Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

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Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

2019 #23
Gary Ross | 110 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, German, French & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Ocean's Eight

This somewhat belated spin-off from the Ocean’s trilogy of all-star heist movies (it came eleven years after the last one) introduces us to Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s eponymous character from the trilogy, and also an experienced con artist. Recently released from prison, she sets about assembling a crew for an audacious heist: to lift a near-priceless necklace during the prestigious Met Gala.

Said crew is all female — well, the crews in the previous trilogy were almost exclusively male, so why not? And just as those casts were full of big-name stars, so too is this. If Bullock’s in the Clooney role then Cate Blanchett takes over the part of Brad Pitt: the cool, in-control ‘sidekick’ who really makes Ocean’s grand plan happen. Fortunately, the film doesn’t slavishly map everyone else onto roles from the previous movies. One of the key parts is a fashion designer, played by Helena Bonham Carter — not a job that’s normally required for a heist, I don’t think. Here, it’s their way to access the mark who’ll be wearing the necklace, played by Anne Hathaway. The rest of the titular crew is rounded out by names of varying degrees of famousness, depending on your exposure to their previous work: Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina.

As a gang, they’re quite likeable, fun to hang around with, and the cast seem to be having a good time. They’re somewhat hampered by a screenplay that rarely gives them the sparky material the previous bunch had to work with, though, so I’d suggest if there’s a Nine they get someone to punch up the dialogue and give this lot the text they deserve.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... yep, eight. There's eight of them.

Having said it doesn’t wholly map onto the previous movies, Eight massively lifts one plot thread from Eleven, which is that Debbie’s plan is secretly a way to get back at an ex boyfriend (Richard Armitage). Okay, in Eleven Danny Ocean is trying to win back his old lover and/or punish her new boyfriend, whereas here those characters are kinda combined as Debbie Ocean is trying to punish her old lover, but, well, the basic conceit is the same, right? The film does nothing to acknowledge that fact, just leaving it hanging there — awkwardly, if you’re au fait with the first movie. Conversely, whereas Danny was obsessed with his revenge to the point it risked derailing the main heist, for Debbie it seems to be a side benefit.

That isn’t necessarily better, mind: it lowers the stakes of both the subplot (because she doesn’t seem that bothered) and the main plot (because she’s not in danger of getting sidetracked), so why include something so familiar? Indeed, the whole plot is relatively light on stakes, with the team carrying off everything with nary a hitch — barely any need to improvise or change the plan here, they’ve just got it covered. The one potential problem that does arrive is solved instantly, even before the heist begins, with such a straightforward fix that they don’t even need to modify the plan to incorporate it. It’s not even fake jeopardy, it’s just non-jeopardy.

The whole film veers dangerously close to blandness in this fashion. Director Gary Ross may be a friend and colleague of Steven Soderbergh, but he doesn’t seem to have picked up the trilogy director’s inventiveness. There’s some mildly flashy editing scattered about, and maybe one creative shot / bit of sound design (when the camera follows the necklace underwater, the non-diegetic music gets muffled like, you know, we’re underwater), but it lacks the sophistication and verve Soderbergh brings. It feels like it needs a kick up the arse, basically.

“Could you just give it a bit of a kick up the arse?”

I even began to worry it was going to end with no attempt at genuine twists or surprises whatsoever, aside from a few minor but not terribly exciting reveals, which is not good for a heist movie — part of the point, surely, is that they also pull off a kind of narrative heist on the viewer. Fortunately, Eight does have a trick up its sleeve, which is quite fun. But even then, the big plan is still a pretty simple heist, which the film tries to pretend is complicated by showing Heist 101 stuff in excruciating detail (there’s a whole scene devoted to Rihanna slightly changing the position of two security cameras, one… click… at… a… time…)

Yet for these faults, Eight still works as breezy entertainment. It’s not as perfectly slick and polished as Eleven — but then, that would’ve been asking a lot (as pure-entertainment capers go, Eleven is virtually flawless). It’s not as boundary-pushing as Twelve (a seemingly muddled film that gets interesting the more you think/read about it), but nor is it as aimless and derivative as I found Thirteen. It lacks the creative spark behind the scenes (either in the screenplay or directing departments) that could’ve elevated it, but it’s an easy way to spend a diverting couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Zatoichi Challenged (1967)

aka Zatôichi chikemurikaidô

2019 #10
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi Challenged

The seventeenth film in the Zatoichi series is rated the second best according to IMDb users. As with so many opinions, that’s not one shared by Letterboxd users (who’ve placed it 15th), and it’s not shared by me, either. While I wouldn’t call it bad (every Zatoichi film has things to commend it, even the de facto worst), it’s definitely towards the lower end of my ranking.

