“Christmas in July” Review Roundup

Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

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  • Manchester by the Sea (2016)

    2017 #134
    Kenneth Lonergan | 137 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Manchester by the Sea

    One of the frontrunners of the 2016-17 awards season, Manchester by the Sea centres around Lee (Casey Affleck), a taciturn sort who’s called back to the eponymous hometown (which he’d left behind for reasons that are initially kept a mystery to us viewers) when his brother dies, naming Lee as the guardian of his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). As Lee attempts to figure out his new role, he’s plagued by the memories and emotions from why he left Manchester in the first place.

    Manchester by the Sea is not a plot-driven movie. Even the mystery I alluded to above doesn’t play by ‘the rules’, with the answers being revealed about halfway through rather than near the end. There’s still a story, obviously (see above), but it’s more of a character study about people coping with grief — not in the wailing, all-consuming way you might typically associate with grief being depicted on screen, but in a more subdued, naturalistic manner. In harmony with that, there’s an element to it which is, not irreverent, but certainly mundane — like making calls to funeral directors over breakfast, for instance — and scattered with darkly comic realities, like paramedics struggling to get a bed into an ambulance. Indeed, for a film about such grim subjects, it’s surprisingly funny. But, as I’ve said in many reviews before, that’s life: the world is still funny, and we often still laugh, even when tragedy is all around.

    Funereal

    Given all that, it’s not surprising it was Casey Affleck’s performance that attracted most attention and won most of the awards. That’s not undeserved — he’s the core of the film, and it’s a powerful but understated performance — but Lucas Hedges is also brilliant in a part that could’ve been given short shrift. In fairness, if we’re talking about awards, he got plenty of nominations too. So too Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. She’s not bad, but her awards recognition is all really for that one scene — you know, the one they always played as the film’s clip, and that’s alluded to on the poster. Indeed, it’s interesting how prominent she is in the marketing — her role is central to the state Lee’s in, but the actress herself isn’t on screen very much. Her absence is more felt than her presence, even.

    It’s understandable that one scene became such a focus — it’s a powerful moment of great importance to the characters (and, more cynically, is virtually the only major sequence with the two name lead actors). In some respects, however, I think the film’s most powerful moment comes at the other end of the film’s timeline: when we learn about what happened in the past, it ends with ‘the morning after’, when Lee faces what he has done and looks for the punishment he feels he deserves; instead he finds only understanding, so he attempts to punish himself. (This scene also got a fair bit of awards play, but lacked context. Or perhaps that was just me? I didn’t really get what was going on until i saw it in the film proper.) That’s a key part of what’s going on with his character, I think: he hasn’t just been trying to escape what happened, he’s also punishing himself. Other people aren’t always so understanding — some do judge him; one person quietly refuses to employ him, presumably because of what happened — but no one judges him as harshly as he judges himself.

    The Scene

    An aspect I don’t recall being remarked upon much was the cinematography, but I thought it was a surprisingly good-looking film. DP Jody Lee Lipes’ work here isn’t flashy, maintaining the understated and naturalistic tone of the entire movie, but it’s very crisp, befitting both the freezing cold weather and raw emotions. On the other hand, if I had one criticism to level it might be that the film’s too long. Its events and emotions unfold at a measured pace, which is fine, but some of what we see is less necessary than the film seems to think it is (for one example, the opening sequence, where we watch Lee as he does various day-to-day janitorial jobs, feels like it goes on for ages and contributes little).

    But I’m nitpicking at this point, really. Manchester by the Sea derives itself from such everyday moments, accumulating them into a subtle, realistic, quietly powerful character portrait.

    5 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name (2017)

    2018 #80
    Luca Guadagnino | 132 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy, France, Brazil & USA / English, Italian, French, German & Hebrew | 15 / R

    Call Me by Your Name

    Call Me by Your Name was the lowest grossing film among 2017’s Oscar Best Picture nominees, but it felt like it was one of the most talked about films on the ballot — though, being part of a list that also includes Get Out and “the fish sex movie”, obviously there’s stiff competition.

    Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, it centres around 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of a pair of well-to-do intellectuals (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who spends his days lazing around their countryside villa — reading books, noodling about on the piano, and flirting with the local girls — and his evenings chasing skirt. He’s smart and talented, but still young and developing. Into his life comes Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student who’s to be his professor father’s annual research assistant. Initially Elio is standoffish around the free-spirited Oliver, and yet seems fascinated by him. As they begin to spend more time together, a mutual attraction tentatively develops into a passionate love affair, a new experience for them both.

    Sorry to rush you through the plot like that, but the gay romance between Elio and Oliver is what the film’s, y’know, about. It’s an effective and truthful depiction of young love — falteringly, unassured, but driven by powerful emotions and burning lust. Although Oliver initially seems hyper-confident, as he opens up to Elio it becomes clear that this is new for him too, and of course Elio’s only young, inexperienced even with girls at the film’s start, so of course love is a new thing to him. So, in some respects it doesn’t matter that the film’s about a gay relationship — the feeling it conjures of young love is universal. Of course, there are many reasons why it matters immensely that it’s about a gay relationship, but those concerns are largely external to the film itself. They intrude only in the sense that Elio and Oliver keep their affair a secret, though given Elio’s bohemian-ish family, he eventually finds more support than he might’ve expected.

    Flesh

    It’s not all sweetness and uncertainty, mind. I used the word “lust” for a reason: there’s some fairly sexually explicit stuff, so be warned if you’re of a sensitive disposition, or are particularly fond of peaches. Well, I say that — if you’re really fond of peaches, this will be your new favourite film. It’s not Stranger by the Lake graphic, despite what screenwriter James Ivory had in mind (i.e. there’s no explicit male nudity; Elio’s girlfriend gets her kit off though, which could spark a whole other debate about gender equality), but there’s still no doubting what the young couple get up to.

    Talking of which, there was apparently some controversy about Elio and Oliver’s ages in regards to their relationship — Elio, as I said, is 17, and Oliver is 24. Some Americans seem to have a monomaniacal obsession with the age of consent being 18, which they then apply universally. I mean, it’s not even close to universal in the US (it’s 16 in 31 states and 18 in only 11), never mind worldwide. So, some people apparently have a major problem with that age difference between Elio and Oliver, whereas others won’t even think about it. For what it’s worth, the age of consent in Italy is 14 — imagine the reaction if they’d made Elio that young! For another perspective, in the UK in 1983 the age of consent for heterosexual couples was 16, but for gay people it was 21 — so, what, if this was set in the UK and Elio was female it would be okay, but because he’s male we’d have to be appalled? I guess my point is: think this shit through, and stop being “outraged” that people under the legal age of consent have romantic and sexual feelings.

    Pining

    But I guess there are fans of the film who’d know all about that, considering pretty young Timothée Chalamet has apparently become a favourite of the Tumblr crowd (who I’m basically assuming are all kids, which I’m sure is unfair). He’s not just young and beautiful though, but an extraordinarily competent actor too, all unearned confidence undercut by youthful vulnerability. His Oscar nomination was deserved. Armie Hammer went overlooked, but he gives a more nuanced performance than you might expect. From the supporting cast, the reliably excellent Michael Stuhlbarg stands out. Initially just an amiable dad, the film gradually peels back the layers to reveal what a fantastic father he is, including one heart-to-heart scene that alone (and even more than Hammer) should’ve seen him scooping awards.

    The film was also overlooked in the cinematography category, which is a shame too. Shot on 35mm with a single lens by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, it ably recreates the hazy feel of a long-ago summer. That sensation extends across Guadagnino’s direction, the gentle pacing reminiscent of a time when six weeks was forever, when the world was full of possibilities and there was time enough to explore them all and still have some left over.

    Call Me by Your Name manages to resolve a striking array of contrasts — it’s both universal and specific, nostalgic and timely, powerful and gentle. The sum is a beautiful film in most every respect.

    5 out of 5

    Call Me by Your Name is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

    Yojimbo (1961)

    aka Yôjinbô

    2017 #126
    Akira Kurosawa | 111 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

    Yojimbo

    Best known to many viewers as the film Sergio Leone ripped off to make A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is itself already a Western in all but setting: it stars Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, a ronin who wanders into a village where two gangs are at loggerheads, a conflict from which the regular folk cower in fear. Where Kurosawa deviates from the Western, at least as they had been made to that point, is that Sanjuro isn’t a clean-cut hero who’ll side with the good guys and get this mess sorted — he’s a mercenary, primarily out for his own interests; and besides, there are no good guys to join: both gangs are equally bad.

