Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

2018 #181
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.

Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, its clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t it he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.

After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.

Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.

It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.

Sore loser

But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.

4 out of 5

Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.

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The Post (2017)

2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows as Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although its constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

Creation

There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

The Room (2003)

2018 #81
Tommy Wiseau | 99 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | NR / R

The Room

I did not enjoy it, it’s not true, it’s bullshit, I did not enjoy it, I did naht!

Oh hi reader.

You’ve heard of The Room, right? Well, if you hadn’t before last year’s awards season, you probably have now, thanks to James Franco’s fictionalised account of its making, The Disaster Artist. I can’t remember when I first heard of The Room, but it was certainly after it had already gained a reputation among some people for being (as someone once put it) “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”; the kind of movie where its fans attend midnight screenings in costume, shout out phrases, throw items in the air, and all that palaver.

Ostensibly the story of the relationship woes of twentysomethings in San Francisco, there is nothing wrong with The Room… for the first two minutes. Then Tommy Wiseau enters a room and opens his mouth. There are no words to accurately describe Wiseau — he has to be witnessed to be believed. From there out, the film is so distractingly ridiculous that it’s easy to forget what any of it is supposed to be about. For the first half-hour it feels like they’re making a soft-core porno: the plot seems designed purely to facilitate sexual encounters (at one point a couple walk into a room and start getting it on before we’ve learnt anything else about them), most of which last several minutes to the sound of cheesy pop music (though they’ve cut out any explicit bits, so don’t go watching it just to get your jollies).

Room for a threesome?

From there, stuff just… happens. Characters come and go at random (three actors quit the project midway through shooting, so Wiseau sometimes just invented a new character rather than reshoot existing scenes); subplots about nothing pop up now and then; and people generally behave like no human being has ever behaved. Production values are all over the place, like the sets: many are amateur-theatre-level under-designed, yet some scenes take place on a rooftop where the view has been green-screened in fairly well. It’s also awfully misogynistic… but when it’s so awful generally, does that even matter? And yet some parts almost transcend the horror: the scene on the rooftop after they save Denny from being shot is like fucking poetry, with all its repetition and… stuff. I mean, it’s really bad poetry… but really funny poetry.

I guess some people would say you have to watch The Room at one of those cinema screenings packed with die-hard fans to get the most out of it, but they also say that about Rocky Horror and I’ve never found that to be true. Of course, Rocky Horror is actually a good film, whereas The Room is only entertaining because of how bad it is. The full 99-minute experience is a bit of a drag at times, waiting for the really funny bits to roll round, but the level of incompetence is so consistent that it remains fascinating throughout.

A real human being?

However, that does make it almost impossible to rate accurately. As what it sets out to be — a serious drama about the love lives of a group of friends — it’s irredeemably awful. But that’s not why we watch it. As a so-bad-it’s-good film to laugh at… yeah, it’s pretty funny. And as that’s why I watched it, that’s how I’ll mark it: for the level of enjoyment I got out of it, irrespective of what was intended.

4 out of 5

James Franco’s dramatisation of the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist, is on Sky Cinema from today. My review is here.

My Life as a Courgette (2016)

aka Ma vie de Courgette / My Life as a Zucchini

2018 #3
Claude Barras | 66 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Switzerland / English | PG / PG-13

My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (or, to use the American name for the vegetable, Zucchini) is the story of young lad Icare — who prefers to be called “Courgette”, his mother’s nickname for him — and his life after he is taken into an orphanage. If you’ve heard of it, it’s most likely because it was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Oscars.

It’s adapted from the novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, which was apparently a realistic portrayal of the lives of orphans in France. As you can see, the film takes a more cartoonish style, at least on the surface. In fact, the whimsical production design belies the very serious nature of the story — it’s not as monumentally grim as it could be, given the subject matter, but it doesn’t shy away from some very dark areas. It handles these with an understated, calm maturity that is both befitting and refreshing. The animation itself is equally sophisticated, with innumerable little touches that add finesse and richness to the work.