The basic plot is a semi-rehash of one of the series’ crowning glories, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, with Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) agreeing to reunite a young boy with this father after the child’s mother dies. They first fall in with a group of travelling performers, which seems to be an excuse to squeeze in an incongruous ’60s pop song and a bit of a love interest for Ichi. After wasting half-an-hour on that, Ichi and the kid rock up in the town where the dad, Shokichi (Takao Ito), is being held captive by a gang of… pottery makers. It’s slightly more exciting than it sounds, because their scheme is all about making plates and jugs featuring erotic imagery, which was illegal at the time, and Shokichi is a skilled artist. Now, of course, Ichi must free him to unite him with his son. Along the way, Ichi strikes up a respectful acquaintance with a travelling ronin, Tajuro Akazuka (Jûshirô Konoe), which you know isn’t going to end well because, well, that’s how these films always go.

Zatoichi and son... just not his son

There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a formulaic Zatoichi film — many of them are, and I enjoy them just the same — but here it all feels rather slow and uneventful. The stuff with the travelling performers is a dead end, a total aside from the main story; and that plot, such as it is, just never catches light. The final 25 minutes are fairly action-packed at least, both in terms of fighting and with the plot finally getting somewhere; but it also makes you realise how much time has been wasted going nowhere — the villains are little more than introduced before it’s time for Ichi to cut them down. It doesn’t help anything that the kid’s annoying. He comes to care for Ichi, but Ichi doesn’t really seem to care for him that much, meaning their relationship lacks the emotional resonance found in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

The one part of the film that does work is Akazuka. As I alluded to before, it’s a story arc that’s played out in many Zatoichi films before (and I’m sure it’ll come up again), but Zatoichi Challenged executes it as well as any. At first it just seems like Akazuka is a wanderer who Ichi happens to keep bumping into, including a memorable encounter where Akazuka attempts to overpay for a massage, but honourable Ichi refuses his charity. Eventually, of course, it turns out he has a secret mission which is at odds with Ichi’s own goals and values, and so, inevitably, they must duel. Their climactic confrontation is by far the best bit of the film. It’s a battle of words at first, as Ichi pleads with Akazuka to be reasonable and have mercy. He won’t, of course, and so a sword fight ensues. It doesn’t pan out how you might expect. The whole sequence is beautifully shot through falling snow by cinematographer Chikashi Makiura (quite why it’s suddenly snowing I’ve no idea, but it looks good). It’s an absolutely fantastic sequence; one of the series’ very best duels.

Snow fight

The finale aside, perhaps the most interesting thing about Zatoichi Challenged (certainly the most uncommon) is that it was remade in America, forming the basis for 1989 actioner Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, Salt, et al). I’ve not seen it, but other reviewers describe it as “a total turd that captures none of the charm and humanity of Zatoichi” (Lard Biscuit Enterprises), noting that it “begs the viewer to overlook too much that is idiotic [about a blind swordsman], whereas the original convinces the viewer it isn’t idiotic at all” (Weird Wild Realm). Suffice to say… I’ll still watch it someday.

Quite why this Zatoichi film in particular was tapped for a US remake, goodness only knows. It’s a kinda boring Ichi adventure on the whole, with a thin, recycled plot and a first half-hour that’s almost a total aside from the actual story. It’s saved by the climax, one of the best sequences in any Zatoichi film, which single-handedly makes the movie worth a watch.

3 out of 5

High Flying Bird (2019)

2019 #14
Steven Soderbergh | 90 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

High Flying Bird

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ continues with another shot-on-iPhone movie (following last year’s psychological thriller Unsane), this time going direct to Netflix. Whereas Unsane made a virtue of its iPhone cinematography to heighten a disquieting, untrustworthy atmosphere, High Flying Bird forges ahead with no such baked-in excuse for its visual quality. However, similarly to Unsane, the fact it was shot on an iPhone is almost incidental, noteworthy mainly just because it’s unusual. But more on that later.

