Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

2020 #153
David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

And a man in a hamster wheel

Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

Lion of Love

The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.

The 100-Week Roundup VI

Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • Gemini Man (2019)

    2020 #141
    Ang Lee | 117 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Gemini Man

    Gemini Man is a film that, at every point I can remember it being talked about, was discussed more for its various technical feats than anything else. Partly that’s because there are a couple of angles. Firstly, the most obvious: it stars Will Smith as an ageing assassin who must fight… a 25-years-younger Will Smith, achieved with motion capture and CGI. Secondly, director Ang Lee shot it in 3D 4K HFR — that’s High Frame Rate, if you don’t know, with the picture running at 120 frames per second rather than the 24fps we’ve been used to for the past 90-odd years (excepting The Hobbit trilogy, though only if you saw one of the relatively-limited HFR theatrical screenings). Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Gemini Man often feels more like a tech demo with a plot grafted onto it than it does a fully functioning movie in its own right.

    Consequently, I’m going to spend more of this review writing about the film’s presentation than its content. To some degree, that speaks for itself as criticism. But if you are interested in the film and don’t give a toss about how exactly you’re seeing it (or don’t have a choice), feel free to whizz down to the last two paragraphs (just after the picture of Young Will Smith) where I finally offer some thoughts on the film itself.

    Back to the tech, then. There’s currently only one way to see Gemini Man in its intended format: at the cinema. I say “currently” — obviously such opportunities expired when its theatrical run ended, and I don’t imagine it’s likely to get a re-release. Every other option is a compromise. Want to see it in 3D? Not only will you need the appropriate home cinema setup, but you’ll have to import the disc from Germany, the only country where it was granted a 3D Blu-ray release. Want to see it in HFR? That’s easier, because the 4K disc is widely available, though obviously you still need the appropriate kit. (I presume the digital 4K versions are HFR too, but I don’t actually know that.) Mind you, even that’s something of a compromise, because tech limitations mean the home release is 60fps rather than the full 120 (to be fair, so were most HFR cinema screenings).

    Action Man

    I watched it in 4K 60fps, and, oh, it’s weird. So so weird. Distracts-you-for-the-entire-film weird. Virtually-the-only-thing-I’m-going-to-talk-about-in-this-review weird. The disc even begins with a notice/warning that it’s at 60fps rather than 24fps, so presumably they know how weird it feels. The most obvious effect of more frames per second is that motion is smoother, with reduced motion blur, but that applies on a micro level to lend an unnatural clarity to everything. The effect on motion is often called “the soap opera effect”, because such cheap drama has traditionally been shot at TV’s higher default frame rate. Of course, so is much other television, or even behind-the-scenes footage on films; so while it’s not a wholly inaccurate nickname, the effect reminded me more of TV documentaries. The film begins with a train journey in a lusciously green-looking Belgium, before travelling around the globe to other sunny locations with glamorous establishing shots. It looks less like a Hollywood action movie, more like Will Smith is the new host of Cruising with Jane McDonald.

    When it’s not playing travelogue, it looks like a tech demo. I don’t think that’s just the added smoothness, but everything about how it’s shot: it’s very bright and saturated, the kind of look you get in marketing promos, not feature films. Even paused it looks a little odd. Partly that’s the boost given to the colour palette by HDR, but at this point I’ve watched plenty of other films with HDR to be familiar with its effects, and I think this was beyond normal. The other thing the visual quality reminded me of was low-budget films by very new/amateur filmmakers, and that’s definitely to do with Ang Lee’s shot choices — lots of stuff at eye level, gentle pans and tilts, in locations so dull they might have been found around someone’s hometown. It doesn’t help any that all the fonts they’ve used for captions look like the editing software’s bland default. And further, it’s also the effect of shooting on high-resolution digital video — it’s ultra-clear, with none of the grain of real film, but, again, that’s a look more familiar from low-budget productions. Would HFR work better if it was shot on real film? You’d get back some of that tactile grit, rather than telltale digital smoothness.

    Biker Man

    What about when the film gets to its big action sequences — the kind of thing that obviously a no-budget newbie couldn’t afford. Would the change of milieu fix the mental associations? Yes and no, in that it just adds other ones: the first big sequence, the bike chase you probably saw in trailers or clips, looks like a computer game. Again, it’s a mix of elements: the digital sheen, the smooth frame rate, the shot choices (lots of POV or close following, like a game’s third-person camera), and an unnatural-seeming speed — it looks like some of the CGI has been animated too fast, though that could be HFR’s fluidity making normal motion look odd because we’re not used to it.

    The advantage of wondering all this while watching the film at home was that, afterwards, I could pop in the regular Blu-ray and compare a few scenes in 24fps 1080p SDR. Immediately, it looks a lot more like a regular movie. Is that indeed the loss of HFR’s smoothness, or is it the drop in resolution, or the loss of HDR enhancement? Without being able to view different permutations it’s hard to say which one causes the jarring effect, or if it‘s the incremental change made by each that adds up to a radically different picture when combined. That said, obviously I’ve watched 4K HDR films before, and it’s never struck me as odd-looking as much as this film (I’ve seen some strange applications of HDR, but that tends to be in individual shots/scenes, not an entire movie). The bike chase also looks more normal on the whole, though some of the bits I alluded to before still looked dodgy, so I can only conclude it’s a mix of the animation (because I’m sure it’s not a real stunt) and the HFR.

    If all that wasn’t distracting enough, there’s the fact that one of the film’s main stars is a de-aged Will Smith. We’ve seen plenty of de-ageing in films now, whether it be Marvel’s flashbacks or Scorsese’s varied eras in The Irishman. This feels more extensive, though — they’ve not just airbrushed Smith’s age-related blemishes, but recreated his youthful visage with full motion-captured CGI. The end result is both incredibly realistic animation and also not quite there. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s not real — I wonder if someone unfamiliar with the film’s setup wouldn’t register it. It looks more convincing than I remember Peter Cushing being in Rogue One, and I remember stories of kids who didn’t realise he was CGI. I guess the best praise is that, as the film went on, I realised I’d just accepted Young Will as his own character, not a second Old Will in disguise. There are scenes where he’s called on to do Proper Acting and it works. Unfortunately, it’s almost ruined by one scene at the end where the effect suddenly looks like a ten-year-old computer game. Was this a last-minute re-edit, I wonder, leaving them without enough time to do the CGI properly? It’s a shame to have dropped the ball at the last hurdle.

