Review Roundup

Even though my film viewing has slowed to barely a trickle recently (more about that on Thursday), my review backlog is still humongnormous (so I big I had to invent that new world to describe it).

So, here’s another exceptionally random selection of quick reviews to help clear out a tiny fraction of it. They’re connected merely by being films I watched over a year ago. Three of them score 3 stars, one of them scores 4, and I suspect you won’t guess which that is…

In today’s roundup:

  • American Assassin (2017)
  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • Yes Man (2008)


    American Assassin
    (2017)

    2018 #79
    Michael Cuesta | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Turkish & Persian | 18 / R

    American Assassin

    Based on the Mitch Rapp series of novels by Vince Flynn (and, since Flynn’s death, Kyle Mills), American Assassin is an action-thriller about a CIA operative that’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a film starring Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or anything else along those lines. Indeed, it particularly reminded me of the last-but-one Jack Ryan reboot, crossed with something altogether murderier — you’ll notice this has an uncommonly high 18 certificate. I guess that was for some torture that goes on; although it also features a very intense opening scene, depicting an attack by terrorist gunmen on tourists at a beach resort. Considering this is no more than a dumb action-thriller, one might consider it a bit much to include such a viscerally-real-feeling sequence, inspired by relatively recent real-life attack(s), just to kickstart the hero’s journey…

    The film was made for just $33 million, which is chump change in modern Hollywood, and they’ve not done badly off it. The shooting locations do seem a little limited (the main sequence in Istanbul looks more like it was shot in a London shopping precinct (which, as I found out when I checked after, it was), and the bit in Poland is moderately familiar as London too (it’s Somerset House, recognisable to UK cinephiles as where Film4 host their outdoor summer screenings); but I’ve seen worse CGI in bigger-budgeted films, and the fisticuffs are decently staged.

    Altogether, it makes for quite an entertaining action thriller, with some decent scenes, but the story is wholly familiar — Mitch Rapp: Sum of All Shadow Recruits, if you will. Fans of the genre will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they’ve not seen some of the other films it feels so similar to (though if you’re a fan of the genre I don’t see how you wouldn’t’ve), but others need not apply.

    3 out of 5

    Captain Underpants:
    The First Epic Movie

    (2017)

    2018 #91
    David Soren | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada, France, UK & India / English | U / PG

    Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Somehow I was vaguely aware of the existence of a series of books called Captain Underpants, but I’d paid them no heed because they’re for young kids, and also because they looked stupid. I thought the same thing of this movie adaptation, but then I started hearing good things about it and, well, here we are.

    It’s about two young boys who love nothing more than pranking teachers and creating superheroes. When their headteacher separates them because of the former, they manage to hypnotise him and convince him he’s the latter — the eponymous Captain Underpants. Initially that just makes their school life more fun, but then a supervillain turns up, so he’s handy for that too.

    Obviously it’s all thoroughly daft and primarily aimed at younger children — there are Messages without it being preachy, and it’s suitably irreverent and base at times. It’s the movie equivalent of mixing veg into, like, a burger, or something (I dunno, I’m not a parent. What food do you hide veg in?) But it also contains some good gags for the adults (satire!) and some clever bits of animation and stuff as well — it’s more inventive than you might expect in that regard.

    Indeed, I feel like it’s all-round better than you’d expect, given the title and overall style (the kiddie design and tone; the toilet humour)… but not so much better that it warrants 4 stars, so…

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries
    (1957)

    aka Smultronstället

    2018 #90
    Ingmar Bergman | 87 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Wild Strawberries

    “Wondrously warm, one of Bergman’s very finest achievements, and a landmark in the history of cinema,” says Geoff Andrew in the notes that accompany the UK DVD release of Wild Strawberries, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed movies from a career filled with them. However, speaking for myself, I’m still struggle to get a handle on the director’s output.

    It’s about a grumpy old professor (Victor Sjöström) who sets out on a road trip to collect an honorary doctorate. Along the way he has various encounters with other travellers, which prompt daydreams and memories that cause him to reassess his life and its worth.

    Put like that, what it’s “about” seems obvious, though in my notes I wrote “I’m not sure I have any idea what it was about. Something to do with old age and looking back and maybe death,” so how effectively its themes come across on a first viewing is, perhaps, debatable. That said, I’m fully prepared to accept I was looking in all the wrong places, maybe focusing too much on the literal road-trip storyline and not the figurative exploration-of-self the trip was provoking.

    On the bright side, there’s some effective imagery in the dream sequences, and I found it less crushingly dull or obtuse than Persona, which is something. Maybe Bergman’s just not for me? Or not for me yet? Well, I didn’t dislike it, but at the same time I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe some day I will.

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    Yes Man
    (2008)

    2018 #86
    Peyton Reed | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English & Korean | 12 / PG-13

    Yes Man

    Loosely based on Danny Wallace’s memoir of the same name, Yes Man stars Jim Carrey as a negative chap who attends a motivational seminar that encourages him to start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way.

    On the first night, he says yes to a homeless guy who wants a lift across town, then yes to letting the guy use his phone, then yes to giving him all his cash. But it turns out the drive used all his fuel, the call used all his battery, so he can’t phone for help, and he has to trek miles in the dark to buy fuel… not that he has any cash. So much for saying “yes” to everything. But at the petrol station he meets Zooey Deschanel and they hit it off. So, yeah, point made with perhaps the most outsized karmic reward ever.