The movie is about Ray (André Holland), a basketball agent struggling to keep his players in check during a lockout… and already you’ve lost me, movie: I had to look up what a lockout is. I’m not much of a sports person, and I’m pretty sure we don’t have lockouts in British sports. Basically, best I can tell, it’s some kind of disagreement between the players (through their union) and the team owners, which results in games not being played when they should be, and people not being paid because nothing’s happening. So, it’s a bad thing, and it’s putting Ray in a bad situation — so he sets about trying to launch an “intriguing and controversial business opportunity”, to quote an IMDb plot summary.

Something like that, anyway. Frankly, it took less than two minutes for High Flying Bird to leave me feeling lost and confused, as it dives into an “inside baseball” (as the saying goes) depiction of basketball right from the off. It felt like watching a French movie without subtitles, except here the language isn’t French, it’s basketball. In fairness, I did eventually get a handle on what the overall plot was, but mostly with hindsight and not ’til quite far in — my analogy still stands for what the viewing experience was like until that point.

Lost and confused

For fans of basketball, or at least those with some kind of knowledge of the workings of the business side of American sport, it might all be more palatable. I think there’s some good stuff in the plot and characters, but I can only say “think” because I made such a lousy fist of following what was meant to be going on half the time. The story culminates in a final twist/reveal about Ray’s actual plan. Fortunately, by that point I’d worked out (more or less) what events had happened, so I followed it — indeed, I got there ahead of it. Well, that’s because before viewing I read a comment which implied this was a heist movie (like Soderbergh’s previous work on the Oceans films or Logan Lucky), so I’d already been on the lookout for what the real con was. Nonetheless, I’m torn between whether the reveal was quite clever, or the film thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is. If I hadn’t had that heads up, maybe I would’ve been as mind-blowingly impressed as Ray’s boss seems to be when Ray reveals the real plan to him. Or maybe I wouldn’t’ve, who can say.

Unsane suggested you couldn’t make a good-looking film on an iPhone. High Flying Bird says, actually, you can. It doesn’t all look great (especially when, for example, the shot literally wobbles from something as simple as someone putting a drinks bottle down on a table), but there are some beautiful shots in here too. Unsane almost had to make a virtue of its odd look, the weirdass visuals chiming with the story of a possibly unstable mind. High Flying Bird has no such excuses, and most of the time it doesn’t need them; though some parts do still look like a first-effort student film, which is very odd coming from a director as experienced as Soderbergh (this is the 56-year-old’s 29th feature, not to mention his 39 episodes of TV).

Looking to the future

While researching the film’s production I came across this interesting article at The Ringer, which uses High Flying Bird as a jumping off point to examine the history, increase, and future of using iPhones for professional projects. It basically contends that phone-shot films are the future for everything, and makes that sound reasonable. It’s reminiscent of the emergence of digital photography for movies: it was a big story back when Soderbergh shot Che with digital cameras (Criterion’s Blu-ray release has a half-hour documentary dedicated to it), but it was only a couple of years later that became standard for all major movies, and a few years after that it’s now noteworthy when something is actually shot on film. It seems inconceivable that one day they’ll be shooting an Avengers movie on a phone, but then it once seemed inconceivable you’d shoot a movie that big on digital video…

It’s quite hard for me to give a concise opinion of High Flying Bird. I struggled through much of it, which made for an unpleasant viewing experience. But I acknowledge some of that lies with me knowing less about basketball than the film does. But then again, is it the film’s responsibility to explain to me the things I don’t know? I did get a handle on events by the end, and if I watched the film again I expect I’d follow it better, but I also don’t feel there’s much luring me back for a second viewing.

3 out of 5

High Flying Bird is available on Netflix now.

The Ragtag Review Roundup

My review backlog has got a bit silly: there are currently 128 unposted reviews on it, dating back to stuff I watched in January 2018. I was hoping to really get stuck into that as 2019 began, but I’ve been busier than expected. Anyway, I’ll keep trying — and here’s a start, with a real mixed back of films that have basically nothing in common.

In today’s roundup:

  • American Psycho (2000)
  • Logan Lucky (2017)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)


    American Psycho
    (2000)

    2018 #66
    Mary Harron | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    American Psycho

    The film that made Christian Bale’s name sees him play Patrick Bateman, a high-flying New York banker with psychopathic tendencies — well, that just sounds like all those Wall Street types, right? Except hopefully they’re not actually engaging in literal killing sprees, unlike Bateman.