Orphaned

I watched the English dubbed version, because Amazon Prime gave me no choice (the original French version is available on Amazon Video, but for some reason not also included with Prime). Fortunately, despite having a US voice cast, they stuck with “Courgette”, meaning there’s no constant annoyance of the main character being called the wrong thing. (I do wonder, though: did they have to record it all twice, or did the American release rename the film My Life as a Zucchini but then call the kid Courgette anyway?) Fortunately, the dubbing wasn’t at all bad. Of particular note is Nick Offerman, giving a remarkable restrained performance as the gentle and kindly cop Raymond. As for Courgette and his fellow orphans, I don’t know if they cast actual kids or used adult soundalikes, but they also provided uniformly strong voice work.

My Life as a Courgette is one of those “weird foreign animations” that often manages an Oscar nod but doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning thanks to the conservativeness of Oscar voters — there’s no way a mature, restrained animation with a quirky visual style is going to beat the latest shiny-CGI fun-time from Pixar or Disney. For those with broader tastes, however, it’s definitely worth a look.

4 out of 5

Film Noir Review Roundup

I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more film noirs this year, and today’s roundup contains a few results of that:

  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • Accomplice (1946)
  • Shockproof (1949)


    The Narrow Margin
    (1952)

    2018 #2
    Richard Fleischer | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Narrow Margin

    Recognised as a classic noir, The Narrow Margin follows a detective (Charles McGraw) who must protect a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) as she travels by train from Chicago to LA to give vital evidence. As the ‘tec finds himself getting involved with an attractive fellow passenger (Jacqueline White), the assassins on his trail mistake her for their actual target…

    What unfurls is an exciting plot with some solid twists and some great dialogue (enough that it earnt a Best Writing Oscar nomination, in fact), all told in a snappy running time that ensures the film powers forward like, well, a locomotive. Director Richard Fleischer makes very effective use of handheld camerawork and the train setting to create a confined, claustrophobic atmosphere that emphasises the tension and peril of the characters. It all blends into a very fine thriller.

    4 out of 5

    Accomplice
    (1946)

    2018 #16
    Walter Colmes | 66 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

    Accomplice

    Described by Paul Duncan’s Pocket Essential Film Noir as “hardboiled fun”, and by the few other people online who’ve seen it with phrases like “one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time”, Accomplice graces my eyeballs before many no doubt finer examples of film noir by virtue of the fact it was available to stream on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d catch it while it was there.

    Adapted by Frank Gruber from his novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, it sees private detective Simon Lash (Richard Arlen) being hired to track down a missing bank executive by his concerned wife (Veda Ann Borg), but the bank insists he’s merely on vacation. As Lash digs deeper, he begins to suspect the wife may have other motives — as does, well, everyone else.

    Running little more than an hour, Accomplice’s plot races past, giving you no time to stop and consider it. Maybe that’s for the best. Conversely, it makes it feel like it doesn’t hang together, even if it actually does. But it rushes along at a scene level, too: Lash seems to figure things out as quickly as it takes the actors to say their lines. It’d be Sherlockian, if you actually believed he had the necessary information and wherewithal to make the deductions.

    There is some fun to be had in a speedy car chase and the film’s occasionally kooky location choices, like the climax being set at a castle in the middle of the desert that’s pitching itself as some kind of hotel for mid-getaway crooks (I think that was the owner’s business plan, anyway). There are other surprising flashes of entertainment, though some of them were likely unintentional, but Accomplice is not really a good film.

    2 out of 5

    Shockproof
    (1949)

    2018 #68
    Douglas Sirk | 76 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Shockproof

    When you hear “film noir” you don’t immediately think of director Douglas Sirk (nor vice versa), better known for his colourful ’50s melodramas. Well, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s list of most-cited noir films, he helmed three, of which this is the second. The plot has plenty of noir elements, but the film actually feels more like a romantic melodrama. It’s quite an effective mix.

    So, the noir: it’s about a female murder parolee (Patricia Knight) and her parole officer (Cornel Wilde), who begins to fall in love with her. But is she still attached to the crook she took the fall for (John Baragrey)? Is she just pulling the wool over the eyes of the parole officer? That’s kind of a love triangle, hence we’re back in melodrama territory. But the advantage of it being billed as a noir rather than a romantic drama is you’re not sure where it will go. Will she fall for the good honest parole officer with his sweet younger brother and blind mother? Or will she be tempted back to the criminal love of her life? Or will it have a more tragic ending altogether?