    Young Man

    And if you can get past all the technical distractions (which I guess most people will, as “the tech” is not why most people watch films, and on any format less than 4K the visual oddness evaporates anyway), what about the film itself? Well, it’s a passable action-thriller with a sci-fi tweak. For the level of the latter, think something like Face/Off rather than, say, Blade Runner. I’ve seen quite a few people compare it to a ’90s action movie and that’s pretty fair — subtract the fancy cameras and CGI and that’s what’s left. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re so young that ’90s action movies are Old and consequently Bad. There are a couple of very impressive and exciting action sequences — the bike chase, primarily (which I bet looks fab in 3D). That said, the Blu-ray’s visual effects featurette reveals they faked a bunch of stunts that Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie would’ve done for real as a third-tier action sequence, which takes the shine off a little. (On the other hand, it also reveals that there’s some fucking incredible CGI in this movie — stuff you’d never imagine was an effect but is, including a full-on close-up of Old Will.)

    So, the reason the tech presentation remains the film’s strongest talking point is that the film underneath is decent but nothing particularly special. That said, I do think it’s been given a hard rap by critics and viewers alike — whether or not you’re interested in the experimental visuals, it’s a fine sci-fi-tinged action blockbuster, with all the attendant qualities and demerits that implies.

    3 out of 5

    Gemini Man is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The Head Hunter (2018)

    2020 #101
    Jordan Downey | 72 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

    The Head Hunter

    Originally released in 2018 but not making its UK debut (as a direct-to-DVD release) until earlier this year, The Head Hunter is a low-budget independent fantasy/horror movie. Such a description might conjure up images of fancy-dress-like costumes, plastic props, locations that venture no further than a mate’s back garden and a nearby bit of forest, cinematography with all the hallmarks of digital video, and some embarrassingly basic and boxy CGI. None of this is true of The Head Hunter, which marries some impressive production design to an understanding of its limits — its low budget shows only in its small scale, rather than uncomfortably forcing its reach to exceed its grasp.

    The setting: a medieval fantasy world. It could pass for our medieval times (in Germany it was retitled Viking Vengeance), were it not for the presence of nasty monsters. The title refers to the film’s unnamed protagonist (Christopher Rygh), who lives alone in the a remote shack in the woods, where he prepares weapons and potions. Occasionally he hears a distant horn, which beckons him to ride out in full armour. When he returns, he carries a new monster’s head for his wall of trophies, and some serious injuries too. Fortunately, his potions seem to have magic-level healing properties. He once had a daughter, who now lies buried beneath a nearby tree. One day, the opportunity arises for him to hunt the monster who slew her. “This time it’s personal,” and all that. Only things don’t quite go to plan…

    I have, perhaps, described altogether too much of the plot there, because there’s not much more to the film than that, narratively speaking. Not only does the film run under an hour-and-a-quarter, including credits, but it’s more about moody atmospheric shots than plot; more about the preparation for battle than the fight itself. The Head Hunter may ride out to meet various monsters during the course of the film, but we don’t get to go ride along to see him at work.

    That's a nice head. I'll have that.

    This is where the small budget shows. It was made for just $30,000, which would buy you under two seconds of a Hobbit film (literally — I did the maths), with a cast and crew of no more than five on set at any one time. All the more impressive that it looks as good as it does, then, from the Head Hunter’s detailed and threatening suit of armour to the remote locations that pass through a couple of seasons. It’s a film that relies on atmosphere more than thrills, and it has that in spades, with cold, misty daytime scenes and fire-lit nighttime sequences, where who-knows-what lurks in the shadows.

    As impressive as it is, all things considered, it nonetheless feels a bit drawn out at feature length (even at under 70 minutes before credits). It would probably have made an incredible 30-minute short, though then it would likely have had an even harder time finding an audience than it already has. But that’s not to say it’s not worth your time. If an action-lite atmosphere-heavy fantasy/horror movie sounds appealing, this may just scratch an itch. And it should serve as a great showreel calling card for co-writer/director Jordan Downey, who hopefully will convert it into bigger — or, at least, more story-filled — things.

    3 out of 5

    The Head Hunter is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

    The 100-Week Roundup III

    In this selection of films I watched back at the end of May / start of June 2018…

  • The Wild Bunch (1969)
  • The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage (1996)
  • The Warriors (1979)
  • Power Rangers (2017)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


    The Wild Bunch
    (1969)

    2018 #115
    Sam Peckinpah | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Wild Bunch

    After a gang of ageing crooks’ “one last job” goes sideways, they agree to rob a munitions train for a Mexican general, even as they’re hunted by a militia reluctantly headed by their leader’s former partner.

    The Wild Bunch is, of course, a Western, but it’s set in 1913 — not a time we particularly associate with “the Old West”. Well, change doesn’t happen overnight. And it certainly takes that “end of an era” thing to heart as a tale of old men, whose way of life is fading away. It’s also a ‘late Western’ in terms of when it was produced: this isn’t an old-fashioned “white hats vs black hats” kinda adventure, but one full of ultra-violence with a downbeat ending. The opening sequence gets pretty bloody, and then the climax is an absolute orgy of violence. It’s still almost shocking today, so you can see how it was controversial back in 1969.

    It’s not just the presence of violence and blood that’s remarkable, though, but how it’s presented, both in terms of filmmaking and morals. To the former, the speed of the cutting was groundbreaking at the time: reportedly it contains more cuts than any other Technicolor film, with 3,643 cuts in the original print. If that’s true, it gives it an average shot length of about 2.4 seconds. For comparison, the average in the ’60s was around 6 or 7 seconds, while even Moulin Rouge, a movie made decades later that was still notorious for its fast cutting, has an average shot length of 2.01 seconds. It’s not just speed that makes the editing so noteworthy, but its effectiveness, making juxtapositions and using shots to both tell the story and create the impression of being in the thick of it.

    Bad boys

    As for the morals, the film was all about showing these violent men as unheroic and unglamorous, setting out to “demystify the Western and the genre’s heroic and cavalier characters” (to quote IMDb). That piece goes on to say that screenwriters Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green “felt that this project required a realistic look at the characters of the Old West, whose actions on screen had rarely matched the violent and dastardly reality of the men on which they were based… Both Green and Peckinpah felt it was important to not only show that the film’s protagonists were violent men, but that they achieved their violence in unheroic and horrific ways, such as using people as human shields and killing unarmed bystanders during robberies.”