    While the murdering stuff may look like the draw, American Psycho is more interesting as an examination of the corporate mentality. It manages to be remarkably insightful, satirical, and terrifying all at once. Take the scene where they compare business cards, for instance: it’s ridiculous how much interest and importance these guys are placing in little cardboard rectangles with their name and number on, and yet you can believe such business-wankers would care about it. The anger Bateman feels when other people’s cards are considered classier than his is palpable.

    It’s a great performance by Bale across the board — so well judged, despite being barmy. It’s also interesting to observe the links between this and his version of Bruce Wayne, which is a wholly appropriately connection. I mean, who’s more of an American psycho than a guy who spends his days pretending to be a playboy businessman and his nights dressing up as a bat to beat up bad guys? I’m sure someone must’ve already developed a theory / amusing trailer mashup connecting the two films…

    The only thing that really let the film down for me was its final act. No detailed spoilers, but while I thought the rest of the film was engagingly made, the ultimate lack of resolution felt empty. To me, it seemed like it didn’t know how to end.

    4 out of 5

    Logan Lucky
    (2017)

    2018 #65
    Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Logan Lucky

    Two brothers, whose family has a historical proclivity for bad luck, decide to rob one of the US’s largest sporting venues, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, during one of its quieter events. But when the situation changes, they end up having to pull the job off during the biggest race of the year.

    Director Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist genre a decade after Ocean’s Thirteen is something to be noted; and while Logan Lucky is a very different kind of heist movie (there’s none of that trilogy’s Hollywood glamour to be found here), it’s a more successfully entertaining movie than either of the Ocean’s sequels.

    Like them, it’s not terribly serious, instead ticking along as generally quite good fun — though there’s a scene with Take Me Home, Country Roads that’s quite affecting. Between this and Kingsman 2, I’m left to wonder how that wound up becoming just about the most emotional song ever recorded…

    Anyway, the showpiece heist is clever, in its own way, and rolls around sooner than I expected — it’s funny to read some people criticise how long it takes to get to, because I assumed it would be Act Three. Instead, the film constructs a post-heist third act that was the only time it really got too slow for me, though it does eventually reveal a purpose that was kinda worth the wait. That said, the whole thing might benefit from being a little bit tighter and shorter — ten minutes trimmed across the pre- and post-heist acts might make it zing just that bit more.

    4 out of 5

    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    (1984)

    2018 #71
    Wes Craven | 87 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    A Nightmare on Elm Street

    It may be regarded as a horror classic, but I have to admit that I found A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a crushing disappointment. To me, it seemed to be a pretty poor movie (all weak: the acting, the dialogue, the music, the timescale events supposedly occur in) with some fantastic imagery. Director Wes Craven was a master, of course, and he manages to construct some truly great shots and moments amid a dirge of mediocrity. There’s a lot of nonsensical stuff too. I guess “dream logic” is meant to excuse it, but… eh.

    I do really like that poster, though.

    3 out of 5

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    (1948)

    2018 #6
    John Huston | 121 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

    Set in the mid ’20s, two American drifters in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up with an old and experienced prospector (Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father) to hunt for gold in them thar hills. Along the way they have to contend with rival prospectors, violent bandits, and — most dangerous of all — their own suspicions and greed.

    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre blends genres like there’s no tomorrow: it’s been described as a plain drama, an adventure movie, a neo-western, it’s included on film noir lists… Of course, depending which angle you look at it, it’s all of the above. It’s both an exciting adventure movie and a character-centric exploration of the effects of greed. In depicting that, Bogart’s performance is excellent, though Huston Sr threatens to steal the show. Poor Tim Holt is overshadowed by them both, even though he gives a likeable turn.

    5 out of 5

  • Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

    2018 #96
    Mandie Fletcher | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

    “Most movies are a script in search of some money,” said Jon Plowman, producer of every episode of Ab Fab, “but this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of Ab Fab, lots of financiers threw their hats in the ring.” A cruel critic might therefore be tempted to accuse the cast and crew of doing this poorly-received film continuation of the popular TV series “just for the money”, but I think that would be disingenuous — I think there was a real desire to put an appropriate capstone on the beloved sitcom. Whether that merited a 90-minute theatrical release, or would’ve been better served as a 60-minute TV special, is another matter…

    Primarily, I think Ab Fab: The Movie is targeted at fans of the series, and isn’t really designed to stand on its own feet as an independent movie. I’ve only seen some of the TV show, and I think that was essential to understanding who all the characters were, how they were connected, and why they behaved in certain ways. Even then, I felt like there was stuff flying over my head because I haven’t seen all of the original episodes and/or because it’s been some years since I did watch any.