    In his essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of the film, Alexander Sesonske argues that Kurosawa is actually combining “two typically American genres”. So we have “a classic Western setting, with dust and leaves blowing across the wide, empty street that runs the length of a village, a lone stranger passes as frightened faces peer from behind shutters”, mixed with the morals (or lack thereof) of a gangster movie, with everyone a crook hoping to merely outgun the others. That all comes wrapped in the milieu of a samurai movie, meaning instead of pistol duels or scattershot machine-gun fire we get flashing blades. Indeed, Yojimbo was the first film to have a sound effect for a sword slashing human flesh — they had to experiment to get it right, because it had never been done. Considering the film also features severed limbs and squirting blood, the BBFC’s PG seems awfully lenient…

    Observing the conflict

    Given all that, it seems like this is an almost mercilessly nihilistic film. It’s set in a town that’s been fucked up by the never-ending gang warfare, and over the course of the story nearly everyone dies, many of them in brutally violent fashion. Even the hero seems remorseless, killing freely and plotting to get the two gangs to massacre each other because he sees a way to profit. Sesonske asserts that “Yojimbo lacks the intellectual challenge of Rashomon, the moral resonance of Ikiru, or the sweep and grandeur of Seven Samurai”, which may all be true to an extent, but we shouldn’t disregard what the film does offer: a bleak worldview that chimes with the careless brutality of the world as we know it.

    Even in such hopelessness there is beauty, and here, at least, that comes from Kazuo Miyagawa’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. With many incredibly blocked and framed shots, it’s no wonder Kurosawa has been so copied — his visuals are always amazing. His exacting desires may’ve created various production issues (the specially-built set, made with extreme period accuracy, was unprecedentedly expensive; to create the windswept effect they used all of the studio’s wind machines, which was so powerful actors couldn’t open their eyes and camera cranes couldn’t complete moves; and he used all of the studio’s big lights for night scenes, but the way they pulsated meant lens filters had to be used to compensate), but it doesn’t half look good in the end.

    5 out of 5

    Yojimbo was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Gangster Review Roundup

    In today’s roundup:

  • City of God (2002)
  • RocknRolla (2008)
  • Scarface (1983)


    City of God
    (2002)

    aka Cidade de Deus

    2017 #100
    Fernando Meirelles | 129 mins | DVD + download* | 1.85:1 | Brazil & France / Portuguese | 18 / R

    City of God

    What better insight into my film watching habits than this, a movie I’d been meaning to get round to for the best part of 14 years (ever since it topped Empire’s list of the best films of 2003, around the same time as I was getting into film ‘seriously’, i.e. as more than just “movies I like to watch”). Plus, it was one of my Blindspot picks back in 2015 (but didn’t get watched, obv), and it was the highest ranked film on the IMDb Top 250 that I’d not seen — all good reasons why I made it 2017’s #100.

    Adapted from a novel that was based on real events, it tells the story of how organised crime grew in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus favela — the “City of God” of the title — from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. The main thing that struck me watching it now is how much it reminded me of the TV series Romanzo Criminale — both are basically about young people taking over and running all the crime in a city. The fact that they’re also both inspired by true stories (the series depicts a criminal gang in Rome through the ’70s and ’80s) is intriguing for different reasons. They also share certain stylistic similarities, I think, in particular the almost documentary-like visuals. The series came later, of course, so if one did inspire the other then this isn’t the copycat.

    At the risk of turning this into a review of something else, I must say that, while Romanzo Criminale is a favourite of mine (I included it in my 2017 list of Favourite TV Series of the Last 10 Years), City of God was a work I admired more than loved. Nonetheless, for anyone who likes crime epics, this is a must-see (but, uh, so is Romanzo Criminale).