    Of course, antiheroes are ten-a-penny nowadays, so the idea that “men who commit violence are bad” doesn’t play as revolutionary anymore. Indeed, The Wild Bunch can be enjoyed as an action movie — there’s the opening and closing set pieces I’ve already mentioned, plus an excellent train robbery and ensuing chase in the middle too, and a couple of other bits. That said, the film has more on its mind than just adrenaline-generating thrills, and so (based on comments I’ve read elsewhere online) if you are watching just for action it can feel like a bit of a slog. While I wouldn’t be that critical, I did find it a bit slow at times. The original distributors must’ve felt the same, as the film was cut by ten minutes for its US release. (The version widely available today is the original 145-minute director’s cut. I watched a PAL copy, hence the 4% shorter running time.)

    4 out of 5

    The Wild Bunch was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    The Wild Bunch:
    An Album in Montage

    (1996)

    2018 #115a
    Paul Seydor | 33 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 15

    Behind the scenes of The Wild Bunch

    This film came to exist because someone found 72 minutes of silent black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage shot during the filming of The Wild Bunch. No one knows why it was filmed — this was a long time before the era of EPKs and DVD special features. And, indeed, if it had been discovered just a couple of years later then a DVD special feature is exactly what it would’ve become; but, being just ahead of that, it ended up as a short film — an Oscar-nominated one at that, going up for the Best Documentary Short prize in 1997. Naturally, it has since found its rightful home as a special feature on DVD and Blu-ray releases of its subject matter.

    The silent film footage is accompanied by voice over of first-hand accounts from the people involved, either taken from recorded interviews (people like screenwriter Walon Green and actors Edmond O’Brien and Ernest Borgnine represent themselves) or actors reading out comments (Ed Harris is the voice of Sam Peckinpah, for example). From this we get not only making-of trivia and tales, but also discussion of the filmmakers’ intent and the film’s meaning. More material along the lines of the latter would’ve interested me.

    As it is, An Album in Montage feels very much at home in its current situation as a DVD extra. Fans of the film will certainly get something out of it, but I don’t think it’s insightful enough to stand independently. It’s by no means a bad little featurette, but it’s not worth seeking out outside of the context of the film itself.

    3 out of 5

    The Warriors
    (1979)

    2018 #123
    Walter Hill | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Warriors

    In the near future, a charismatic leader summons the street gangs of New York City in a bid to take it over. When he is killed, The Warriors are falsely blamed and now must fight their way home while every other gang is hunting them down.IMDb

    And that’s all you need to know, because The Warriors’ plot is really simple and straightforward, but that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t need dressing up; it’s got an almost an elegant directness, and it thrives off that. The action sequences feel unchoreographed, with a bruising realism in spite of their sometimes elaborate setups (duelling baseball bats!), and yet they carry an energy and impact that is wholly in keeping with something carefully designed and constructed. The characters are simply drawn, revealed through their actions rather than telegraphed Character Moments or heartfelt speeches. Similarly, the kind-of-romance between the Warriors’ leader and the girl they run into on the streets is so well handled — okay, there are some scenes where they almost talk about it directly, but mostly it’s just moments or lines that indicate a world of feeling. The way this character stuff is sketched in — subtly, sometimes in the background — is quite masterful, actually.

    Such skill extends throughout the film’s technical side. For all the film’s ’70s grit, there’s some beautiful stuff in the editing and shot choices, especially at the end on the beach. It’s not just beauty in an attractive sense, but meaningful, effective imagery, in a way that impresses without being slick or pretty. The music choices are bang-on too. The film intercuts to a radio station that functions like some kind of Greek chorus, linking the action and helping to create a heightened atmosphere — one that’s there in the whole film, incidentally, with its colourful gangs and detached police presence — without ever shattering the down-to-earth, gritty, almost-real feel the whole thing has.

    Gang wars

    I loved The Warriors, and I think that last point is a big part of why: it sits at an almost inexplicable point where it feels incredibly grounded, gritty and realistic, but at the same time a heightened fantasy kind of world. Here I’m trying to describe why I adored the film bu breaking it down into these constituent parts, but there’s something more to it than that — a kind of magic where it just… works.

    All of that said, it seems I was lucky to catch the original version (via Now TV / Sky Cinema), rather than the so-called Director’s Cut that seems to be the only version available on Blu-ray. Looking at the changes, they don’t seem particularly in keeping with the tone of the movie, smacking of decades-later revisionism. Apparently there’s also a TV version that includes 12 minutes of additional scenes, none of which are included on the film’s disc releases. I wish Paramount would license this out to someone like Arrow to do it properly…

    5 out of 5

    The Warriors placed 11th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Power Rangers
    (2017)

    2018 #126
    Dean Israelite | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Canada & New Zealand / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Power Rangers

    High school outcasts stumble upon an old alien ship, where they acquire superpowers and are dubbed the Power Rangers. Learning that an old enemy of the previous generation has returned to exact vengeance, the group must harness their powers and use them to work together and save the world.IMDb

    Far from the cheesy TV series of old, this Power Rangers reboot clearly wants to be a somewhat gritty, largely realistic, socially conscious take on the concept. But it’s like it was written by people behind the original, because it’s still full of clunky dialogue, earnest characters (with a thin veneer of outsider ‘cool’), and nods to serious issues without having the time or interest to actually engage with them. Like, one of the kids is the sole carer for his sick mother, or another is on the autistic spectrum, but, beyond spending a line or two to tell us these things, those issues have no bearing on the plot or the characterisation. Plus, it can’t overcome some of the fundamental cheesiness of the original. And when it tries to give in to it, like by playing the Power Rangers theme the first time the giant “dinocars” run into action, it’s too late for such shenanigans and the tones clash horrendously. It wants to escape the tackiness of the original series, but simple can’t.

    And somehow it gets worse as it goes on. The early character stuff is derivative but alright. Then you begin to realise how shallow it is. You’re waiting for the super-suits to show up and the action to start. Then you have to wait some more while it works through plot beats so stale it can’t even be bothered to play them out fully. Then, when the suits finally arrive and the action starts, turns out it’s the worst part of the movie. Almost entirely CGI, under-choreographed, a mess of nothingness with little correlation from shot to shot, no sense of rhythm or construction. When their dinocars all merge into one giant dinocar, the villain screams “how?!”, and you will feel the same.

    Bryan Cranston (yes, Bryan Cranston is in this) tries to inject some character into his role, but it’s too underwritten and his screen time too slight to let him do much with his supposed arc. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is barely in it and has no arc whatsoever, but she chews scenery like a pro. She seems to be aware it’s all stupid and over the top and plays it appropriately.

