A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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.