The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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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

Witness (1985)

2018 #74
Peter Weir | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Witness

Witness is, I think, one of those (many) films that used to be pretty well-known but hardly anyone seems to talk about anymore. I guess it falls into that bracket of being “very good, but not great”, and, devoid of the kind of cult appeal that can keep good-not-great movies popular for decades, it’s kind of slipped off the radar.

It’s the story of an 8-year-old Amish boy (Lukas Haas) who, while travelling with his mother (Kelly McGillis) through Philadelphia, happens to witness the murder of an undercover cop. The case is handed to Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who manages to get the boy to ID the murderer, but that puts the trio in danger, so they hide out among the Amish community.

With such a storyline, the film could descend into a culture-clash comedy — the big city cop chafing against historical rural life — but, while that clash is certainly in play, it’s not milked for laughs. Rather, the film is about Book experiencing a way of life so different to his own, and it changing his perspective on the world. Indeed, with the focus it gives to Amish ways, the film almost seems like it wanted to be a documentary about that community as much as a story. Certainly, the crime plot is a little rote, though it builds to a thrilling climax, with a definite touch of “modern Western” about the film’s style and structure. Additionally, the burgeoning romance between Book and the boy’s mother is touchingly and believably handled.

Witness protection

Ford gives a good performance, though I didn’t think it was that far outside his usual wheelhouse, actually. Sure, this is a drama where he plays a real-world cop rather than an adventure flick where he’s a dashing space smuggler or a swashbuckling matinee idol, but he’s still a bit of a charming rogue who eventually reveals his good heart. Or maybe Ford is just so effortlessly good that he makes it look easy. Among the rest of the cast, look out for a baby-faced Viggo Mortensen, popping up briefly with no lines.

The film’s only significant downside is a horrible synth score by Maurice Jarre. Maybe it’d be fine in itself, if ever so ’80s, but it’s an ill fit with the film’s theme about the appeal of traditional ways of life.

Otherwise, Witness is, as I said, a good-but-not-great kind of drama; a more-than-solid effort from all involved, but not so remarkable that it’s endured among Great Movies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, mind. Certainly, in our present era of Western cinema where that sort of dramatic movie is falling by the wayside as studios focus solely on mega-budgeted effects spectacles, this kind of film feels all the more wanted.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2019)

2019 #98
Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shaft (2019)

I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

Still a sex machine to all the chicks

This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

Shaft cubed

So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

3 out of 5

Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

aka Zatôichi abare himatsuri

2019 #80
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival

No, this isn’t a film about a samurai at a ‘luxury’ music festival (and that’s the extent of Fyre references you’ll get here, because I’ve not watched either documentary and don’t really know much about it). Rather, this 21st entry in the long-running Zatoichi series (once released on UK DVD as Zatoichi at the Fire Festival, and also known by sundry other variations of those words) sees the eponymous blind masseur-cum-swordsman clash with evil underworld boss Yamikubo (Masayuki Mori). This boss is as blind as Ichi, which he initially uses to claim a kinship with our hero, but then Yamikubo engages in a series of schemes to kill our hero. Meanwhile, a nameless ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) stalks Ichi too, intending to kill him for an imagined slight.

More or less business as usual for a Zatoichi adventure, then. The blindness of the villain should really add an extra frisson of something — it’s a clear parallel with our hero, after all — but I’m not sure it does, in actuality. More striking is that Fire Festival is pretty sex obsessed. Sex has been a factor of Zatoichi films before, but I’m not sure any other is as consumed by it as this one. It starts with a mistress auction and teases of nudity; the mystery ronin’s quest is to kill everyone who slept with his wife, which he thinks includes Ichi; the major set-piece is a fight in a bathhouse between Ichi and an army of assassins, all of whom are stark naked; Ichi spends an evening with five prostitutes; the villains decide the best way to kill our hero is with a honey trap (who winds up genuinely falling for Ichi, of course); there’s the roadhouse owners we randomly come across, who are casually perverse… and that’s all before the one-hour mark. Though if you’re expecting to see flashes of flesh, the nude scenes feature almost Austin Powers-level endeavours to make sure nothing explicit is shown.