    2 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    (2017)

    2018 #127
    Martin McDonagh | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    a darkly comic drama from Academy Award nominee Martin McDonagh. After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter’s murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town’s revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an immature mother’s boy with a penchant for violence, gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing’s law enforcement is only exacerbated.IMDb

    As well as being as deathly serious and sometimes horrifying as the subject matter deserves, Three Billboards is also as funny as you’d expect from the writer-director of In Bruges. Not to the extent — the subject matter is far too serious for it to be an outright comedy like that — but in subplots and interludes it’s hilarious.

    It’s got a helluva cast, and all of the performances are excellent. Frances McDormand is so fucking good that she even manages to make talking to a badly CGI’d deer incredibly emotional. Apparently some people had a massive problem with the film’s treatment of Sam Rockwell’s character, I think because he was a bad guy who got redeemed. But, really, imagine thinking people who once did bad things can never turn themselves around and be better people. What a pessimistic way to view the world. And yet I guess that’s what today’s “cancel culture” is all about.

    Two outta three ain't bad

    It’s nicely shot by DP Ben Davis (except for that deer), while Carter Burwell’s Western-esque score has some really cool bits. It really emphasises the film’s formal overtures at being a revenge Western, even if the way it goes down in the end doesn’t necessarily support such a reading.

    There was a huge backlash to the film at some point; bring it up online and you’re likely to come across people who assume everyone hates it… but it’s got 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and is still ranked the 150th best film of all time on IMDb, so I think we know where the majority stand. I’m happy to stand with them.

    5 out of 5

    Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri placed 14th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

  • Review Roundup: Superman Sequels

    Superman: The Movie is one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, perhaps even the greatest. Its sequels… not so much.

    It took three movies to get there, but through them you’ll believe a franchise can die…

    Superman II
    (1980)

    2018 #128
    Richard Lester | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Superman II

    I feel like I must’ve seen Superman II as a kid — I know I saw Superman and enjoyed it, so why wouldn’t I have seen the sequel? But all the things people go on about from it (“kneel before Zod!”) I only know because other people go on about them, not from any memory of my own, so maybe I never saw it? Well, sitting down to watch it now, I didn’t remember any part of it. But that doesn’t mean I definitely didn’t see it because, frankly, I didn’t find Superman II particularly worthy of being remembered. I know some people love it — heck, James Gunn even included it in a list of “sequels that are better than the original” the other day. But James Gunn is wrong.

    For me, the film breaks down into a few simple and distinct sections. First, it begins with an eight-and-a-half-minute recap of the first movie. That’s… long. And largely unnecessary. I mean, when it bothers to include the telephone booth gag but omits the turning-the-world-backwards climax of the movie, you get the impression it’s not there to get you properly up to speed on the plot.

    Next, Lois and Clark spend most of the first hour titting about at Niagara Falls investigating a honeymoon hotel scam (a what now?!), while evil Kryptonian General Zod and his gang veeery slooowly make their way to somewhere significant. Then there’s half-an-hour of Lois and Clark being too self-absorbed to notice Zod take over the world. Not-so-super, Superman. Then, finally, the all-action last half-hour actually gives us some Superman stuff. Hurrah!

    Who's kneeling now, bitch?

    The humour quotient is waaay upped from the first movie. Based on his previous work, I guess much of that was the influence of replacement director Richard Lester. He wasn’t a good choice all round: Margot Kidder disliked working with him; Gene Hackman didn’t return (all his scenes are either footage previously shot or done with a lookalike and impersonator); John Williams walked off the film after seeing Lester’s footage. He reshot a bunch of stuff original director Richard Donner had already filmed, partly to get a sole director credit, partly because he didn’t approve of the epic visual style Donner had chosen. Instead, Lester aimed for a visually flat “comic book” style. Ugh.

    25 years after Superman II’s release, Warner Bros relented and let Donner complete his original cut of the movie, released in 2006 as The Richard Donner Cut. Maybe that version’s better — I haven’t watched it yet, but it does have a much higher score on IMDb. But how anyone could genuinely love the originally-released version, I don’t understand. It’s not outright bad, it’s just mediocre, and not a patch on its predecessor.

    3 out of 5

    Superman III
    (1983)

    2018 #161
    Richard Lester | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman III

    If you said “imagine a Superman film by a director who won the Palme d’Or”, you wouldn’t picture Superman: The Slapstick Comedy… and yet here we are.

    The director in question is Richard Lester, returning after Superman II, a movie he inherited, so I guess it’s only here that he’s really allowed to show what he thinks a comic book movie ought to be. Turns out, that’s more like Airplane or a Jacques Tati film than the David Lean influence he felt Richard Donner was aiming for on Superman: The Movie. He even lets the title card even appears over the epic superhero imagery of… three phone boxes having been knocked over dominoes-style by a hot dog cart. Wow.

    Ironically, almost all of the film is humour-focused apart from the scenes starring comedian Richard Pryor (who thought the screenplay was terrible, but did like the $5 million salary). Concurrently, the technological and scientific parts of the plot make absolutely no sense. Like, a weather monitoring satellite can be accessed from a small-town wheat firm and then be reprogrammed to control the weather. And that same satellite can then use its lasers to analyse rocks millions of miles away to find out what elements make up another element, which just… Ugh. It so doesn’t make sense that it’s too much effort to explain why it doesn’t make sense.

    With Gene Hackman presumably only too happy to be rid of this franchise, the villain is now Robert Vaughn, who has an entourage that feels like a blatant attempt to emulate Lex Luther & co from the previous films. There’s also an all-powerful supercomputer, which Superman defeats with what appears to be a bubbling-over pot of strawberry jam.

    That's Larry Lamb on the left, would you believe

    The story also involves Superman going bad — you can tell because he’s grown a five o’clock shadow, developed bags under his eyes, and started wearing a suit with a colour scheme more suited to a Zack Snyder interpretation of the character. And he begins to do really terrible things, like… straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, and… blowing out the Olympic flame. Ooh, edgy. Why does he do it? God, I don’t know. There’s no logic in this. There’s a fight between good Superman and bad Superman, which some think is brilliant; “a highlight of the series”, said one comment I read. Maybe it’s just because Evil Superman is so damn cartoonish, but I didn’t particularly care for it.

    It did inspire the original title of the movie, though, which was Superman vs. Superman, and that in turn led to a bit of trivia more batshit insane than anything in the film itself: that original title was dropped after legal action was threatened by… the producers of Kramer vs. Kramer. What in the fucking what now?! I know America is famed for spurious lawsuits, but c’mon!