    5 out of 5

    * Possibly because it’s just been sat on a shelf for over a decade (possibly just through sheer bad luck), my DVD was corrupted about halfway through and I had to, uh, source another copy. ^

    RocknRolla
    (2008)

    2017 #146
    Guy Ritchie | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English & Russian | 15 / R

    RocknRolla

    In my review of Snatch I commented that its contemporary reviews were along the lines of “oh, Lock Stock again”, and yet now it’s pretty well regarded. My memories of RocknRolla’s contemporary reviews are “oh, another Guy Ritchie London gangster film — isn’t it time he did something new?” And yet, it now seems to be pretty well regarded. Not as much as Lock Stock and Snatch, but better than you’d think “Guy Ritchie does the same schtick for a fourth time” would merit.

    Well, it is a case of Ritchie doing his usual schtick (thank God he did eventually move on, at least applying the same broad MO to some new genres), but a cast that includes the likes of Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton can’t help but elevate the material. Gerard Butler is ostensibly the lead, front-and-centre on the poster, but the movie follows the standard Ritchie template: an ensemble cast in a variety of story threads that bump into each other and overlap in different ways at different times. Even if the specifics aren’t the same as his other films, and the cinematography is more slick and big-budget than the grimy ’90s indie visuals of his debut and sophomore flick, the general style feels very familiar.

    Ultimately, I enjoyed it more than Snatch, but maybe I was just in the right mood — I mean, like I said, they’re all fundamentally the same kind of thing.

    4 out of 5

    Scarface
    (1983)

    2018 #14
    Brian De Palma | 170 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 18 / R

    Scarface

    Brian De Palma’s in-name-only remake of 1932 gangster classic Scarface follows Al Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he rises up the ranks of organised crime in ’80s Miami. As it turns out, it’s not easy being at the top.

    A near-three-hour epic (what is it with gangster movies being three hours long?), interest is sustained through Pacino’s wild-eyed performance, De Palma’s slick direction, and a story that at least has enough incident to merit that length. Also, early-career Michelle Pfeiffer, who gives a good performance as Montana’s increasingly miserable gal but, frankly, could just stand there and still keep half the population interested.

    Apparently a favourite movie among rappers, I guess some people get the wrong message from Scarface. I suppose the stylishness with which its produced has the side effect of idolising the lifestyle Montana and co lead, but the way it gradually crumbles and destroys everything should be a pretty clear indicator of how such things actually go. Still, it all makes for a heady mix.

    5 out of 5

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

  • The Conversation (1974)

    2017 #10
    Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Conversation

    In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

    That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

    Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

    It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

    Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

    5 out of 5

    The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Vehicular Review Roundup

    Get in Vehicle 19 to go for a Drive with The Driver in today’s roundup, featuring:

  • The Driver (1978)
  • Drive (2011)
  • Vehicle 19 (2013)


    The Driver
    (1978)

    2017 #101
    Walter Hill | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / PG

    The Driver

    Walter Hill’s stripped-back neo-noir car chase thriller stars Ryan O’Neal as The Driver, a getaway man for hire and the best at what he does. Out to get him is Bruce Dern as The Detective, who’ll go to any lengths to catch him — including illegal ones. Almost cornered, the Driver enlists the help of The Player (Isabelle Adjani) to thwart the Detective.

    The film’s influence on the likes of Baby Driver and Drive is clear (Nicolas Winding Refn claims not to have seen it before making his film, but it must’ve been seen by someone somewhere down the line, whether that’s original novelist James Sallis or screenwriter Hossein Amini, because the DNA is right there). Both those later efforts burnished and perfected the formula in different ways, but the original has a gritty, low-rent charm of its own. The archetypal characters and straightforward noir plot are delightful almost because of their simplicity, while the few action scenes are handled with the panache, not of a slick blockbuster, but of a filmmaker who knows how to create something effective even within his limitations.

    The Driver maybe doesn’t transcend those to the level of being a classic, but, for fans of the genres it crosses, it’s deservingly a cult favourite.

    4 out of 5

    Drive
    (2011)

    2017 #106
    Nicolas Winding Refn | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Drive

    Iconoclastic Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had made noteworthy films before Drive, but it felt like this was where he really hit home. It stars Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and part-time movie stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway man, but when he tries to help out his attractive neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her husband (Oscar Isaac) he gets embroiled in a crime with deadly consequences.