    Well, no spoilers, but it definitely takes a turn I wasn’t expecting — the third act spins off in a whole different direction. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but at least it was unusual, a big departure from the earlier part of the film, and it kind of worked because of that. Again, no explicit spoilers, but it comes to a neatly ironic conclusion… before there’s one extra scene, which feels tacked-on and undermines where the film had got to tonally. And that’s exactly what happened: co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote Samuel Fuller’s screenplay and added a cop-out ending that Sirk felt ruined the film.

    Fatal femme

    At least until that point there’s stuff to enjoy. Knight’s performance is the real star: although her true nature seems to have been revealed at the start (she’s a parolee, i.e. a no-good criminal), the film adds more nuances to her than that — primarily, you can’t be sure if what she’s doing is genuine, or if she’s playing the parole officer for her own ends. There’s also an interesting turn from Baragrey: I couldn’t be sure if his acting was a bit flat, or if he was deliberately being cool, cold, calculated, thinking he’s always in control, the smartest guy in the deal. Well, even if it’s the former, it functions well as the latter.

    So, Shockproof (a title that has no relevance whatsoever, incidentally) isn’t a total disaster, with some surprising turns that are to be commended even when they don’t work. It was clearly a compromised production, but an interesting one.

    3 out of 5

  • The Hunt for Red October (1990)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    The Hunt for Red October

    The hunt is on.

    Country: USA
    Language: English & Russian
    Runtime: 135 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 2nd March 1990 (USA)
    UK Release: 20th April 1990
    Budget: $30 million
    Worldwide Gross: $200.5 million

    Stars
    Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
    Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, The Shadow)
    Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Bourne Ultimatum)
    Sam Neill (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Jurassic Park)
    James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)

    Director
    John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair)

    Screenwriters
    Larry Ferguson (Highlander, Alien³)
    Donald Stewart (Missing, Patriot Games)

    Based on
    The Hunt for Red October, a novel by Tom Clancy, the first to star Jack Ryan.


    The Story
    After the USSR launches a new type of submarine with an almost undetectable engine, its veteran captain, Marko Ramius, ignores his orders and heads for the US. As the Russians hunt for him and the Americans try to intercept him, one question is on both sides’ minds: is Ramius intending to defect or start a war?

    Our Hero
    CIA analyst Jack Ryan is something of an expert on Ramius, and the main voice insisting the Russian intends to defect. With just days to prove his theory, the normally desk-bound Ryan must venture out into the field — the “field” in this case being the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

    Our Villain
    Submarine captain Marko Ramius, a hero in the USSR who trained most of their fleet, has been entrusted with their latest top-secret vessel, the Red October… but what is he intending to do with it? If Ryan’s right, he’s not such a villain after all.

    Best Supporting Character
    Commander Bart Mancuso is the captain of the US submarine USS Dallas, the first to encounter the Red October and, thanks to its genius sonar technician, the only one able to track it. Scott Glenn’s performance was based on a real sub captain the cast spent time with, Thomas B. Fargo, whose friendly but authoritative manner and relationship with his crew inspired Glenn.

    Memorable Quote
    “‘Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.’ Yeah, like me. I don’t react well to bullets.” — Jack Ryan

    Memorable Scene
    As the Red October navigates an underwater pass only traversable thanks to detailed maps and precise timings, the silent engine fails, forcing them to engage the regular motors — which attracts the attention of the Soviets hunting them. With a torpedo on their trail, Ramius takes the precarious navigation into his own hands…

    Technical Wizardry
    With much of the action taking place in the cramped confines of various submarines (the Red October, the USS Dallas, and another Soviet sub, the V.K. Konovalov), cinematographer Jan de Bont realised they would need a way for viewers to quickly determine which submarine they were on, especially when cutting between action on multiple vessels. He decide to subtly vary the colour of the lighting on each sub — blue for Red October, red for the Dallas, and green for the Konovalov — so that they would be distinguishable without belabouring the point. It works: while watching the film, it’s never confusing which sub we’re supposed to be on.

    Truly Special Effect
    Apparently director John McTiernan wanted to realise the underwater action with CGI, until ILM pointed out it was nowhere near that advanced yet. Instead, most of the underwater shots are models — and not shot underwater, but in a smoke-filled warehouse. They look fantastic, with small CG additions (like plankton or the wake of propellers) helping to sell the visuals. On the downside, some of the pre-digital compositing is now really showing its age — Alec Baldwin’s hair is see-through in the final shot!