    So, I’m no expert on Ab Fab, but it’s always been my impression that when it started it was satirising the fashion world of the era (i.e. the ’90s). However, as it’s gone on it seems to have become about itself, as it were — its own characters and in-jokes, rather than any commentary on the wider world. That’s what we get here, therefore: basically, a 25th anniversary special amped up to full-blown movie status. One of the selling points for it as a big-screen variant was that it’s Eddie and Patsy on the French Riviera, continuing the age-old tradition of big-screen outings for British sitcoms being just “send the characters abroad”. Despite that, the first half is still set in London, and it’s pretty funny. When they do finally head overseas, it doesn’t exactly drag, but it seems a bit desperate.

    Wheels on fire, off screen

    In terms of broader relevance, creator/writer/star Jennifer Saunders has spoken about how the film was supposed to be about ageing; about, apparently, the “reality” of these youth-obsessed characters getting old when they don’t know how to. Well, there’s not much reality in it it, given the typically outlandish situations the already-exaggerated characters find themselves in (for example, the emotional climax comes while Eddie and Patsy are trapped in a tiny van sinking in a swimming pool). That doesn’t mean such OTT antics aren’t amusing, but expecting an examination of the human condition from them is a bit… unlikely.

    A more notable feature is the insane number of cameos — “around 60”, according to this list on IMDb. I guess the notoriety of Ab Fab attracts big names… though plenty of them, er, aren’t. Basically, if you’re not a Brit, assume everyone who pops up for only one scene and opens their mouth is some degree of famous here. There are some international (i.e. American) faces too, though, to remind you of the series’ worldwide cult appeal.

    Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it definitely leans into being a fan-friendly exercise, which I’m not sure was appropriate for a belated big-screen debut. It’s not an ideal starting point for the uninitiated, then, but it’s not a terrible send-off for existing fans.

    3 out of 5

    The UK TV premiere of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on BBC One tonight at 9pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

    aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

    2018 #253
    Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

    Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

    Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

    The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

    The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

    Sartana locked up

    A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

    Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

    Greed

    Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

    3 out of 5

    * Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

    Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

    aka just Mowgli

    2018 #252
    Andy Serkis | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

    Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

    Hollywood has a long history of different people coming up with the same idea resulting in competing films — asteroid-themed Armageddon and Deep Impact is perhaps the best-known example. But often when the ideas are too similar, one of the projects gets scrapped — Baz Luhrmann ditched plans for an Alexander the Great biopic once Oliver Stone’s got underway, for instance. When Disney and Warner Bros both announced CGI-driven live-action adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, I don’t know about anyone else, but I figured one studio would blink and we’d end up with just one film. That didn’t happen, and both movies entered production around the same time, and were even originally scheduled to come out the same year. In this respect it was Warner who blinked first, putting their version back to allow more time to finesse the motion-capture-driven animation, while Disney got theirs out on schedule. Unfortunately for Warner, it was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, putting their version in a rather precarious position.

    So when the news broke that Mowgli (as the film had been retitled to help distance it from Disney’s) was to be released direct to Netflix, well, I don’t think anyone was surprised: the streaming service has become a regular dumping ground for movies that studios have lost confidence in, seemingly happy to pay for any castoff a major studio throws their way. Apparently that’s not what went down this time, though: Mowgli had a theatrical release date set and the promotional campaign had begun, when Netflix approached Warner saying they loved the film and wanted to buy it. I guess the certainty of a large Netflix payday, vs. the gamble of box office success on a film that could be seen by the general public as a Johnny-come-lately cash-in rip-off, was an easy choice for Warner to make. And so here we are.

    A legend in the jungle

    Mowgli (as it’s always called in the film itself, the subtitle presumably being a Netflix marketing addition) has a story that will be broadly familiar to anyone who’s seen any other version of The Jungle Book, most especially that recent Disney one: the eponymous boy is orphaned when his parents are murdered by man-eating tiger Shere Khan, but he’s rescued by black panther Bagheera, who takes him to be raised by a pack of wolves. Shere Khan wants to kill the man-cub, however, and looks for an opportunity to separate him fro the wolves’ protection. The difference, then, lies in the details: where Disney’s version was PG-rated and family-friendly, director Andy Serkis has given this a darker, PG-13 spin. It’s not an Adult movie by any means, but it’s definitely suited to slightly older children. That said, there’s a revelation at the 80-minute mark which is horrendously misjudged, and is liable to upset children of all ages (i.e. including some adults too).