A sweet transvestite?

There’s also an androgynous fellow called Umeji, who’s played be Peter, aka Pītā, aka Shinnosuke Ikehata — to quote his Wikipedia page, “one of Japan’s most famous gay entertainers, Peter’s androgynous appearance has enabled him to often play transvestite characters and he often appears on stage in women’s clothing.” He first gained attention the year before, as the lead in Funeral Parade of Roses, and later would have a supporting role in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Here he’s the pimp of those aforementioned five prostitutes, part of an attempt to prove he’s a “real man”. That doesn’t really work out, so his next attempt is to try seducing Ichi. It’s a startling, unexpected sequence in a genre film of this era, especially as he seems to get quite far — I mean, they end up under a bedsheet where we can’t see exactly what’s going on… until a knife slips out, anyway, with which Umeji was trying to kill Ichi. Naturally Ichi’s not impressed by that murder attempt, although he has nothing to say about the apparent homosexuality.

Peter isn’t the only noteworthy face here. Easily missed by Western audiences are Utae and Reiji Shoji as that roadhouse couple I mentioned — apparently they came from family of famous comedians, which perhaps explains all the screen time they’re given. More recognisable is Nakadai, who would also later star in Ran, and also appeared in Yojimbo and The Human Condition trilogy, amongst many more. One of those others is another samurai movie, The Sword of Doom, in which he reportedly plays a very similar character to his role here — I’ve not seen it so can’t vouch for that myself, but many other reviews cite the comparison. Depending which of those you listen to, he’s either “comically bad” (DVD Talk) or “puts in a stellar performance” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises). His character is a bit of an odd one — his motivation is thin and decisions border on nonsensical — but Nakadai brings immense presence to the role nonetheless.

Is that a katana or are you just happy to see me?

Mind, most of the rest of the film’s plot is similarly confounding. It starts with a title sequence in which Ichi tries to run away from a little barking dog, ends with an out-of-nowhere scene where Ichi turns down a horse ride, and in between is almost as odd and randomly constructed as those two extremes. And yet it does tick most of the regular Zatoichi boxes, especially in terms of the action scenes. They’re as slickly choreographed and staged as ever, continuing to come up with fresh ideas even after all these movies. The nude bathhouse fight is the obvious standout, but there’s also a finale where Ichi faces down an army and a cunning foe with a hostage, but has a trick up his sleeve… literally! (Ho ho ho.)

If you’re wondering where the titular festival has got to in all this, well, it never really turns up. The climax does begin with Ichi stranded in the middle of a lake that’s then set alight, but that’s not really a “fire festival”, is it? But it is a visually arresting sequence, just one of several throughout the film. This is the last contribution to the Zatoichi films from director Kenji Misumi, who directed the first and would end up tied for the title of the series’ most prolific director; and also for cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot six of the films for various directors; and they both go out on a visual high with their work here. (I don’t like to over-clutter my reviews with pictures, so here are just a few additional memorable shots I grabbed. And this is really in a class of its own for images that evoke a sense of smell. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The film’s story, as I said, is less commendable. Altogether, it makes for a movie that I wouldn’t rank among the Zatoichi series’ finest achievements, but nonetheless has its share of entertainment value for fans.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2000)

2019 #37
John Singleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Germany / English | 18 / R

Shaft (2000)

With there now being another ‘reboot’ for the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks (released a couple of weeks ago in the US, and available on Netflix today in the rest of the world), I thought it was about time I got round to the first ‘reboot’ (I saw the original yonks ago, long before this blog existed). I’ve put ‘reboot’ in inverted commas both times there because, despite the unadorned titles of both the 2000 and 2019 films, both are actually continuations of the ’70s original: Samuel L. Jackson plays John Shaft II, the nephew of the original Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree, who pops by for a cameo here. Jackson and Roundtree reprise their roles again in Shaft 2019-flavour, alongside Jessie Usher as John Shaft III.

