Train to Busan (2016)

aka Busanhaeng

2017 #140
Yeon Sang-ho | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Train to Busan

Zombie movies have really risen to prominence this decade, for whatever reason (the success of The Walking Dead is an obvious culprit, though it would seem to have begun slightly before that, with Zombieland coming out in 2009, for example). You’d think that would result in the subgenre feeling played out, and there are certainly plenty of lesser efforts churned out, but films like the exceptional Train to Busan show there’s still quality to be found.

The film centres on Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a fund manager living in Seoul with his young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Su-an). Seok-woo’s work-focused attitude has left his relationship with his daughter strained and distant, so he acquiesces when she requests to visit her mother in Busan. As they board the train — alongside other passengers that represent a cross-section of society, natch — a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Initially safe in their carriage, the passengers must hope they can make it to safety.

The family that fights zombies together...

As you might expect, the mismatched group of passengers fall prey as much to their own infighting and prejudices as they do to the zombie hordes, and the situation works wonders for the father-daughter relationship of the lead characters. Despite that apparent predictability, co-writer/director Sang-ho Yeon and his cast earn our sympathies and create an attachment to these characters, such that we’re along for the journey with them. Whether or not you guess the letter of the plot is beside the point if you feel it along with the characters — when you’re on edge to see if they can make it, upset by their failures, and cheered by their victories. This also contributes to some effective suspense sequences, and the film is also peppered with intense, pulse-racing action scenes that have been impressively mounted. World War Z may’ve seemed to corner the market for “zombie movie as action epic”, but there are sequences here that give it a run for its money.

Train to Busan shunts aside any tiredness you may feel about zombie flicks to demonstrate that, however overdone a genre may seem, there’s almost always room for fresh voices and creativity to produce remarkable work.

5 out of 5

Train to Busan placed 14th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

And that completes the reviews of my 2017 viewing (at last!)

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

2018 #164
Christopher McQuarrie | 147 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English & French | 12A / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

You can keep your Infinity Wars and your Incredibles 2sthis is the movie I’m most hyped for in 2018. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it was announced we’d be getting another impossible mission from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who knocked it out of the park with the superb Rogue Nation. Anticipation only intensified with the fantastic trailers (that first one, scored to a Lalo Schifrined-up version of Imagine Dragons’ Friction, is a work of art in itself), and reached fever pitch with the influx of super-positive reviews in the past couple of weeks. Living up to the hype began to seem like an impossible mission all of its own.

Well, if there’s one thing Ethan Hunt and his IMF teammates can pull off, it’s… a rubber mask. But if there’s another, it’s the impossible — and how!

Two years after the events of Rogue Nation, Hunt (Tom Cruise, obv.) and his regular sidekicks Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are after three stolen plutonium cores that could be used to make nuclear bombs. They must stop them falling into the hands of The Apostles, a radical group seeking to execute the manifesto of John Lark, a shadowy figure the intelligence services have been unable to identify, who seeks to bring about a seismic change in the world order. When the IMF’s attempt to acquire the plutonium goes sideways, Hunt is assigned a CIA minder, August Walker (Henry Cavill), with orders to let nothing get in his way of finding The Apostles — including Hunt.

From there, we’re heading into proper spoiler territory (I already rewrote that last paragraph to avoid giving away an early twist. You’re welcome, readers). However, as the trailers have already revealed, the storyline brings back into action the last film’s antagonist, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), as well as Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the MI6 agent whose allegiances were constantly under question in Rogue Nation. She was ultimately confirmed to be on the side of good, but was supposed to be leaving the game. Why is she back? And whose side is she on now?

Faust-Ethan pact (that's a pun, FYI)

The plot that mixes all of this together gets… complicated. In some respects there’s a clear throughline from one action set piece to the next, but in others it can leave you reeling as it rockets from twist to reveal to counter-twist to counter-reveal. Mostly I think you have to go with the flow and accept whatever’s happening in the moment — if you start to think about the bigger picture (how people knew what when, and how they planned for this, that, and the other), it’ll make your head spin. Naturally, I was trying to do the latter, and got completely lost at one point in the middle when there’s an assault of back-and-forth twists about who has the upper hand. Again, if you just accept it and go with it, it’s fine, but try and unpick the logic of the whole thing in the moment and, well, you’ll be so busy thinking that you’ll probably miss another twist. Personally, I have a lot of faith in McQuarrie as a screenwriter, and I have no doubt the whole thing does make sense (or enough of it, at any rate), but he’s too busy racing along to let the film stop and allow you to confirm it for yourself.

