The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Review Roundup: Comedy Documentaries About Music

In today’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin roundup:

  • Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)


    Anvil:
    The Story of Anvil

    (2008)

    2017 #117
    Sacha Gervasi | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Canada / English | 15

    Anvil: The Story of Anvil

    This is the real Spinal Tap: a rockumentary about heavy metal group Anvil, who once headlined alongside Whitensake and Bon Jovi, and are cited as an influence on groups like Megadeth and Metallica, but who haven’t enjoyed the same success as any of them. The film follows the group as they attempt to relaunch with a tour and new album.

    Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and, thanks to This is Spinal Tap, Anvil at first feels like fiction, with broad characters and a humorous tone. But it isn’t a blatant rip-off of Rob Reiner’s influential mockumentary, it’s a true story.

    That knowledge gives the whole thing a different air. It’s not so much tinged with sadness as endlessly sad — hopes and dreams that have come to nothing, even though they’re still pursued; how those continued pursuits falter and fail. And, perhaps worst of all, is the esteem other bands hold them in — the influence they admit to have taken from Anvil — and yet Anvil themselves languish in crummy jobs with no wide recognition, while the people who ripped them off (as one of them even admits) are famous and successful.

    A lot of comedy would actually be quite sad if it wasn’t fiction. Anvil proves that.

    4 out of 5

    Popstar:
    Never Stop Never Stopping

    (2016)

    2018 #41
    Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

    This is Spinal Rap: comedy trio The Lonely Island star as the Style Boyz, a popular pop-rap boy band who disbanded after their frontman, Conner4Real (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg), decided to go solo. The mockumentary follows Conner as he goes on tour to launch his second album.

    Popstar is every inch a modern do-over of This is Spinal Tap. That’s not to say it’s a straight-up remake, but it’s certainly a spiritual sequel, with many similar building blocks: not very bright musicians; unsuccessful musical endeavours; and lots of fully-realised spoof songs. Where Spinal Tap satirised the metal scene of the ’80s, Popstar turns its sights on the world of present-day mainstream music. In both cases, the base funniness is enough that you don’t need much familiarity with reality to get the gags.

    It only bears so much comparison to its forebear (there’s nothing as iconic as “it goes up to 11” to be found here), but as a modern take on the same genre, it has merit. And, most importantly, I thought it was consistently very amusing.

    4 out of 5

  • Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

    aka Zatôichi abare tako

    2018 #50
    Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

    Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

    Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

    Did somebody mention gymnastics?

    Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

    And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

    Colourful action

    The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

    As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

    4 out of 5

    The Monster Squad (1987)

    2017 #43
    Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    The Monster Squad

    When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

    It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

    It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

    Frankie comes from Hollywood

    That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

    The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

    3 out of 5

    Candyman (1992)

    2017 #152
    Bernard Rose | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

    Candyman

    Written and directed by a Brit and based on a Clive Barker short story set in Liverpool, horror movie Candyman relocates its story to Chicago, where its race-related themes are arguably more pertinent. How well it handles that angle is another matter…

    It stars Virginia Madsen as Helen, a student completing a post-grad thesis on urban legends, which is when she encounters the story of Candyman: supposedly he was a slave who was mutilated, given a hook for a hand, and then murdered, and can now be summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror, at which point he’ll kill the person who summoned him. Why you’d want to do that I don’t know. Anyway, Helen’s investigations lead her to the Cabrini-Green housing projects and a spate of murders that seem to fit Candyman’s MO. Could the legend be real…?

    Candyman is over a quarter of a century old now, but it could hardly feel more current with its intellectual female lead and its story based around urban legends of poor black people — it’s ripe for commentary on feminism and racism. How well it handles these is another matter, because I’m not sure how much it has to say about either. Indeed, there’s gotta be room for a remake that tackles the racial tension stuff head-on and engages it more thoroughly. I guess the film just isn’t well enough remembered at this point, because otherwise surely someone would be on it already. It’s such a shame that so many great movies are subjected to inferior remakes when what we really need are more Ocean’s Elevens: middling-to-poor movies with good ideas remade with greater class so as to improve them.

    Do you bee-lieve?