    Next time…
    With the film a huge success, naturally more Jack Ryan adaptations followed. Technically the first two, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, are sequels to Red October, but with Alec Baldwin busy the lead role was recast with Harrison Ford, so it feels more like the series starts over. For no apparent reason a fourth film in the series didn’t materialise, and so the series genuinely started over a decade later, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. That wasn’t a success, leading them to try again another decade later, with Chris Pine playing an even fresher Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That wasn’t a success either, which has led them down the path of adapting the character for television, with John Krasinski playing another young Ryan in Amazon’s Jack Ryan.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
    2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing)
    3 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Sean Connery), Production Design, Sound)

    Verdict

    Everything ages: Tom Clancy’s debut novel was credited with helping start the techno-thriller genre in the ’80s, which I guess made this film adaptation cutting-edge when it followed shortly afterwards. Now, it’s the best part of 30 years old and, even if it’s not exactly looking dated, it certainly doesn’t look current — they don’t make big-budget spy thrillers like this anymore. But maybe they should, because Red October’s qualities stand the test of time: its story is driven by well-drawn, interesting characters (the committed everyman hero; the moral enemy submarine commander; and so on) and an overall sense of suspense (who will find the sub first? And how soon? And what will they do then?), rather than elaborate stunts or computer-generated effects. I like the latter too, but there’s room for variety in the cinematic landscape. Well, at least we’ll always have minor classics like this to watch again and again.

    The latest screen iteration of Tom Clancy’s hero can be seen in the TV series Jack Ryan, available to stream on Amazon Prime from today.

    Kidnapped (1917)

    2018 #159
    Alan Crosland | 64 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English

    Kidnapped DVD

    The first screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure yarn, the 1917 film of Kidnapped was believed by some to be lost. It was nothing of the sort, having been held in the Library of Congress’ collection since the ’40s. That’s not readily available to most of us, of course, but thankfully there are individuals like Movies Silently’s Fritzi Kramer who have the dedication to not only unearth these things, but to then spend the time and effort required to put together a DVD release. Such enterprises aren’t achieved through hard work alone, however, hence a Kickstarter campaign that was thankfully successful. And for those who missed out on that, the finished DVD is now available to purchase from Amazon.com. (For the benefit of UK readers, the cost of importing it currently comes to £26.12, though if you’re lucky it might slip through customs unnoticed and Amazon will one day reimburse you £4.35. Or you could wait for the exchange rate to improve, but, given Brexit, hahaha, good luck with that.)

    Anyway, what of the film itself? Running just over an hour, it’s a brisk dash through Stevenson’s story. I’ll cop to not being familiar with the original tale, but apparently this version sacrifices no more than an average adaptation, despite that comparatively speedy running time. For the benefit of those as unacquainted with the text as I: it’s the story of David Balfour (Ray McKee), a young man who should inherit the Scottish castle inhabited by his uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke), but the latter has no intention of giving it up, instead arranging for David to be kidnapped (hence the title) and carted off to The Colonies.

    “Yep, kid — you've been napped!”

    Chance sees David moved up from being cargo to serving as the ship’s cabin boy (what to do when the cabin boy brings you a dirty cup? Accidentally murder him, then in his place promote the young lord you’ve kidnapped to sell as a slave, of course), which allows him to run into adventurer Alan Breck (Robert Cain), who’s found his way aboard the same vessel (Breck’s introduction: “I’m vexed, sir. Ye’ve sunk my boat, and drowned my man. Be so kind as to land me at once!”) The ship’s dastardly crew plot to off Breck, but he and David team up, escape, and embark on a journey to reclaim the young Balfour’s inheritance. Along the way there’s swashing of buckles and encountering of real-life historical events, albeit bent slightly to suit the plot, and bent again to suit the moral mores of the film adaptation, which was advertised as being “for all the family” and “guaranteed censor proof!”