Fiddly plots are nothing new to the Mission franchise, of course: the very first one was (and often still is) criticised for having a story that’s more impossible to follow than a typical IMF mission is to execute. What is new to Fallout’s story is that it’s a sequel. Obviously, there are four other Mission: Impossible sequels, but they’re all standalone movies really. With the return of Lane and Faust, plus some of the baggage they had with them, a lot of Fallout spins out of Rogue Nation — it’s unquestionably a direct sequel. And, once again without wanting to get spoilery (though, again, this is partially given away in the trailers), it also picks up on hanging threads from movies even further back in the series. In this respect it’s a great film for certified Mission fans: there are a number of payoffs and answers to questions that are only still thought about by such devotees; but it’s also done in such a way that it never obstructs the fun for casual viewers. That goes for the whole sequel thing: although the storyline is grounded in the events of Rogue Nation, Fallout gives you enough info that you could watch it as a standalone.

Long walk off a short aeroplane

Talking of Rogue Nation, about 24 hours before seeing Fallout I listened to Empire’s legendary three-hour Rogue Nation spoiler podcast, in which McQuarrie talks a lot about the writing process of a Mission movie, and what he learned about that during Rogue Nation. With his observations fresh in my mind, it shed an interesting light on Fallout — how and why it was doing certain things, as well as about when it chose to do them. Perhaps that’s why I was able to spot some of the reveals and stuff, because I knew the (self-imposed) rules McQuarrie was playing by. But there are some fascinating contrasts, too. For one not-really-spoilery example (because I’m going to talk about literally the first scene of the movie now), in the podcast he talks about how Mission films have to begin with a burst of action — no plot, no story, just straight into an action scene. It’s partly about giving the audience an instant thrill, but it’s more about letting them settle into watching the movie before you throw important information at them. But Fallout does literally the opposite: the first scene sees Hunt receive one of the series’ famous briefings (delivered, as always, in a completely different manner to how we’ve seen it done before), and that, as it’s precisely designed to do, delivers a massive infodump of plot. Now, how much of it you need to take in I’m not sure — various bits are explained again later as they become pertinent — but it certainly implies you should be paying attention. I’m in no way criticising this (I really liked everything in the pre-titles), it’s just an interesting contrast to how McQuarrie said things ‘needed’ to be done last time.

Another thing from the podcast: one rule they set themselves on Rogue Nation, which ended up being a massive thorn in their side, was that there had to be constant escalating tension, meaning the film had to end with the biggest action sequence of all. This was a self-imposed rule, but they struggled with it for ages before they finally realised it just wasn’t what the story demanded, which was when they alighted on the ending that saw Hunt outsmart Lane rather than engage in a massive action scene with him. Clearly McQuarrie came into Fallout more prepared, however, because while there are big stunts and action scenes throughout the film, the finale is the largest, most complicated, most dynamic, and most impressive sequence of the lot.

Watch that ankle...

And so we’ve come to the real point of the movie; the thing the trailers and posters and behind-the-scenes videos have all sold it on: the action sequences. Simply, they’re incredible. Cruise’s dedication to giving the audience something new and exciting and awe-inspiring to watch is second to none. He spent literally years preparing for this film, learning to fly a helicopter and perform HALO skydives. That’s him flying the helicopter. That’s him jumping out of a plane. That’s him doing all sorts of other stuff too, like riding against traffic on a speeding motorbike, or jumping across rooftops, or falling off the side of a mountain. The only effects work here is for the odd spot of safety-rig removal or, I presume, one or two moments that would be impossible to achieve safely in real life. And this dedication has paid off: it’s so much more thrilling when you know this has all been performed for real than it is to watch some pixels or someone on a green screen. Those kinds of effects have their place in other movies, and can provide a thrill within the context of the story, but they nonetheless lack the tangibility that doing it for real provides, and the knowledge it’s a genuine feat you’re watching adds a whole extra thrill of its own.