    That said, I wouldn’t personally describe Candyman as “middling-to-poor”. What it may lack in societal commentary it makes up for as an atmospheric and unpredictable horror movie. I say that because it changes its style entirely halfway through: at first it’s very much an “is it real?” story, with our heroine investigating legends that don’t appear to be true (she says the name five times and nothing happens). The horror is psychological rather than gory. But then (spoilers!) Candyman does turn up (of course he does), at which point Helen becomes suspected of the murders, while Candyman manipulates her and tries to persuade her to become his victim. It’s an interesting development, and both halves present a captivating style of horror movie.

    Such a switcheroo also means you don’t know where the story’s going to go or how it’s going to end, which is always an unusual sensation in a genre movie. It contributes to it being an effective piece of horror as well. It’s creepy and atmospheric, as well as containing straight-up jumps and gore. It’s all elevated by a fantastic score from Philip Glass, which helps lend a particular type of mood — kind of religious, almost; mythic.

    Candyman spawned sequels, as most horrors seemed to back in the day, but no one seems to really talk about it anymore. That’s actually something of a shame, because it has a different texture to most horror movies, as well as some thematic points that are as socially resonate as ever.

    4 out of 5

    Shrek 2 (2004)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Shrek 2

    Not so far, far away…

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 93 minutes
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 19th May 2004 (USA)
    UK Release: 2nd July 2004
    Budget: $150 million
    Worldwide Gross: $919.8 million

    Stars
    Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, The Love Guru)
    Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Norbit)
    Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels, The Holiday)
    Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, The Skin I Live In)
    John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda)
    Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Princess Diaries)
    Jennifer Saunders (Muppet Treasure Island, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie)
    Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband, St. Trinian’s)

    Directors
    Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)
    Kelly Asbury (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo & Juliet)
    Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs Aliens, Sausage Party)

    Screenwriters
    Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Pip)
    Joe Stillman (Shrek, Planet 51)
    J. David Stem (The Rugrats Movie, The Smurfs)
    David N. Weiss (All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Smurfs 2)

    Story by
    Andrew Adamson (Shrek the Third, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)

    Based on
    Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig — even more loosely than last time, though.


    The Story
    Newlyweds Shrek and Fiona travel to meet her parents, the King and Queen of Far Far Away. They’re less than pleased about their daughter marrying an ogre, especially as the King made a deal with Fairy Godmother for her son, Prince Charming, to be Fiona’s husband — and she insists that bargain be fulfilled.

    Our Heroes
    Shrek and Donkey, off another whirlwind adventure! After Shrek has a lover’s tiff with his new bride, he sets off to try to make himself what he thinks she wants: human.

    Our Villain
    Fairy Godmother might seem sweet and helpful, but she actually runs a factory with oppressed workers (they don’t even have dental!) and is manipulating the King so her son can become his heir.

    Best Supporting Character
    When Fairy Godmother orders the King to deal with Shrek, he seeks out a renowned ogre hunter: Puss in Boots. He may look like an adorable little kitty, but he’s a devil with a sword.

    Memorable Quote
    “It looks like we’re up chocolate creek without a Popsicle stick!” — Gingerbread Man

    Memorable Scene
    As a party begins at which Prince Charming will kiss Fiona and make her fall in love with him, Fairy Godmother entertains the guests with a rendition of Holding Out for a Hero — as Shrek and friends storm the castle to rescue his wife.

    Memorable Music
    The use of pop songs was a defining characteristic of the first Shrek, so naturally that continues here. However, there are also a lot more diegetic songs this time: Jennifer Saunders gets two musical numbers as Fairy Godmother (one an amusing riff on typical Disney numbers, the other mentioned above), plus Tom Waits and Nick Cave both sing (as the same character). The film also includes two really good covers of Holding Out for a Hero (the second, by Frou Frou, plays over the credits), which is some kind of achievement.

    Making of / Letting the Side Down
    For the UK release, two minor roles were redubbed: Doris the Ugly Stepsister, voiced by chat show host Larry King originally, was replaced by chat show host Jonathan Ross; and the red carpet announcer, voiced by Joan Rivers in the US, was replaced by Kate Thornton, who also must’ve done red carpet stuff at some point, I dunno. I guess it seemed like a fun idea at the time — the idea, presumably, was to localise famous voices with ones that would be better-known in other countries — but they shouldn’t’ve bothered: it’s just distracting, and neither replacement gives a very convincing performance. I think this was the first time such voice localisation had been done, and it seemed to kick off a minor fad for it. I thought it had gone away, but they recently defaced Kung Fu Panda 3 with a similar trick.