    While some bits may look silly with today’s eyes (or maybe they did at the time too, I don’t know — did a sailor dying instantly from being shot in the arm ever play well?), there’s plenty of adventurous fun to be had, and the production values are good. Mostly. I mean, at one point our heroes are taken to meet a Highland chieftain who lives in a cave with a window and dresses like a lumberjack in a skirt, but what’re you gonna do? Caves-with-windows aside, most of the sets aren’t half bad, and the location work is really good — it must’ve been shot somewhere in the US, but with bare trees, snow, and a genuine castle, it looks Scottish enough. While the action sequences obviously aren’t going to challenge a modern blockbuster for their creative choreography, there’s some effective swashbuckling when David and Breck escape the ship, and a decent chase through the snow thereafter. Cain definitely looks the party of a dandyish adventurer, and acquits himself well where it counts too — by which I mean, he seems pretty handy with a sword.

    Swashes being buckled

    Kidnapped may not be an unheralded classic begging for rediscovery, but it’s a fun jaunt nonetheless. Proof, if it were needed, that there’s often worth to be discovered by digging into the more forgotten and esoteric corners of film history.

    4 out of 5

    Kidnapped was the feature presentation of Conquest Program No.9, which you can read more about here. It is now available on DVD from Amazon.com.

    Christopher Robin (2018)

    2018 #180
    Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Christopher Robin

    Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

    We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

    Pooh in the park

    Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry — they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

    Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

    The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

    Tigger on the loose

    The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

    But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

    4 out of 5

    Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

    A Quiet Place (2018)

    2018 #177
    John Krasinski | 90 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / American Sign Language & English | 15 / PG-13

    A Quiet Place

    Not, in fact, the directorial debut of John Krasinski (aka Jim from the US remake of The Office, aka Mr Emily Blunt, aka Jack Ryan Mk.V later this month), but the first one that’s really gained any attention (to the tune of a sizeable $332.6 million off a budget of just $17 million), A Quiet Place is a post-apocalypse survival movie cum horror thriller. In the near future, the human race has been seemingly decimated by a race of aliens that hunt via sound. The film introduces us to a family — parents Emily Blunt and John Krasinski, kids Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward — who have managed to survive by living on an isolated farm and communicating via sign language, which they’re fortunate to know thanks to a deaf daughter. Naturally, their carefully-constructed safety is threatened when Something Goes Wrong and the creatures are attracted to the farm.

    A Quiet Place’s USP is the “must stay quiet” aspect, which reportedly led to less chatter and popcorn-munching during cinema screenings. If only all moviegoing experiences were so blessed. Of course, a similar conceit was only recently deployed in Don’t Breathe, but here the threat level is upped by the almost supernatural enemy. The film’s PG-13 rating in the US means it occasionally pulls its punches on going all-out terrifying, but, as the UK 15 certificate may indicate, it’s still loaded with sequences of tension and suspense.

    Fingers on lips!

    Some have questioned the film’s adherence to its own rules, or the practicalities of the characters’ decisions, or the ‘luck’ of them having a deaf child and so being able to communicate via sign language. I don’t hold much truck with any of those criticisms. In the latter case, is it not logical that those who already know non-verbal communication have an advantage when it comes to silent survival? Maybe everyone who didn’t know sign language just got killed already. In the first, I think the film sticks closely enough to its conceit: small or disguised noises can go unnoticed, but anything big or obviously human is going to attract attention. Besides, there are only two or three of the creatures in the area — even with their super-hearing, surely some stuff is going to pass them by.

    The issue with the characters’ decisions perhaps comes down to the fact that the film leaves a lot unsaid (ho-ho) when it comes to their relationships and thought processes. Big events and the emotional fallout have occurred offscreen, leaving the family in the position we follow them for most of the film. Those viewers demanding 100% foolproof logic from every aspect of the movie are clearly left out in the cold by the lack of exposition, but more creative minds can fill in the blanks. Arguably it leaves the film wanting as a character drama, even as it strives for the kind of subtly and understatedness that is usually lauded in such a genre.

    The family that stays together fights sound-hunting aliens together

    But, really, it’s a horror-thriller, designed to have you biting your nails and on the edge of your seat as you wonder where the monster will spring from next and whether the characters can survive the assault. As a genre piece of that kind, half the running time is the film’s climax, and it’s an effective one at that.

    4 out of 5

    A Quiet Place is released on DVD, Blu-ray and UHD in the UK this week.