as Emma’s father, while Miranda Hart injects a lot of her familiar persona into the babbling Mrs Bates, before hitting you with an almost gut-punch of emotion (there were gasps at my screening, dear reader — gasps). Fans of the book / other adaptations will surely know which moment provokes such a response, so there’s the quality of Austen’s original’s storytelling at work there, and also that of the filmmakers and the rest of the cast — the reactions of the other characters; the way they hastily try to cover up the faux pas; and the exposure of Emma’s true character contrasting with the overall sugariness of the way this world has been presented.

Confectionary

This is director Autumn de Wilde’s most striking contribution to the story. The colour palette evokes confectionary; the manner of framing and camera moves is sometimes Wes Anderson-esque. If this Austen adaptation lacks the pure satirical bite of, say, Love & Friendship, it counterbalances with a contrast between the prettiness of the design work and the true thoughts, feelings, and schemes of the protagonist.

Of course, at the end of the day, Emma is a romance, and all’s well that ends well, earned via a flurry of apologies and plotting that lands everyone just where they always ought to have been. I suppose such narrative tidiness is anathema to some, just as are the delightful visuals, the witty dialogue, or the fundamental triviality of a bunch of rich people fussing over each other’s love lives. Well, that’s Jane Austen, people. And, like the elaborate confectionary it so resembles, Emma may not be nutritional, but it is delicious.

4 out of 5

Emma. is released in the US today, and is in UK cinemas already.

The Karate Kid (2010)

2018 #72
Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

The Karate Kid

For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

4 out of 5

Baywatch: Extended Cut (2017)

2018 #62
Seth Gordon | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 15

Baywatch

Once upon a time, I probably wouldn’t have given Baywatch a second thought. For one, I never paid the TV series any heed (its popularity was slightly before my time, but apparently it was knocking about until 2001, which I guess explains why I vaguely remember it being on), and although the theme song was inexplicably popular in clubs and the like while I was at uni, that wasn’t really my scene. As for this movie taken in its own right, I used to just write off modern American film comedy, and this cast wouldn’t have done anything to recommend it either. But, you know, some modern American comedies are actually funny, and I’ve warmed to The Rock a lot in recent years. So, despite the terrible reviews, I dove in.

“Dove in”, you see, because it’s a movie about lifeguards. That’s a pun.

Anyway, lifeguards. They protect people on the beach from things like drowning and, in this case, drugs. Yep, when a new street drug begins to flood (water pun! Anyway:) their beach, head lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and his team, including hot-headed new recruit Matt (Zac Efron), set out to investigate and stop the criminal enterprise behind it. Just like real lifeguards would, I’m sure. Or, as we all know, not. But, thank goodness, the film knows it too, and makes jokes about it, so that works, more or less.

As I say, the stars of the film are Johnson and Efron.

Dwayne Johnson and Alexandra Daddario

Oops, sorry, that’s Johnson with Alexandra Daddario. She’s also in the movie. Um, let’s… let’s try that again…

Zac Efron and Alexandra Daddario

Okay, so, now that’s Efron with Daddario. Third time lucky…

My God, just look at that pair of big, beautiful eyes…

No, that’s just Alexandra Daddario.

Keep your eyes on the eyes

Oops, there’s another one.

Oh, this is funny to you?

Yeah, I give up.

Okay, joke's over.

Okay, I’m done now.

As I was saying before, the film makes jokes at the expense of its own plot about lifeguards investigating crime. I presume that kind of plot line is something inherited from the original TV series. There are some more decent jokes at the expense of the original show’s reputation, too. Of course, most of those gags were in the trailer, so if you already saw them there then, well, that’s that. Similarly, someone involved should’ve been told that your big surprise cameos don’t really work as a surprise if the actors’ names are in the opening credits…

Other than that, if you’ve come to this review wondering what differentiates the extended cut (or “extended edition” if you buy it in the UK — why they made that insignificant change on the cover, God only knows), it adds less than five minutes of new material. There’s a full list of changes here if you’re interested in the details. It doesn’t add up to much, but it’s not egregious either. The main highlight is a bitchy line from the villainess when the girls arrive at the party (“You look amazing” “Someone has to”), and Daddario flashing her bra is, shall we say, a bonus. (Did I already mention that Alexandra Daddario is in this movie?) Technically the longer cut is unrated, but there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t pass at an R easily. Heck, ditch a couple of F words and it’d pass at PG-13.

Well that's just gratuitous

Hey, look, a photo that doesn’t feature Alexandra Daddario!

Surprise, it's Alexandra Daddario!

Dammit!

Anyway, as I mentioned in my intro, this got terrible reviews. Terrible, terrible reviews — it has 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, for chrissake! That should’ve warned me off… but… well, I actually thought it was fun. Big, dumb, daft fun. And that’s what I think it’s meant to be, so, really, what’s the problem? It’s not clever and it’s not subtle, but why would you expect it to be? Okay, fair enough: maybe you flat-out don’t enjoy this kind of movie. That’s fine. But for anyone who chooses to watch it with realistic expectations about the kind of film it will be, it delivers what you’d expect in reasonably good fashion.

3 out of 5

DaddarioWatch Baywatch is available on Netflix UK from today.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

2018 #42
Spike Jonze | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Germany & Australia / English | PG / PG

Where the Wild Things Are

Lonely and over-imaginative child Max (Max Records) runs away from home one night, finds a small boat at the edge of a pond, which becomes an ocean as he sails across it, and winds up on a remote island. There he encounters a group of maladjusted and mostly unlikeable large monster-like creatures, the Wild Things, and ends up having to deal with their tumultuous interpersonal relationships. But it’s a fun kids’ movie, honest!

Except it isn’t. Not really. Despite being adapted from a kids’ picture book, and resolutely rated PG, it didn’t strike me as a kids’ movie at all. It’s glum, depressing, and surely only understandable when filtered through an adult perspective. By which I mean, the film depicts a child’s imaginary adventure, and if you take it as just that it’s no fun whatsoever. Give it an adult reading and I think the adventure actually reveals Max’s subconscious, with the monsters being an externalisation of his personal issues… I guess. I mean, I’m not sure what personifying his issues achieves, or what the film is saying with them.

If I felt it came to some kind of interesting point by the ending, maybe I’d be more on board with it. But Max basically decides he’s had enough of the monsters (he certainly doesn’t seem to solve all their problems) and heads home. I guess he’s realised his home life isn’t so bad after all, but… well, is that it? In the course of one night (which he’s imagined is a longer stretch of time, but still, one night), the kid’s had a complete change of personality and heart? I don’t buy it.

Mournful monsters

Apparently director Spike Jonze has said he intended “to make a movie about childhood” rather than a literal children’s movie, so it would seem my interpretation isn’t too wide of the mark. I’m not sure he told the Warner Bros executives that, though, because they were reportedly so unhappy when they saw Jonze’s initial final cut that they considered reshooting the entire movie — which, with its $75 million price tag, wouldn’t’ve been a small ask. In the end they pushed the release back almost 18 months, giving Jonze more time and money to make a movie that satisfied both himself and the studio; though even after that they still spent 70% of the promotional budget targeting adult viewers, advising parents to “exercise their own discretion”.

Maybe it was that compromise that kicked the meaning out of the film. Maybe it was never there. Maybe I missed something. On the bright side, technical merits are strong: Lance Acord’s cinematography is beautifully golden, and the monster effects (a mix of Jim Henson-made suits and CGI, which replaced animatronic heads that weighed too much) look perfect. But that’s not enough to save a thin and tedious story.

2 out of 5

RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

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.

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.