    Previously on…
    Shrek 2 picks up pretty closely from the end of Shrek — you probably need to see that to make full sense of this one.

    Next time…
    A further two sequels followed, plus a spin-off movie (which has its own spin-offs, including a six-season TV series). There’s also a 4D theme park attraction (which uses a plot that was rejected for Shrek 2) and numerous TV specials. There are always rumours of the franchise getting resurrected, too.

    Awards
    2 Oscar nominations (Animated Film, Original Song (Accidentally in Love))
    2 Saturn Award nominations (Animated Film, DVD Special Edition)
    7 Annie Award nominations (Animated Feature, Animated Effects, Directing, Music, Storyboarding, Voice Acting (Antonio Banderas), Writing)
    Nominated for the Palme d’Or (again!)

    Verdict

    Having said Shrek has aged and dated, I think Shrek 2 has fared better. Arguably the first one has more pure originality, giving birth to an irreverent fairytale meta-verse, but Shrek 2 expands on those building blocks and plays with the ideas. There are lots of fun movie spoofs (though many are from the same era, so their effectiveness could partly be nostalgia), the climax is a legitimately good action sequence (see Memorable Scene), and there’s even a decent thematic throughline about what you’re prepared to do or give up for the one you love. Plus the animation looks a lot more polished — three years makes a huge difference in computer animation, especially in the early noughties. The first one has its moments, for sure, and perhaps some of them are better or more memorable too, but as an overall film I prefer the sequel.

    Shrek (2001)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Shrek

    The greatest fairy tale never told.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 90 minutes
    BBFC: U
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 16th May 2001 (USA)
    UK Release: 29th June 2001
    Budget: $60 million
    Worldwide Gross: $484.4 million

    Stars
    Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Cat in the Hat)
    Eddie Murphy (Coming to America, Dreamgirls)
    Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, Gangs of New York)
    John Lithgow (Cliffhanger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

    Directors
    Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)
    Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale, Post Grad)

    Screenwriters
    Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
    Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
    Joe Stillman (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Gulliver’s Travels)
    Roger S.H. Schulman (Balto, Mulan II)

    Based on
    Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig.


    The Story
    When his swamp is overrun with fairytale creatures, ogre Shrek sets off to confront the man responsible, Lord Farquaad. To get his land back, Shrek must rescue the Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded castle, so that Farquaad can marry her. But all is not as it appears…

    Our Hero
    Shrek is a grumpy Scottish-accented ogre who just wants to be left alone in his swamp, but events conspire to get in his way. Of course, as things transpire, he really has a heart of gold.

    Our Villain
    Men of his stature are in short supply, though there are those who think little of him — it’s Lord Farquaad, who wants Fiona to be his bride primarily so he can become king.

    Best Supporting Character
    Shrek’s new best friend (whether he likes it or not), wise-cracking ass Donkey, gets many of the best lines.

    Memorable Quote
    Gingerbread Man: “Do you know… the Muffin Man?”
    Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
    Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man.”
    Lord Farquaad: “Yes, I know the Muffin Man. Who lives on Drury Lane?”
    Gingerbread Man: “Well, she’s married to the Muffin Man…”
    Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
    Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man!
    Lord Farquaad: “She’s married to the Muffin Man…”

    Memorable Scene
    As Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey travel back to Lord Farquaad, they’re jumped upon by Robin Hood (who, for no apparent reason, has a French accent) and his Merry Men, attempting to rescue Fiona by, in part, singing a merry song. But she doesn’t want rescuing and so goes all Matrix on their merry arses.

    Memorable Music
    As part of its generally irreverent take on myths and fairytales, Shrek is laden with contemporary popular music. It was all very modern at the time, but, 17 years on, it’s obviously dated itself, sounding distinctly early-millennium-y now.

    Technical Wizardry
    The overall animation quality may be looking a bit dated now, but Shrek hails from the era when every major new computer-animated movie was breaking ground in the field, in one way or another. In Shrek‘s case, it was the ability to realistically animate hair and grass.