    It’s a noir storyline with a familiar shape, but as with many of the best examples of that not-quite-a-genre it’s the stylish filmmaking that elevates the material. Refn was influenced by the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone to take a very American genre and give it a European influence, and the result is a movie that’s as much about its mood and feel as it is the intricacies of plot or character. Despite the title and theme it’s not even a car chase movie, really, though the handful of well-created driving sequences do pack a greater punch thanks to their scarcity.

    5 out of 5

    Drive was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project.

    Vehicle 19
    (2013)

    2017 #151
    Mukunda Michael Dewil | 82 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Vehicle 19

    One of the last films Paul Walker completed before his untimely death, Vehicle 19 sees the Fast & Furious star doing what he will always be remembered for: driving a car, sometimes fast. Here he’s Michael Woods, a recent parolee who arrives in Johannesburg intending to reunite with his partner. Unfortunately he picks up the wrong rental car and finds himself the subject of a manhunt, because in the car is evidence relating to a political conspiracy. Unfortunately for the bad guys who want said evidence, Michael is, like, an honourable chap — and also a criminal, so he totally knows how to drive a car like he’s escaping a crime. The main conceit is: the whole film’s shot from within the car.

    Yep, that’s why I watched it. I wish I hadn’t. Vehicle 19 is a deeply stupid movie. Like, Michael’s phone is all-important — it’s the only way he can contact other people; later, it contains vital evidence — but when he notices the battery is low he does nothing about it, despite having a charger in his bag, until the battery literally runs out mid-call. And that’s just one of innumerable nonsensical contrivances throughout the film.

    It lacks pace, and therefore lacks tension. Michael just pootles around the city from the very start. Apparently everywhere is reachable within 20 minutes, or Michael — who’s never been to this city before — thinks it is. Whenever he asks for directions, everywhere he’s going is either just a block away or down the road, third right. At one point the police say they just received a call to 911. From what I can tell, the emergency number in South Africa is not 911. And I could probably go on — the film is absolutely littered with things that just don’t quite hang together.

    Fast and/or furious

    It can’t satisfy as a dumb action flick either. I presume it was a low-budget production with ambitions beyond its scale in the chase scenes. Understandably, the trailer foregrounds these to help sell the movie. Unfortunately for the film, it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch: the clips in the trailer are near-as-dammit the entirety of the film’s action. These sequences are few, far between, short, and, even then, poorly staged. The problem isn’t that they’re all limited to only being seen from within the car (the opening sequence of The Driver does exactly that to marvellous effect, for example), it’s that they lack both adrenaline and plausibility. For example, at one point Michael manages to make the chasing car flip over, but I watched that bit three times to try to decipher it and I still have absolutely no idea how he’s supposed to have done it. Oh, and then the car explodes. And Michael and his passenger seem to react like “oh, that’s that then” and just drive on.

    They’ve got the right idea, though: if you’re thinking of watching Vehicle 19, no, just drive on. Or just put Drive on — it’s a totally different movie, but at least it’s a good one.

    1 out of 5

    Vehicle 19 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

  • Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

    aka Zatôichi kesshô-tabi

    2018 #76
    Kenji Misumi | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

    It’s a bit ironic that whoever chose the English-language titles* for the Zatoichi films decided to emphasise fighting in the name of this eighth instalment, because it’s perhaps the least concerned with Ichi’s sword skills so far. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of nifty sequences of blade-clashing fun, but they’re not the film’s focus. You might think that’s antithetical to the series’ purpose, and yet Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest instalments, perhaps even the best of all.

    It begins, as so many Zatoichi films do, with our hero on the run from some gangsters who want to kill him. Ichi accepts a ride from a pair of passing palanquin carriers, but his would-be assailants spot this and resolve to attack further down the road. Before they make their move, Ichi hears a woman struggling along the road with her baby, and insists she take the palanquin instead. The assassins don’t see the switch, however, and so attack nonetheless, killing the mother. Her papers reveal she was returning to her husband, the baby’s father, and Ichi, blaming himself for her death, insists he make the 65-mile journey to return the infant personally.

    This is where Fight differs from the norm, because it’s at least as concerned with Ichi’s need to care for the child as it is with him fending off the assassins, who naturally pursue him on his way. The impromptu sidestep into de facto fatherhood leads to plenty of goofy comedy, much of it around bodily fluids, like when and where the baby pees, the stench of its used nappies, and also a scene where Ichi tries to get the kid to suckle on him while they wait for actual milk. Another amusing sequence sees Ichi hired a prostitute for the night, but only so she can look after the baby and he can get some sleep. But he keeps waking back up nonetheless, each time insisting on doing just one more thing for the baby.