    That moment aside, the film’s more realistic tone manifests in multiple ways. One is characterisation, most notably of the bear Baloo. As we know him from Disney’s takes, he’s decidedly laid-back and chummy, casually teaching Mowgli some ways of the jungle. Here, he’s more of a drill sergeant for the wolf pack, explicitly training Mowgli (and his wolf brothers) in the skills required to fully join the pack. He has a softer side — he definitely cares for the man-cub — but this never manifests in the Disney-ish way. Elsewhere, there’s a drive at some kind of psychological realism for our hero. With Mowgli driven out for his own safety (again, an example of the animal characters being somewhat harsher than in Disney), he ends up in a human village. There, he comes to realise he doesn’t truly belong in the world of animals… but nor does he truly belong in the world of men. This internal conflict about his place in the world comes to underpin the climax, and arguably makes it superior to the over-elaborate forest-fire spectacle of Disney’s film.

    Not burning bright, but he is in a forest of the night

    The realism extends to the overall visual style, too. Where Disney’s live-action version was all shot on L.A. sound stages, with the young actor playing Mowgli frequently the only real thing on screen, Serkis and co travelled overseas and actually built sets on location to shoot a significant portion of the film. Accompanied by cinematography that often goes for a muted colour palette, it seems clear the aim was to make a film that is perhaps not “darker” in the now-somewhat-clichéd sense, but more grounded and less cartoonish than certain other adaptations.

    Unfortunately, Serkis made one design decision that threatens to scupper the entire endeavour: having motion-captured famous actors for most of the animal roles (including the likes of Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Naomie Harris, and, of course, Serkis himself), someone thought it would be a good idea to try to integrate the actors’ features into the animal faces. The result is… disturbing. There’s so much realism in the overall design, but then they have these faces that are part realistic, part cartoon, part like some kind of grotesque prosthetic. It is so bad that it genuinely undermines the entire movie, for two reasons: one, it’s a distraction, making you constantly try to parse what you’re watching and how you feel about it; and two, a more serious take on the material asks for us to make a more serious connection to the characters, and that’s hard when they look so horrid. The section in the human village — which, by rights, should be “the boring bit” because it doesn’t involve fun animal action — is probably the film’s strongest thanks to its location photography and real actors making it so much more tangibly real. It suggests how much more likeable the entire film would be if they’d gone for real-world-ish animal designs — like, ironically, the Disney film did. (Now, that might’ve got away with cartoonish semi-human animals thanks to its lighter tone. Or it might not, because these are monstrous.)

    Monstrosity!

    It sounds petty to pick one highly specific element and say it ruins the film, but I really felt like it did. It’s a barrier to enjoying the bits that work (Rohan Chand is often superb as Mowgli; the always-brilliant Matthew Rhys is brilliant as always; there’s some welcome complexity and nuance to several characters and situations), and therefore it does nothing to help gloss over any other nits you want to pick (Serkis is miscast; Frieda Pinto is completely wasted; Cumberbatch is a little bit Smaug Mk.II; that revelation I mentioned back in paragraph three is brutal and I can’t believe it was okayed by the studio). Also, on a somewhat personal note, I felt there were times you could tell Serkis had made the film in 3D, but Netflix haven’t bothered to release it in that format (outside of some very limited theatrical screenings) — as someone who owns a 3D TV because, you know, I enjoy it, that miffed me.

    On the whole, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustratingly imperfect experience. I believe it’s fundamentally a unique-enough variation on the material that it could’ve escaped the shadow of Disney’s film, but a few misguided creative decisions have dragged it down almost irreparably.

    3 out of 5

    Mowgli is available on Netflix worldwide now.

    Sorry to Bother You (2018)

    2018 #250
    Boots Riley | 111 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Sorry to Bother You

    It felt like everyone was on about Sorry to Bother You early this year, after it was released in the US in July. It’s taken ’til now to make it to UK screens — I don’t know if that was a conscious delay, or if the outpouring of recommendations from critics and audiences on social media had something to do with creating demand for distribution. Anyway, it’s fortunate that, as a small movie, most of the discussion (that I saw) was about urging people to see it and not giving away the twist (naturally, this review is equally spoiler-free), because it is indeed a helluva turn to come across unaware. As for the rest of the movie, well, I was less convinced.