(Would it’ve been cool if they’d actually called this Shaft 2000? I feel like it would’ve. Maybe by the year 2000 the idea of sticking 2000 on a title to make it cool/futuristic was over, I dunno, but I feel like it would’ve worked. And because they didn’t, we’ve now got three movies called simply Shaft that all exist in the same continuity. Madness.)

Anyway, back to the first time they rebooted-but-didn’t Shaft. Jackson’s character isn’t actually a private dick, but a proper copper… that is until sleazy rich-kid Walter Wade Jr (a hot-off-American Psycho Christian Bale) literally gets away with murder, prompting Shaft Jr to go freelance to catch his man.

A black cop frisking a rich white guy? What is this, a sci-fi movie?

This Shaft is almost 20 years old now (obviously), and yet all the white privilege bullshit that drives its story makes it feel like it could’ve been made yesterday. (Why are you so enable to evolve societally, America?) Other than that apparently-eternal timeliness, it’s a pretty standard kinda thriller, with most of its charm coming via an array of likeable performances. As well as the reliably cool Jackson and reliably psychopathic Bale, there are memorable early-career turns from Jeffrey Wright and Toni Collette, plus Vanessa Williams as Shaft’s cop colleague who lends a hand even after he leaves the force.

The original Shaft spawned two big-screen sequels and seven more TV movies, but there was no such future for the new incarnation: Jackson’s disappointment with the film, plus a box office performance that was regarded as mediocre (although it opened at #1 and returned over $100 million off its $46 million budget), was enough to scupper a planned follow-up… at least until this year’s reboot-that-isn’t. Reportedly that’s not so great either (with a 31% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a 6th place opening in the US, and of course going directly to Netflix everywhere else), but, given the series’ history, I wouldn’t write Shaft off just yet. After the 29-year gap between Shaft Mk.I and Shaft Mk.II, and then 19 years between Shaft Mk.II and Shaft Mk.III, maybe in 2028 we’ll be treated to a film about child detective John Shaft IV. Naturally, the film itself will just be called Shaft.

3 out of 5

Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

The Happytime Murders (2018)

2019 #9
Brian Henson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

The Happytime Murders

The Muppets meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets an R rating in this black comedy murder mystery from director Brian “son of Jim” Henson. Set in a world where Muppet-esque (but not actual Muppets, because IP rights) puppets co-exist alongside humans, disgraced puppet cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta, which, let’s be honest, is a better name for a comedy private eye than the one they’ve actually used) stumbles onto a spate of connected puppet murders, and must reluctantly team up with his former partner, human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to crack the case.

The mystery that drives the plot isn’t too bad, including a neat twist/reveal that’s perhaps guessable but not terribly so. It does hew closely to the tropes and clichés of the noir genre, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as it’s not a straight crime movie I don’t think it’s a problem for it to recycle all those things when it has fresh comedy to hang off them, or if it’s somehow riffing off familiar elements but with the puppet stuff, but often it isn’t that clever.

Women and puppets in blue

Nonetheless, there are some legitimately funny bits along the way, often found among the riffs on the puppet thing (for example: one of the victims is drowned, and before bagging the body they ring him out). Unfortunately it isn’t funny as often as it should be, too often relying on worn or lacklustre humour. I mean, it tries to run with the old playground favourite “idiots say what?” as a running gag. It also leans on puppets being lewd and crude as the extent of the gag, which simply isn’t that funny in itself, partly because it isn’t as original as the film seems to think it is (cf. Team America, Avenue Q).

While The Happytime Murders isn’t close to the echelons of quality where you’d find Roger Rabbit or the best of the Muppets, it’s also not a total washout. From behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve read it sounds like a lot of effort was expended on filming it, making sure the puppets could interact with the humans and so on, and those technical aspects are first rate. It’s just a shame the same level of innovation wasn’t poured into screenplay. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t live up to its potential either.

3 out of 5

The Happytime Murders is available on Netflix UK from today.