    Family unit

    You see, Ichi really cares for the kid, and this is where the other side of the equation comes in: as well as comedy, the situation also brings up a good deal of character-driven seriousness, as Ichi is forced to reflect on the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. No one is better than Shintaro Katsu at playing both sides, transitioning between warm humorousness and grim introspection in the blink of an eye.

    But it’s not only internally that Ichi has cause to consider his lifestyle. Halfway along their journey, Ichi inadvertently saves the life of a female pickpocket, Ko, who he then employs to be the baby’s nanny — mainly so he can teach her better ways and reform her. But she’s a pretty young lady, so naturally she falls for blind old Ichi, and for the child too, and suddenly they’re a little family unit. And Ko wants it to stay that way, for them to raise the baby together; and, despite his protestations to the contrary, Ichi has come to really like the child, and would probably like that life too. But, without spoiling anything, events transpire to make Ichi realise such an existence just isn’t possible for him, and he must do the right thing for the child’s sake. In the end, despite the laughter along the way, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a pretty emotional and sad film, with our hero ending up as he began, and as he always must: alone on the road.

    Lest you think it’s too downbeat, let’s talk about the action! Despite being on babysitting duties, there are still some great fight scenes: there’s one where assailants keep bursting into a hut where Ichi’s trying to change the baby’s nappy (now that’s multitasking); and a gambling scene where he catches a cheating boss in the act, with an ensuing fight outside where Ichi keeps shh-ing his attackers because the baby’s asleep. Then the finale lives up to the series’ recent penchant for exciting visuals: the amassed villains surround Ichi with flaming torches in an effort to confuse his hearing, and as our hero slashes away at them even his clothing catches fire. Sure, we know he must prevail, but there’s real jeopardy in this one.

    Fiery climax

    So, in many respects, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has it all. It’s even got a unity of story and structure that feels almost rare in the series — everything connects up, pays off, has relevance; unlike other films, which often seem to start with a bit of superfluous action or something. But what it has most of all is a storyline that is unique and emotional, and therefore memorable and affecting. It’s easy to see why the film is so often elevated as one of the series’ very best. It’s probably best appreciated as part of the series, rather than as a newcomer’s entry point, because part of its effectiveness lies in it being different from the norm. That said, it stands as an excellent film in its own right.

    5 out of 5

    (A quick caveat: although this is the first Zatoichi film I’ve given full marks, I would, with hindsight, award the same to the first movie as well.)

    * I say “chose” because a literal translation would be something like Zatoichi’s Journey of Blood and Laughter. ^

    Superman (1978)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Superman: The Movie

    You’ll believe a man can fly.

    Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

    Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
    Language: English
    Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
    BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
    UK Release: 14th December 1978
    Budget: $55 million
    Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

    Stars
    Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
    Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
    Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
    Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

    Director
    Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

    Screenwriters
    Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
    David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
    Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
    Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

    Story by
    Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

    Based on
    Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


    The Story
    The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

    Our Hero
    Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

    Our Villain
    Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

    Best Supporting Character
    Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

    Memorable Quote
    Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
    Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

    Memorable Scene
    As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

    Memorable Music
    John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

    Technical Wizardry
    The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

    Truly Special Effect
    You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

    Letting the Side Down
    In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compare to the sodding time travel.)

    Making of
    There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

    Previously on…
    As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

    Next time…
    Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies. There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
    3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
    1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
    4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
    5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
    4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
    Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
    2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
    1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
    1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

    Verdict

    Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

    The Director and the Jedi (2018)

    2018 #59
    Anthony Wonke | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12

    The Director and the Jedi title card

    So, The Last Jedi, eh?

    No, okay, let’s not get into that again. Instead, how about this: the film’s Blu-ray making-of documentary. But oh, how that undersells it. More indicative, perhaps, is the fact it was screened as part of the South by Southwest festival last month. The Director and the Jedi isn’t some cobbled-together EPK featurette, where talking heads tell you how wonderful everyone is and how great the working environment was, while tech guys show you how to build a puppet or paint out greenscreen or, you know, whatever. No, for this one Last Jedi’s writer-director Rian Johnson and his producer Ram Bergman contacted documentary-maker Anthony Wonke to follow them around throughout the film’s production and provide a more truthful account of the film’s creation.