    Of course, if you take the whole film at the face value of its tone, it doesn’t really matter — it’s just a daft comedy. But it shouldn’t be, should it? This isn’t the Superman the first film promised us.

    2 out of 5

    Superman IV:
    The Quest for Peace

    (1987)

    2020 #79
    Sidney J. Furie | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

    At one point in this movie, a young character calls Superman “the Dude of Steel”. Yeah, we’re down with the kids now! Superman (okay, Clark Kent) even does aerobics. Hip and happening!

    After Superman III tried its damnedest to turn Superman into a comedy, Superman IV swings the other way and turns it into a polemic. It’s like an 8-year-old was asked to write an anti-nuclear weapons essay and chose to do it in the form of a Superman story. It seems like a mercy that it only runs 90 minutes, although that’s part of the problem: the original final cut was 134 minutes, but the producers chopped out 45 minutes of material. No wonder it grows increasingly nonsensical as it goes on. But then so did Superman III and they had no such excuse, so there’s no saying the longer cut would’ve been better.

    Indeed, on the evidence of what’s left, I think we can assume it wouldn’t have been. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is back (goodness knows how they talked him into it), but his plan involves creating a physical adversary for Superman: Nuclear Man! Nuclear Man has many of Supes’ powers and strengths, but none of his brains, as he stomps around just roaring at people. He flies around the world basically just being a vandal, and Superman follows along to clean up after him, like some kind of super-powered babysitter. Then he punches Supes once and… he loses all his powers? And then Nuclear Man sees a woman on a cover of a newspaper and suddenly getting her is his only motivation; and Superman’s back, thanks to a magic crystal, and he somehow knows exactly what/who Nuclear Man is after; and so Superman defeats him by… tricking him into an elevator… which he drops off on the Moon; but not the dark side, so the sun’s rays revitalise Nuclear Man… when the sun rises. On the Moon. Jesus wept.

    The Moon isn't made of cheese, but this film...

    There are some good ideas in Superman IV. As co-writer Mark Rosenthal discusses on his audio commentary, the idea had been to explore the age-old question of “if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there still suffering” — because, with all his powers, Superman is basically a mythological God; so why doesn’t he just get rid of all those nasty nukes? The answer, of course, is that he’s not real. And so in the fictional world of the fictional film, the fictional hero gets rid of the nukes, which is nice for the fictional people but not so much use to the rest of us.

    Because Lois Lane is in love with Superman but not so much Clark Kent, they decided to give Clark a love interest, which I’m not sure quite understands the characters or their dynamic properly, but whatever. It did inspire one fun idea, though: a double date between Superman & Lois and Clark & new-lady. The idea was for a quick-paced farce of a scene, with Clark and Supes coming and going at speed, like something out of a Cary Grant screwball romantic comedy. I guess no one told the director, because the scene as filmed lacks the quick pace needed to make it work. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the skills to execute them properly, it’s worthless.

    Apparently it was really Christopher Reeve who fought to make the movie happen, and everyone involved had good intentions and didn’t want to let him down. Well, they did. The returning cast are the only people who emerge unscathed from this mess — Reeve is as wonderful as ever as Superman; just perfect. His chemistry with Margot Kidder is great, and Gene Hackman is still managing to have fun as Lex. But why suffer through the rest of this terrible movie for those scant bright spots when you could just watch the first Superman instead?

    1 out of 5

    19 years later, after a couple of decades relegated to various TV incarnations, they attempted to return the Man of Steel to the silver screen in big-budget style with Superman Returns, which was conceived as a continuation of the Christopher Reeve series. My original review of that movie is here.

    The Avengers (1998)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    The Avengers

    Saving the World in Style.

    Also Known As:
    Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (France — Bowler Hat and Leather Boots)
    Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone (Germany — With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat)

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 89 minutes
    BBFC: 12
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 13th August 1998 (Israel)
    UK Release: 14th August 1998
    Budget: $60 million
    Worldwide Gross: $48.6 million

    Stars
    Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, Harry Potter)
    Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, Kill Bill: Vol. 1)
    Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

    Director
    Jeremiah Chechik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon)

    Screenwriter
    Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners, The Gunman)

    Based on
    The Avengers, a ’60s British TV series created by Sydney Newman.


    The Story
    After the UK’s weather control project is destroyed, apparently by one of its own scientists, Ministry agent John Steed is assigned to investigate. Teaming up with that scientist, Mrs Emma Peel, they uncover a plot to hold the world’s governments to ransom…

    Our Heroes
    Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged by agents extraordinary: John Steed: traditional, stylish, reserved, lethal. Emma Peel: doctor, atomic scientist, poet, meteorologist, physicist, marksman.

    Our Villain
    A former agent of the Ministry, Sir August de Wynter is now head of BROLLY, the British Royal Organization for Lasting Liquid Years, who have developed the technology to control the weather and now seek to put it to nefarious ends.

    Best Supporting Character
    Machine-gun firing granny Alice. Eileen Atkins was offered the role of the Ministry’s deputy leader, Father, but thought the part of Alice sounded more fun, so they re-wrote to enlarge it for her.

    Memorable Quote
    “Now is the winter of your discontent!” — Sir August de Wynter

    Memorable Scene
    Instructed to meet Steed at his gentleman’s club, Mrs Peel waltzes into the place, despite the objections of the receptionist. She marches through the building, shocking the patrons, until she finds Steed in the steam room — naked but for the newspaper he’s reading. “Please, don’t get up.” “I was about to throw in the towel.”

    Memorable Music
    Michael Kamen was originally hired to score the film, but eventually quit after being constantly given revised cuts of the movie to work with. His replacement, Joel McNeely, had to turn something round in short notice, and I’ve seen his score described as clearly rushed, dull and uninspired. But at least the TV series’ classic theme is in there, and fairly well used — once right at the start (although there’s an ever-so-’90s X-Files-y number over the main credits), and then again perfectly as a farewell over the final scene. Rumour has it Kamen’s score was darker and more atmospheric, with a greater and more interesting use of the original theme. Given the general disregard for the movie, I don’t imagine it’ll ever be unearthed for us to find out for ourselves.

    Letting the Side Down
    The teddy-bear meeting, where the participants are kept anonymous by wearing giant teddy-bear costumes. It’s an attempt at emulating the whimsy of the TV series, but an empty one — as the series’ regular writer Brian Clemens once commented, if the plot’s about controlling the weather then the meeting should’ve been weather-themed somehow.

