Another week goes by, and once again I’ve only managed to put together one of these belated roundups. Hopefully new-new reviews will re-emerge sometime soon…
Escape from New York (1981)
The Italian Job
Peter Collinson | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & Italian | PG / G
The Italian Job is one of those things that I think is in the consciousness of every Brit. Tricolour Minis racing around city streets, up and down stairs and through sewer tunnels… the literal cliffhanger ending… “you’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”… Cultural osmosis imparts these things to all us Brits, whether we’ve seen the film or not — and, at the grand old age of 32, I had not. But it was 50 back in 2019, so when better than then? Which is why I watched it then; and, because I’m tardy, am reviewing it now.
The awareness of the film I’d acquired down the years doesn’t quite prepare you for the actual thing, mind — the first half-hour is as much a frisky, cheeky sex romp as it is heist caper. Although, as you can infer from the classifications above, it doesn’t get too risqué. Of course, the real fun comes later, when Michael Caine and his crew of crooks execute an audacious gold robbery in Turin, causing a city-wide traffic jam that they can nip around in their Minis. This climactic chase doesn’t make much sense logically (they drive onto a roof only to drive back off it? They hide by parking in a car lot where there were precisely three spaces among similar-looking cars?), but it’s a lot of anarchic entertainment nonetheless. A bit like the whole movie, really: genuine crime isn’t like this, but this is a lot more fun.
Alexander Payne | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Norway / English, Norwegian & Spanish | 15 / R
“In the future, searching for a way to solve overpopulation and global warming, a scientist invents “downsizing”, a process to shrink people to a height of five inches. People start to voluntarily be ‘downsized’, in part because being small has economic benefits. Financially-struggling couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to trade their ordinary lives for the extravagant lifestyle promised by New Mexico’s impeccable downsized community, Leisureland. But not all problems are so easily fixed, and a chance encounter with a shady entrepreneur (Christoph Waltz) and a famous Vietnamese political activist (Hong Chau) sets Paul on a path where he must choose between a sheltered life or making an impact in his own small way.” — adapted from IMDb
There are promising ideas and concepts at the heart of Downsizing — under an appropriately-minded director, this concept should’ve been a goldmine. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne doesn’t seem to be the right person for the job. It feels like he’s playing at being more of a Spike Jonze type, and not succeeding.
The problems begin at a screenplay level. It feels like a very “and then this” narrative: things keep happening, one after another, with little to tie it all together. The final act eventually links back round to the prologue, to give a sense of the film all being a whole, but the real meat of the story — what happens to Paul in the middle — is just a series of events. Sometimes, it entirely abandons important stuff from earlier on so as to strike out on new tangents.
That contributes to a feeling of tonal and thematic whiplash. The film ping-pongs around various themes and threads, seemingly indecisive about what it wants to comment on. Consequently, it offers nothing but the most superficial observations on topic. On top of that, it swings from broad comedy to introspective drama at whim.
On the bright side, the visuals are pretty effective, managing to plausibly make the small world feel small even within itself. It’s just a shame the core of the movie can’t match up to the effects.
Dave McCary | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13
Room meets Be Kind Rewind in this quirky comedy-drama. James (Kyle Mooney) is a young man who has lived all his life in an underground bunker with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams)… except they’re not really his parents: he was kidnapped as a baby and has been held captive for decades. After being freed, James learns that the TV show he was obsessed with in the bunker, Brigsby Bear Adventures, isn’t real either — it was made by his captors just for him. Unable to let Brigsby go, James sets out to finish the story by making a Brigsby Bear movie himself.
There’s a sense in which some of Brigsby Bear is stuff we’ve seen before — the “group of friends set out to make an overambitious (home) movie” conceit has been trotted out by indie movies like Son of Rambow and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the aforementioned Be Kind Rewind. Director Dave McCary and screenwriters Kyle Mooney & Kevin Costello give that basic material a quirky new sheen, but the real joy lies in the film’s insistent good-heartedness. It’s refreshing (if arguably unrealistic), and the joy its characters find in the shared creative experience is suitably infectious. Indeed, it reaches a point where the ending is surprisingly emotional. The raft of comparisons may suggest this isn’t the most original confection, but I loved it nonetheless.
Brigsby Bear placed 15th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.
Paul Verhoeven | 130 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
Dismissed by many critics on its original release as cheesy sci-fi, Starship Troopers has been somewhat reclaimed in the decades since, both turned into a surprisingly enduring franchise (multiple sequels, animated series, etc) and praised as an anti-fascist satire. As I understand it, the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein is straight-up right-wing claptrap, but director Paul Verhoeven — who grew up under Nazi occupation — saw its inherent ridiculousness, and so intended to reshape it as a deconstruction of, well, itself.
In that regard, for me, it’s a mixed success. The satire itself is a little thin. War is bad? Yep. The people in power use propaganda to keep you on their side? No shit. Put anyone in a Nazi-like uniform and we can infer they’re actually bad? Obvs. So why did many critics seem to miss it on the film’s original release? Perhaps because everything that surrounds it is cheesy third-rate stuff. When the character drama has all the depth and quality of a daytime soap, it’s easy to presume the similarly-daft in-universe commercials are also meant to be taken straight; that any humorousness was unintentional.
And so, somewhat ironically, I thought Starship Troopers worked best as a straightforward sci-fi action/war movie. It’s a bit Full Metal Starship: first half is all pre-war/boot camp stuff, then the second half takes the characters out into the actual conflict. All the combat sequences are pretty thrilling on a visceral level, and the special effects mostly hold up to this day. Plus, it’s all bolstered by a great militaristic score from composer Basil Poledouris.
After a couple of decades hearing “Starship Troopers is good, actually”, I found myself almost hewing closer to the original critical assessment. Perhaps it raises that old question of authorial intent: if it was meant to be satire, should we treat it as satire, even if it doesn’t actually look like satire?
Starship Troopers was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.
Escape from New York
John Carpenter | 99 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R
It’s a wonder that Escape from New York never wound up on my Blindspot list — it’s exactly the kind of film I always expected would be on there. Well, I guess the way I choose those films often errs towards “cinephile classics” rather than the kind of films I read discussed as classics in the kind of genre magazines I grew up reading. I’m sure it would have made it in eventually, if I hadn’t just straight up watched it first.
I mention that upfront because it indicates something about how much I expected Escape from New York to be My Kind of Thing; and so there is every possibility my expectations for it were set too high. Frankly, it wasn’t as much pulpy fun as I expected it to be. It’s surprisingly slow, and very nihilistic — this isn’t a fun ride through a cool dystopia, more a glum portrait of everything having gone to shit, but in the body of an action movie.
That said, I’m by no means arguing this is a bad movie. There is stuff here that’s good and that works, and is cool in the way it should be (it’s a pulpy premise that gets a pulpy treatment — I think “cool” is a perfectly valid thing for it to aim for). Kurt Russell does his best Clint Eastwood impression (literally) as anti-hero Snake Plissken, which is quite fun, and there’s some great music on the soundtrack, especially the main theme. Considering the lowly budget, the ruined streets of future New York are well realised too, supplemented by a tiny amount of location footage (the first film to be shot on Liberty Island!) and a stunning model of the blacked-out city.
Despite all of that, overall it doesn’t come together and achieve the heights I expected of it. In some respects, my score below is generous — it’s a downgrade from the 5 I hoped I’d be giving the film, rather than an upgrade from a neutral 3, if that makes sense. Definitely one I need to revisit with realigned expectations.