    If that sounds like it would just turn out a video diary (another familiar special feature of the DVD era), the key would seem to be Wonke, who brings considerably more artistry than that. Most making-ofs are, for want of a better word, educational — “this is how they did it”. There’s some of that here, naturally, but it’s not about that. It’s more often about the psychology and emotion of being the people making a new Star Wars movie. But not heavy-handedly (Wonke isn’t constantly making people say how they feel or something), and that’s why it’s so artfully done. It’s even beautifully filmed and edited. It doesn’t look like crummy behind-the-scenes B-roll — there are some legitimately gorgeous shots in here.

    The producer, the apprentice, the director, and the Jedi

    If that makes it sound faked, no, it’s definitely not been staged. Far from it, in fact: this is a warts-and-all making-of. Exceedingly rarely for a documentary about a new release, Wonke has been allowed to include comments critical of the process or filmmakers. Chief among them: Mark Hamill’s much-discussed reservations about Johnson’s treatment of Luke Skywalker. As the title might imply, this is the doc’s strongest throughline, and would be its most affecting were it not for another part (more on that later). I say that because the feeling you eventually get from Hamill and Johnson is one of immense mutual respect, even as their beliefs about what should happen in the film clash. Except they don’t clash because Hamill, the dutiful actor, informs Johnson of his misgivings before committing to realise Johnson’s vision as best he can. It causes Johnson to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing — and, again, such elements of doubt are not something we normally witness in documentaries like this, even as they are surely always a part of the creative process.

    Indeed, the creative process of filmmaking is another major point, especially in how it clashes with reality. The Last Jedi may’ve had a phenomenal budget and a massive production machine to back it up, but it also had just a 100-day shoot to squeeze in the construction of and filming on 120 sets, not to mention travelling around the world for location shooting. What Johnson and co want to achieve constantly clashes with what’s possible with the time and budget available. (The amount of effort that went into making the thala-siren milking scene happen just makes it all the funnier how much some people hated it.) As one producer puts it, eventually you have to fit everything in a box — “this box is big, but it has limits”.

    It ain't easy at the top

    Consequently, there’s a lot of stuff with department heads butting against Johnson’s vision a little bit, either because of time, or money, or “that? In Star Wars?” feelings. But, like Hamill, they all get on with their jobs to serve his vision, because that’s filmmaking. And this is why we, as film fans/theorists, still discuss the notion of the director as auteur, even though filmmaking is undeniably a massively collaborative exercise. The Director and the Jedi is as a good demonstration as any of why the seemingly-conflicting notions of “filmmaking is entirely collaborative” and “auteur theory is relevant” are both true.

    The other most memorable part of the film is how it handles Carrie Fisher’s presence and, well, eventual lack thereof. The bulk of the documentary is dedicated to the actual filming of The Last Jedi (Wonke wasn’t privy to either the writing or post-production, which is a shame because they’re certainly key parts of the creative process), but Fisher’s death is an unavoidable topic, and clearly they conducted at least a short interview with Johnson after it happened. Aside from those few comments, Wonke builds a tribute to her through her work and the regard others hold her in. He chooses to end the documentary, not with the last day of shooting, but with Fisher and Hamill finally reunited on set and on screen, the crew watching in hushed awe as they film that beautiful scene in the Crait hangar. It forms a fitting, respectful tribute.

    The princess and the director

    “Beautiful” is a word I keep coming back to with this documentary — how it’s shot and constructed; how it handles its subjects; how the relationships between people come across. I guess those who hated Last Jedi and Johnson’s contribution will still rile against it to some degree, but even for them I think it’s worth a watch, if only to try to appreciate that no one was deliberately trying to “ruin their childhoods” or whatever. Quite the opposite. And even for non-fans, there’s insight here into humanity when its applied to a joint creative endeavour. If that sounds a bit grand for a blockbuster’s making-of, well, The Director and the Jedi is much more than your bog-standard making-of.

    5 out of 5

    The Director and the Jedi is included on the Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which is released in the UK today.