    Some people would say there’s a lot more wrong with the film than just that one scene, but there’s more to it than that…

    Making of
    When Warner Bros execs saw the first cut of the movie, it was not what they were expecting. I don’t know what they were expecting, but I guess not something so tongue-in-cheek, whimsical, and camp. Apparently the first test screening in Phoenix, Arizona, was to a “largely Spanish-speaking, working class” audience — hardly the film’s target market, and unsurprisingly they hated it. The studio forced cuts and reshoots, taking the movie from 115 minutes to a sprightly 89, sacrificing plot coherence for the sake of speed. And so a true disaster was born.

    Previously on…
    This is a reboot rather than continuation of the original TV series — it shows how Steed and Mrs Peel met for the first time. I don’t know if the TV series actually covered that (I really should watch it all one of these days), but I don’t imagine it went like this.

    Next time…
    The Avengers ultimately became a massively successful multi-film franchise under the auspices of Marvel Studios. Oh, no, wait, that’s some other thing. No, after suffering atrocious reviews (it’s sometimes cited as one of the worst movies of all time), the ’98 Avengers slinked off into relative obscurity (it’s probably better remembered here than in the US thanks to the TV series connection, but Marvel’s super-friends are gradually replacing it in the consciousness, sadly). Still, the world of the TV series lives on in occasional comic books and audio dramas.

    Awards
    1 Razzie (Worst Remake or Sequel (tied with Godzilla and Psycho))
    8 Razzie nominations (Worst Picture, Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Actress (Uma Thurman), Screen Couple (Fiennes & Thurman), Supporting Actor (Sean Connery), Director, Screenplay, Original Song (Storm by Grace Jones))

    Verdict

    I was one of the half-dozen people who actually saw The Avengers at the cinema in 1998. I don’t remember disliking it, but then I was all of 12 so what would I have known? Its poor reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so I wasn’t expecting to think much of it as a more critically sophisticated adult. But, much to my surprise, I kind of loved it.

    I guess in ’98 people were expecting some kind of serious-minded thriller, probably in the Bond mould — this was just after GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies had relaunched that series to much acclaim and box office success, of course, and The Avengers was another hallmark of ’60s British spy-fi. But The Avengers and Bond were never the same tonally, and the film embraces the mannered, quirky tone of the TV series, then turns it up to eleven. Personally I think it’s a tonne of fun, with arch performances, ripe dialogue, and a deliciously camp air.

    If it wasn’t for WB’s post-production fiddling, which has left the plot feeling a bit janky and spasmodic, I reckon this would be a cult classic by now. They really ought to have a bad reputation for that kind of fiddling at this point — Batman Forever, Suicide Squad, and Justice League come to mind. But never mind the Snyder cut, I want them to #ReleaseTheChechikCut. Sadly, it’ll never happen.

    The 100-Week Roundup II

    I had a nice little introduction written for this post when T2 3D was going to be part of it, but then that got too long and I posted it separately. So, anyway, here are three other films I watched almost two years ago but haven’t reviewed yet…

    Laura
    (1944)

    2018 #93
    Otto Preminger | 85 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Laura

    This classic film noir stars Dana Andrews as a New York detective investigating the murder of an advertising exec and society girl played by Gene Tierney, the eponymous Laura. And there’s a good twist halfway through that completely turns the film on its head, so I’ll keep this vague. (We can debate the merits or otherwise of openly discussing plot points from 75-year-old films another time. Heck, go on Twitter — I’m sure someone’ll be ranting about it from one side or the other right now.)

    As a murder investigation, Laura is a decent little mystery — there aren’t a huge number of suspects, but enough to keep you guessing; though I did eventually wonder if it actually hangs together 100% as a case. But that doesn’t matter when everything else about the film plays out so well. For starters, it’s noticeably well directed by Otto Preminger, with some nice shot construction and editing. Then the screenplay (based on a novel by Vera Caspary, and penned by three credited writers and one uncredited, as per the interweb) boasts lots of great dialogue. It’s rarely show-off-ily snappy, but it is effective and sometimes witty. That’s only appropriate considering one of the characters (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker) has a rep as a wordsmith — that wouldn’t fly if he didn’t have plenty of bons mots to offer.

    The rest of the cast are similarly noteworthy. Tierney is very plausible as the kind of gal everyone would fall in love with, and Andrews is equally so as the solid copper. A key supporting role is filled by a young-ish Vincent Price. (Can we call 33 “young”? As someone who was born in 1986, I’m going to go with “yes”.) It’s an accident of history how effective his casting is — not that his performance is bad in and of itself, but his later reputation brings certain expectations about how things might pan out. Is that warranted? Well, you’ll have to watch it to see…

    5 out of 5

    Jigsaw
    (2017)

    2018 #104
    The Spierig Brothers | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Jigsaw

    After seven films between 2004 and 2010, the Saw series seemed well and truly done. But nothing once-popular can stay dead for long in Hollywood, and so 2017 saw this revival (and this year will see another, pandemic permitting). It seemed to go down quite poorly, and I’m curious as to why. It’s a Saw film through and through — if you don’t like the series, there’s no reason you should like this — so, I mean, why would you want or expect a Saw film to not be a Saw film? Maybe it’s just people who don’t actually liking Saw films all that much but chose to watch an eighth one anyway? Well, it’s up to them how they choose to spend their time…

    Anyhow, as a Saw film, I thought it was one of the better ones. Not the very best (that’s still the first), but definitely top end. I liked the final reveal, which is a big part of these films’ appeal — what twist they’re going to pull in the final moments. Sure, I’d guessed part of it well in advance, but it still had some neat aspects. (I do wonder how many people were fooled into thinking Jigsaw was still alive, somehow? He died many, many films ago; he’s not coming back.) In terms of the whole series, it does raise a load of questions — but digging into them is really getting navel-gazing about the series’ continuity. I’m not sure it’s worth worrying about.

    3 out of 5

    Inferno
    (1953)

    2018 #107
    Roy Baker | 84 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG

    Inferno

    3D and film noir aren’t things you readily associate with each other, but there are a couple of them — see here for a few. Some might count Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, too. Inferno here is another borderline case. The plot definitely has a whiff of noir — a husband left for dead by his wife and her lover, which cause her moral quandaries but him not so much — but the telling is more of an Adventure movie, some might even say a Western, with the husband struggling through an arid wilderness. Plus it’s all shot in brightly-lit Technicolor.