    Set in a like-our-world-but-not-quite present day Oakland, the film centres around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck chap who lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He manages to land a lowly job as a telemarketer, but struggles to sell anything. As his equally unsuccessful colleagues attempt to unionise, Cash discovers the key to the job and is soon on his way up the company, where there are dark secrets to be discovered…

    That’s the simple version, anyway. First-time writer-director Boots Riley clearly has a lot on his mind, and it seems he wanted to say it all in this one film. The unifying theme seems to be “mega-corporations treat their workers like slaves and will go to extraordinary lengths to exploit them”, which is a worthwhile point but hardly a revelatory one. In the film, the concept is primarily satirised by the company Worryfree, which offers customers a home, employment, and food for life, in exchange for living in their facilities, working their jobs, eating their food, and not getting paid because they’re providing all you need. As a business concept you can kinda see the appeal, actually, but obviously it’s a form of slavery really. Capitalism is bad, y’all.

    Too young for this shit

    Naturally, with a black writer-director and black main cast, there are connections to be drawn out to history and the present black experience, and here the film finds somewhat more subtle and fertile ground. For example, the key to success in business turns out to be for Cash to use his “white voice” when selling — sounding literally like a white man, to the extent that Riley has these scenes dubbed by a white actor (in Cash’s case, David Cross; other character’s white voices include Patton Oswalt and Lily James). As I say, it’s only “somewhat” subtle, but it’s effective. The film’s best scene, for my money, sees Cash attend a party thrown by Worryfree’s founder (Armie Hammer, perfectly cast), who urges Cash to rap — because all black guys can rap, right? Cash can’t. He tries. It’s painful. Then he hits upon an idea… I shall say no more (partly because I’d just have to censor it), but it’s both hilarious and true.

    As for the aforementioned big twist, it’s absolutely barmy and out of left-field. Its utter craziness I have no problem with, but for me the film seems to fall apart after that point, as if including such a batshit insane idea was felt to be enough. Riley doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with it, except, frankly, some pretty obvious places. Arguably, the twist is too out there — it’s shocking and funny at first, but it completely disconnects the film from reality (and the connection was a little loose in the first place, thanks to the way all other parts are satirically presented). It makes the bad guys into cartoon villains with a crazy plan, rather than the scheming corporate overlords we recognise from real life. There’s plenty of other stuff in the film that doesn’t have 100% fidelity to reality, but they work in the name of satire. The twist isn’t really satire, it’s barminess for the sake of barminess; and in that sense I’m down with it, but it also means it somewhat undermines the film’s satirical goals, and that’s a shame.

    Does he look worry-free to you?

    While the finale might be the most obvious example, this lack of focus permeates the film, with scenes that are a total aside or subplots that go literally nowhere. The most egregious example is perhaps a mystery VIP room in the shitty bar the characters drink in. It’s featured in one early scene, doesn’t introduce any characters or plots, and isn’t related to any of the film’s themes — it just is; a sketch-like vignette of silliness. Most viewers probably forget about it, even, because it occurs so early on and has literally nothing to do with anything else that happens, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, and why it should probably have been cut.

    Riley clearly has a surfeit of ideas, which sometimes works to the film’s merit — there are effective, memorable visuals and concepts, a few solid characters (Stanfield is great as just an ordinary guy getting swept along by shit; the kind of person most of us would be, I feel), and a bunch of funny lines and exchanges. But there are so many different things all being rammed onto the screen at once that it becomes a tumult of stuff that the first-timer in charge can’t quite control (as a counterpoint to Stanfield, the regularly-brilliant Thompson struggles gamely to bring some depth to her thinly-sketched girlfriend/performance artist character, and can only partially succeed).

    Sorry to Bother You seems to lack the behind-the-scenes acumen to make everything come together as a single, focused movie. It’s certainly an interesting film (well, apart from when I began to get a bit bored, frankly, as it dragged itself through that surprisingly predictable finale), and I can see why it got Film Twitter talking back on its US release, but I don’t think it coalesces into a fully satisfying whole.

    3 out of 5

    Sorry to Bother You makes its belated debut in UK cinemas tomorrow.