    Next time…
    To date there have been three sequel movies, a spin-off movie (which then has its own world of attendant spin-offs, including a six-season TV series), a 4D theme park attraction (which was included in 3D on some DVD releases of the film), plus numerous TV specials and the like, as well as a stage musical version. There are constant rumours of the franchise getting a big-screen continuation, too.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Animated Feature)
    1 Oscar nomination (Adapted Screenplay)
    1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)
    5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Music, Sound, Special Visual Effects)
    1 BAFTA Children’s Award (Film)
    1 Saturn Award (DVD Special Edition)
    4 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Writing, Music)
    8 Annie Awards (Animated Theatrical Feature, Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature, Voice Acting by a Male Performer in an Animated Feature (Eddie Murphy), Individual Achievement for Effects Animation, Individual Achievement for Music Score an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Storyboarding in an Animated Feature)
    4 Annie Award nominations (Individual Achievement for Character Animation (x3), Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature)
    Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
    Nominated for the Palme d’Or (seriously)

    Verdict

    DreamWorks’ irreverent riff on fairytale animations was a breath of fresh air back in 2001, allowing them to net the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ahead of Disney or Pixar. A decade and a half of imitators have taken the shine off that somewhat, as have advances in technology (old CGI ages worse than old cel animation), but it remains an amusing and quotable film, with a surprisingly strong moral message at its heart.

    The Director and the Jedi (2018)

    2018 #59
    Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    The Director and the Jedi title card

    So, The Last Jedi, eh?

    No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

    If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

    The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

    If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

    Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

    It ain't easy at the top

    Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

    The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

    The princess and the director

    “Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

    5 out of 5

    The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.

    The Hurricane Heist (2018)

    2018 #60
    Rob Cohen | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    The Hurricane Heist

    Billed as a “Sky Cinema Original Movie” here in the UK (which, I presume, is like half of Netflix’s “original” movies — i.e. they paid for exclusive rights to something already completed), The Hurricane Heist… does what it says on the tin, really: as a hurricane strikes Alabama, a gang of crooks plan to use it as cover to rob a Treasury facility and its $600 million of waiting-to-be-shredded old notes. What they didn’t count on was crack ATF agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who attempts to stop them with the help of meteorologist Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell) — who drives a tank-like hurricane-proof car — and his ex-military mechanic brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten).

    Yes, a film called The Hurricane Heist has a main character called “Breeze”.

    I suppose that’s indicative of the tone the film’s shooting for, really. It’s not Sharknado, but you have to hope the filmmakers knew it was cheap and cheesy as hell and wanted to play up to that. It’s only sporadically successful — much of the dialogue is just bad rather than so-bad-it’s-good, for example — but it has its moments. About halfway through there’s a sequence where Will throws scrap hubcaps into the wind so that they fly at the bad guys like spinning discs of death, at which point the film looks like it might tip from “so mediocre it’s mediocre” into “utter genius”. Sadly, it doesn’t keep that inventiveness up for more than about ten seconds, but at least it means there’s something memorable here. And while it may generally look and feel kinda cheap, there’s a massive amount of practical wind and rain being thrown around to create the storm, which is pretty effective.

    The wet and the windiest

    Another success comes in a couple of amusing villain deaths during the climax, but to say more would spoil things. The chief villain is played by Ralph Ineson, whose basic skill as a performer at least elevates that role somewhat. Toby Kebbell is probably better than this too, though considering some of his other choices in the past couple of years (Ben-Hur, Warcraft, Fantastic Four) maybe he’s lucky to get this now. Certainly, this is more entertaining than the ones I’ve seen of those.

    If The Hurricane Heist had been made 20 years ago it probably would’ve been a major blockbuster. It certainly looks like the CGI was produced back then. Now… well, it’s gone direct to Sky Cinema, hasn’t it? Maybe it’ll find a cult following, but I’m not sure it’s quite barmy enough to achieve that so-bad-it’s-good love. It is pretty stupid and definitely cheesy, but… well, it’s not so much boring as… not exciting. Like, it’s middling. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. You won’t remember much of it the day after, but for a bit of daft brain-off action on a lazy evening, it’s alright.

    3 out of 5

    The Hurricane Heist is allegedly in some UK cinemas now. It’s definitely available on Sky Cinema, and will be (presumably exclusively) until at least 5th April 2028.

    The Boss Baby (2017)

    2018 #12
    Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    The Boss Baby

    The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

    It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

    Sibling rivalry

    For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

    If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

    Parents are so gullible

    Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

    Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

    It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

    3 out of 5

    Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.