    Whether you count it as noir or not, it’s most noteworthy for its 3D. It was one of the last films made in the format during the fleeting ’50s experiment, especially as its studio, Fox, were backing CinemaScope as a TV-beater instead (well, I guess they were right). It doesn’t make blatant use of its 3D — there’s no stuff poking at the camera (until the punch-up finale) — but it often brings a nice sense of depth often, including to the wide-open desert vistas. It was well received, too, with the New York Times saying it was where “3-D comes of age”, and others comparing it favourably to other movies of the era, which treated 3D as no more than a gimmick and squandered its potential. All of that said, a climactic fight does indulge in all the in-your-face aspects we associate with classic 3D movies — but it was a late addition forced on the film by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to see more overt 3D action. In summary up, director Roy Ward Baker commented, “the critics gave it unanimous applause, largely because it has a good story to which the process contributed greatly, as opposed to the usual stereo films which were simply exploitation stunts. However, we did include a few of the cliches, at the behest of DFZ. I guess he was right at that.”

    It is a pretty good tale. Baker wanted to make a film in which “the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says.” Nonetheless, we’re given a voiceover narration from the hero, which gets a bit twee, albeit with an enjoyable dry wit now and then, and an interesting pragmatism about his situation. There’s some neat editing to juxtapose his situation with that of his condemners, too: when he’s starving it cuts to wifey enjoying a lavish meal; as he digs in the desperate hope of water it cuts to her lover casually fixing himself a drink. Said wifey is played by Rhonda Fleming, who apparently was known as “the Queen of Technicolor” because of her complexion and vibrant red hair. Everyone in the film is in love with her — even the cops who’ve just met her comment on it — and, yeah, I buy that. There’s an amusing bit where her lover is desperate to throw caution to the wind and visit her room that night simply because it’s “been four days”, wink wink nudge nudge. Men, eh?

    4 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

    2020 #49
    Jon Watts | 129 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Spider-Man: Far from Home

    For those not keeping track (who can blame you?), Far from Home is the third Spider-Man 2. It follows in the footsteps of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 from 2004, widely regarded as one of the topmost examples of the superhero genre, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from 2014, widely regarded as one of the poorest examples of the superhero genre. (As you can see, they’ve ditched the numbers. Probably wise at this point.) Personally, while I agree with the accepted view of Raimi’s film, I actually rather enjoyed Webb’s sequel. That’s important to know when I say that I think Far from Home is my least favourite Spider-Man 2 so far.

    This one is the sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming… except Spidey’s in the MCU now, so it’s also a sequel to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. And that’s not just a checklist of “other Spider-Man appearances”, either: the events of Endgame are absolutely vital to the storyline of this movie. It may be another Spider-Man 2, but more than that it’s Marvel Cinematic Universe: Episode XXIII.

    Some people criticised Homecoming for having too much Iron Man and going too far in making Spider-Man into Iron Man Jr. I felt they got the balance about right, all things considered — it’s not very true to comic book canon, but, as the third big-screen iteration of Spidey in the modern era, it made a reasonable change. Far from Home is where it becomes overpowering. It has to lean heavily on the overall continuity of the MCU, which means all the business of The Blip (as what we call The Snap is called in-universe) and Iron Man’s death is front-loaded into the movie. The former is waived away as quickly as they can; the latter weighs heavy on the entire rest of the plot.

    We'll always have Venice

    Meanwhile, Nick Fury is trying to get in touch with Peter Parker, who isn’t interested in the big world-saving antics that implies. He’s more concerned with going on a school summer trip around Europe. How a poor kid from Queens is supposed to afford a weeks-long vacation around Europe isn’t even one of my issues with the film, but if you’re a Spidey devotee it might be. But go on this vacation he does, only to have it interrupted in Venice by a giant water man/monster thing, which is battled by a new hero Peter’s classmates reckon is a cross between Iron Man and Thor, and name Mysterio. Turns out he’s working with Fury, and Fury wants Mysterio and Spider-Man to team up to fight the possibly world-ending threat. But Peter doesn’t want to because he’s on holiday goddammit and he has a plan to woo MJ.

    So far, so Spider-Man — the conflict between his personal and ‘professional’ life is a regular feature of the character. But it’s the way this story unspools that didn’t work for me, as it drags its heels through every storyline it’s got going at once, indulging in comedic asides from a whole range of characters. Having a comic relief character or double act is fine, but four or five of them? It just eats up screen time. The lack of focus robs the film of impetus or tension, as the characters and plot both meander around Europe and from set piece to set piece.

    At least some of those set pieces are quite good. The Venice one is a nice change of pace, because Mysterio is off doing the main fighting bit, so Spidey’s left to tidy up around him. It’s something a bit different in a blockbuster action sequence. The real highlight, though, is an illusion trap Spidey endures, which is imaginative and creatively realised. Tom Holland gives the title role his all, but Jake Gyllenhaal is the standout as Mysterio, waltzing into the film and stealing it out from under everyone else’s noses. His real-life alter ego, Quentin Beck, has a really nice relationship with Peter, pitched as a kind of mentoring, older brother type role, admiring of the kid’s ability but not blind to his flaws. Even better, if you watch the gag reel you get the impression Gyllenhaal is kinda treating Holland like Beck treats Parker, which is… amusing.

    Super friends

    Like every other MCU film, Far from Home is competently made with occasional flashes of inspiration, so manages to dodge being an outright disaster. But, speaking as someone who thinks Homecoming is pretty great and saw a lot of promise in this sequel’s trailers, I was disappointed by the end result. Future Spidey appearances in the MCU are assured (naturally there’s a post-credits tease for them), so I hope they can recapture more of that Homecoming spark next time.

    3 out of 5

    Spider-Man: Far from Home is available on Sky Cinema from this weekend.

    As Far from Home is officially the final film of the Infinity Saga (I guess it works as an epilogue; or perhaps the saga’s very own feature-length post-credit tease), here are links to my reviews of every other MCU film so far… except for one, which this has reminded me I’ve forgotten to write.

    1. Iron Man
    2. The Incredible Hulk
    3. Iron Man 2
    4. Thor
    5. Captain America: The First Avenger
    6. Avengers Assemble
    7. Iron Man 3
    8. Thor: The Dark World
    9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    10. Guardians of the Galaxy
    11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
    12. Ant-Man
    13. Captain America: Civil War
    14. Doctor Strange
    15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
    16. Spider-Man: Homecoming
    17. Thor: Ragnarok
    18. Black Panther
    19. Avengers: Infinity War
    20. Ant-Man and the Wasp
    21. Captain Marvel
    22. Avengers: Endgame
    23. this one!