In filmmaking terms, McQuarrie does all he can to match Cruise’s drive to entertain us with his daring — not by being daring himself, but by showing off Cruise’s efforts in the best way possible. McQuarrie favours going without score for the action scenes, letting the sounds of revving engines, squealing brakes, thumping punches, and all kinds of crunching and smashing and thudding, be the only music you need. The tension and excitement comes purely from the physical feats on display, plus the camerawork and editing that showcase them. It works like a charm. I’ve seen music-less action sequences in the past where you feel the absence on the soundtrack; like something more is required. Early on in Fallout, I noticed the absence of music during these scenes only because I was aware McQuarrie favoured it that way, and because of how much it wasn’t needed. But by the end of the film, I was too hooked to care — I honestly can’t tell you if Fallout’s big finale sequence has music or not, because it grabs the attention so thoroughly that I’d just stopped being aware.

Arms fully loaded

Of course, other parts of the movie do have a score, provided by Lorne Balfe. Thanks to where it’s been applied, much of it is atmospheric rather than the pulse-racing theatrics you expect of an action movie score, though he makes nice use of Lalo Schifrin’s original themes — both the main one and The Plan — to provide grace notes where required. Plus there’s the big title sequence to really show off that iconic main number — and, like Rogue Nation, we’re treated to it twice. At my screening the houselights came up and people started walking out during the second one, which kind of bugged me — it’s not just names scrolling, it’s part of the movie, McQuarrie using it as a kind of final hurrah to send you away with (just as he did in Rogue Nation — he’s repeating the ‘trick’ because it works so damn well). Personally I prefer Joe Kraemer’s rendition of the title theme from last time, but Balfe’s is a worthy alternative.

Also new to the franchise is cinematography Rob Hardy, who’s delivered some gorgeous photography here. Not in a showy way, but there’s a richness to some shots, plus consistently great choices of angles and camera moves. The entire thing is about forward momentum — from set piece to set piece to set piece — and that’s conveyed by the way the camera moves, too. Even, for example, when cars drive up to buildings: rather than just observe it, the camera’s behind them, low to the ground, speeding along. Rarely has some people arriving at a near-empty airfield to get on a plane felt so exciting. I believe the film was shot mostly on 35mm, and those who care about such things will surely notice the benefit in many sequences. The big exception is the couple of sequences that use an IMAX ratio if you attend such a screening, which were shot in digital 8K (the need for small, light cameras precluding the use of genuine IMAX ones). Long gone are the days when mixing film and digital would make the difference obvious, however, and the switch between formats is entirely unnoticeable.

IMF class of 2018

If there’s one disappointment, it’s that the trailers gave too much away. Technically there’s a shedload of plot stuff they didn’t reveal, but honestly, the plot’s not where the real entertainment value lies. For one thing, seasoned viewers will see most or all of the twists coming. Maybe they could’ve kept some returning characters a surprise, but they’re all in the trailer too. No, this film is all about the incredible action, and story context only adds so much to that. What it does add, at least, is tension: the “oh my God, Tom Cruise is doing what?” factor may’ve been burned up by the trailers, but the edge-of-your-seat suspense about whether Ethan Hunt can achieve his goals is still there. And while the mind-boggling-ness of a first impression may be gone, the stunts are still genuinely spectacular — so much so that you can watch them again and again and still be thrilled, which means they do survive being in the trailers. Of course, if you were lucky (or sensible) enough to avoid those advertisements… boy, are you in for a treat!

Even if you didn’t, I still think it’s a treat — they went and put all the best bits in the trailer and yet it’s still bloody spectacular. I think Rogue Nation may’ve had a better story, but nothing beats Fallout for adrenaline and spectacle. Well, every Mission movie is different in its own way, has its own strengths, and it’s clear what Fallout’s are. Personal preference will therefore dictate where you rank it next to the other movies, but what I’ll say is this: in a series where the level of consistency is so high that my personal favourite is usually whichever one I happen to be watching at the time, Fallout easily stands toe to toe with the rest.

5 out of 5

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is in UK cinemas now, and in the US from this evening.

“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. ^

  • 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. ^