    I suppose everything about Yes Man is broadly familiar — the romcom story arc; the kooky supporting characters; Jim Carrey’s schtick (it feels very much in same vein as the high-concept ’90s comedies that made his name; although there’s no fantastic element this time, and the worst excesses of his ‘act’ are thankfully limited to one or two scenes) — but it carries it off with reasonable charm. I mean, if you have no time for Carrey’s comedies, and aren’t attracted to Deschanel being a MPDG again, then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you round. For fans of such shenanigans, however, this is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It’s a 3.5-out-of-5-er, but I had a nice time with it, so my score leans on the side of generosity.

    4 out of 5

  • Persona (1966)

    2015 #7
    Ingmar Bergman | 79 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | 15

    Since that debate [between New York critics Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris when the film was first released], writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge.

    Oh dear.

    PersonaThat quote comes from Thomas Elsaesser in the introduction to his Criterion essay “The Persistence of Persona”. He goes on to add that, “Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon. [Every major critic has] written with gravity and great insight about Persona, not counting several books and collections entirely devoted to the film.” Well, I can’t promise gravity or insight. In fact, practically the opposite, because I think that Persona is almost wilfully obtuse.

    That’s not because the film is stupid, but because it’s “slow to understand” in the sense that the viewer can’t understand it — people have been debating its meaning for almost 50 years now, and it seems that still no one really knows what it’s about or what it’s trying to say. Obviously that’s some people’s bag, but it leaves me slightly baffled how it can gain such acclaim as to be well-regarded outside of the circles that decide Sight & Sound’s decennial list — I mean, it’s on the IMDb Top 250! There are some great bits, in particular some gorgeous cinematography, but the artistic indulgences (shall we say) and the complete lack of any clarity of meaning by the end make it an unlikely populist choice.

    Summer holidayThe plot, such as it is, concerns an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has decided to become mute and her nurse (Bibi Andersson), who travel to a seaside summerhouse to attempt recuperation. After we’re told how they grew closer, events concern the breakdown of the relationship between the two women… or is there only one woman? We might end up inside one of their heads… but whose? Or is it both of their heads? Or…

    In his Amazon.co.uk review (which can be found on this page only), David Stubbs reckons that the film is “an occasionally cryptic but overwhelmingly powerful meditation on the parasitic interaction between Art and Life… about the helpless incapacity of art to ‘say’ anything in the face of grim reality.” He may well be right. What the women’s odd relationship/symbiosis has to do with that, I have no idea.

    On the bright side, as I mentioned, it is beautifully shot. Some of it is on the surface unexceptional, but carries a simple beauty; other images, however, are strikingly composed and lit. There’s a particular shot that merges the faces of the two actresses together. Even though the similarity of their features is supposedly what gave Bergman the entire idea for the film, he didn’t come up with that shot until the edit. I personally didn’t think Ullmann and Andersson looked that alike, but, nonetheless, the merged shot could not be achieved any better with today’s photo-editing technology — it looks like one, wholly different, person. I’m sure there’s a deep philosophical meaning there, but I was just impressed by the technological wizardry.

    Lesbian vampires?The film’s other most famous bit is a monologue Andersson delivers one night about a foursome she found herself in. As with most of the film its exact meaning is debatable, but it’s another unusual behind-the-scenes story: it was nearly cut, apparently, even though it’s in many respects the pivotal scene. It’s where the nurse opens up the most, leading to the actress’ ‘betrayal’ by repeating the story in a letter, which is what leads to the disintegration of their relationship and all the confusion/weirdness/’deep psychological filmmaking’ that follows. Later, Bergman lets a monologue (yes, another one) play in full twice. The meaning? He had intended to cut back and forth between the two actresses, but couldn’t decide which shots to discard, so just let it all run twice. At least that’s some confusion cleared up, then.

    Clearly some people get a lot out of Persona. That’s nice for them. For me, it has moments of brilliance, but the stunted attempt to artistically portray the futility of portraying an idea through art is unenlighteningly ironic.

    3 out of 5

    Persona was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Grey (2011)

    2014 #85
    Joe Carnahan | 112 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The GreyLiam Neeson shoots wolves for an arctic drilling company, but when his flight home crashes, he must attempt to lead the small band of survivors across an icy wilderness to the mere hope of safety — pursued all the way by murderous wolves…

    Promoted as Neeson’s latest Taken-style actioner, The Grey is more of a survival horror, but with wolves instead of some mystical entity — though given the apparent lack of accuracy in the wolves’ behaviour, perhaps they’re supernatural after all. Between chases and escapes there’s a fair bit of existential pondering, including some literal staring at the sky and talking to an unresponsive God — “Bergman for Blokes”, you might say.

    Couple this with an ambiguous ending, and the whole is unlikely to please the action-orientated folk the marketing targeted. You might think it’s better suited to an artier crowd, but, conversely, the equally-present genre elements may weigh too heavily for their tastes. At least one over-ambitious sequence rendered through mediocre special effects does little to help.

    It’s very much a film of two co-existant halves, then. For anyone who can reconcile those disparate faces as they come, co-writer/director Carnahan has (some iffy special effects and suspect wolf behaviour aside) crafted an effectively tense, almost scary, movie.

    4 out of 5