    I’ve also reviewed a bunch of the shorts and (sorta-)tie-in TV series, but I’ll let you track those down if you’re interested.

    …and, in keeping with the style of the MCU, here’s a surprise post-‘credits’ mini-review!

    Peter’s To-Do List
    (2019)

    2020 #49a
    Jon Watts | 3 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    Peter's To-Do List

    Sony chose to bill this as a short film on Far from Home‘s Blu-ray release, so I’m going to treat it like one and review it. Let’s begin with a dictionary definition (from, er, a very real dictionary, honest) of “short film”…

    short film
    noun

    1. an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits. “The Silent Child won the Oscar for best short film.”

    2. a deleted scene long enough that someone thought they could get away with pretending it was conceived and created as an original motion picture. “The Spider-Man: Far from Home Blu-ray includes a short film called Peter’s To-Do List.”

    That pretty much sums up my reaction to this — it’s a glorified deleted scene. To be precise, it’s several deleted scenes, so really it’s a deleted sequence — Peter running various errands before his trip to Europe. If you watched any of Far from Home‘s trailers then you’ll have seen almost all of this already because it’s footage that was used extensively to advertise the movie. I believe they also did some kind of special re-release of Far from Home with this bit cut back into the feature (an option not available on the home release).

    So, it’s not a short film, but it is a fun-enough deleted scene. It wouldn’t’ve been out of place left in the movie, but considering the first act is already too long and a trudge as it is, I see why they wanted to lose some stuff.

    3 out of 5

    Yesterday (2019)

    2020 #21
    Danny Boyle | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, China & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Yesterday

    Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring — and failing — musician. He’s unlucky in love too, although that’s also his own fault, because he’s missed the blatant fact his friend-cum-manager Ellie (Lily James) has fancied him for the past couple of decades. One day there’s a weird blackout thing across the world, and (long story short) Jack is apparently the only person who remember the Beatles exist. Shocked that the world has been deprived of this amazing, culture-defining music, Jack begins to perform and record it… with zero success. Clearly, there’s more to it than just the music and lyrics. And he’s still none the wiser to Ellie’s obvious affections. Maybe Jack is just one of life’s losers?

    Ooh, that all sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, this is a Richard Curtis movie — things pick up. Because of course someone notices the music Jack’s now playing is amazing, and of course that leads him to global success. Curtis is a massive Beatles fan — I believe that’s how the concept for the movie came about in the first place — so there’s no way he’s going to let what he believes is the wondrousness of their music go unnoticed. We know that as well, I think, so the bit where Jack still fails, despite now having good material, is a nice little plot red herring.

    It’s welcome, too, because the plot doesn’t have a whole lot else surprising going for it. (Well, there’s a subplot about the song Wonderwall that is such a plot structure red herring as to seem like a plot structure mistake, but I’m not sure it counts as a surprise when it’s only likely to be noticed by film buffs who incorrectly predict where it’s going.) It’s one of those films where the one-line premise is more interesting than what the film actually does with it. “What if only one man remembered the Beatles?” sounds like a neat idea for a story, but where is there to go with it? For the sake of there being any story at all, he has to be able to perform these songs that only he can remember. Then he either has to be a success or not, as discussed. It all feels inevitable, the only real question being what’s the ‘out’ — how does this end? Well, I shan’t spoil it.

    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

    To add more bulk, there’s a romance storyline. Of course there is, it’s a Richard Curtis movie. But a romcom is hardly more original, is it? No, this is a very comfortable movie — you’re rarely going to be surprised about where it chooses to go. That said, I liked this side of the film more. In fact, I feel like the film would actually have been better without the whole Beatles thing — just a movie about a struggling wannabe musician realising he doesn’t really love music, he loves Lily James. As it is, at one point he has to choose between his lifelong dream of pop music mega-stardom or being with Lily James, and he choose the dream, which is wholly implausible because Lily James.

    But for all its predictability, there are some really nice bits along the way. (Proper spoilers follow.) It turns out there are two other people who remember the Beatles, and they begin to stalk Jack as he has success… but it turns out they’re just glad this music is back in the world. Neat twist. The surprise-cameo John Lennon scene is another unexpected moment heavy with emotion. The closing montage not being to any ‘big’ Beatles song, but to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (well, life does go on). Ed Sheeran ruining one of the greatest songs ever written. That one’s not so much nice as “funny because it’s true”, but I’ll take it. (If you thought Ed Sheeran was bad in his Game of Thrones cameo, just wait ’til you see him try to act as, er, himself. The role is very convincingly written, mind.)

    Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it’s not only the Beatles that have disappeared in this alternate world. Oasis have gone too, which, as Jack observes, “makes sense” — though the film doesn’t go very far in this regard. It’s based on the notion that the Beatles’ music was The Best Ever, but what has removing them from history actually changed about pop culture? As far as we can see, all it means is that Oasis don’t exist. Is that really the sum total of the Beatles’ influence? Anyway, my point was that other stuff has disappeared too, including Coca Cola, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Live (although that’s just become Thursday Night Live for some reason), and smoking. So this isn’t just “a reality without the Beatles”, it’s a subtly different world entirely. That’s an interesting creative choice. It’s basically just used as a source of humour — an easy go-to gag — but it still provokes the question: why has this random selection of things disappeared? What else has gone that Jack doesn’t notice?

    Hey Dude

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because this is a comedy like Groundhog Day or Sliding Doors in that the sci-fi/fantasy aspect is a means to an end, not a thing to be queried in itself. But in those films the change only affected our hero: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is the only one in the time loop; in Sliding Doors, it’s only Gwyneth Paltrow’s life that’s significantly different (and none of the characters are even aware there are two versions of events). In Yesterday, Jack isn’t the only person this happened to, which emphasises the “what happened?” question. Why did it affect most people, but not these few? Why is so much of the world the same, but random things are missing? The film doesn’t care — it’s not about that — but, with the narrative choices the storytellers have made, it invites these kinds of wonderings.

    That is, unless you just switch off and let it be a pleasant bit of fluff about a guy becoming famous with borrowed music while finally realising that the girl who’s wasted her life waiting for him to realise she loves him, er, loves him (Jack doesn’t deserve Lily James). Yeah, it’s mostly predictable, but that’s part of the comfort factor. There’s some good music, some likeable performances, and a general amiability to its tone. Let it be, indeed.

    3 out of 5

    Yesterday is available on Sky Cinema from today. (Maybe I should’ve reviewed it tomorrow…)