The Eleventy-First Monthly Review of July 2019

I’ve been writing 100 Films for 151 months now, but I only instituted these monthly progress reports in May 2010 — and that makes this the 111th one! I think that’s worthy of a Hobbity celebration…

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

Coincidentally, it’s also the 50th month of these “new look” monthly updates (the ones with the funny titles and all the formal sections), which means it’s also the 50th iteration of my Arbie Awards. You can see how I’ve honoured that special occasion when you reach the relevant section.

But before that, there’s this…


#99 Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), aka Shin Zatôichi: Yabure! Tôjinken
#100 The Killer (1989), aka Dip huet seung hung
#101 Toy Story 4 (2019)
#102 Sherlock Jr. (1924)
#103 The Lion King (2019)
The Killer
.


  • So, I watched just five feature films in July.
  • That continues my new fewer-than-10-films-per-month streak. Once upon a time such numbers were my norm (from 2008-2013, 58% of months had 9 or fewer films), but for the past few years it, er, really wasn’t (in 2014-2018, 95% of months had 10 or more films).
  • My longest previous fewer-than-ten streak was 7 months, from June to December 2011. If 2019 continues the way it’s going, it could replicate that exactly. But, equally, a lot can change: at the end of July 2016 I was at #127 and went on to finish the year with 195, and in July 2017 I was at #107 and ended on 174; but July 2015 was lower than both of those, ending at #102, and I went on to reach 200. So while I’ll be very surprised if 2019 even comes close to last year’s 261, never say never.
  • In terms of averages, it’s distinctly less heartening. It takes the average for July down from 9.9 to 9.5, leaving it as the only month with an average lower than 10. It also brings the 2019-to-date average down from 16.3 to 14.7, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 17.8 to 15.9.
  • Of of the five films I did watch, one was #100 — later than I’d anticipated, because my underwhelming June tally didn’t get me there, but still the 3rd earliest #100 ever (behind 2018 (10th May) and 2016 (28th May), and ahead of 2017 (15th July)).
  • It was a double catch-up for last month, too: I missed my should-be-monthly Blindspot film in June, so made a selection from that list to be 2019’s illustrious #100. My pick was John Woo’s career-defining heroic bloodshot classic The Killer. Still holds up today, for my money. It’d be nice if we could get a quality Blu-ray release of it, though.
  • And this month’s WDYMYHS film was Buster Keaton’s slapstick classic Sherlock Jr. At 45 minutes, it’s just long enough to qualify as a feature rather than a short. As well as the comedy, it has madcap stunts Tom Cruise would be proud of, and technical effects that still hold up almost 100 years later.
  • Finally, from last month’s “failures” I watched only Toy Story 4. Well, one is better than none…



The 50th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

It’s the 50th Arbie Awards! In honour of that milestone, I’m… not doing anything special whatsoever. So let’s get on with this:

Favourite Film of the Month
Not much to choose from, though I did really enjoy almost all of the limited selection of films I did watch. The winner, though, is an action movie… and also a comedy: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which (as I said above) is not only very funny but also technically audacious and full of daredevil stunts.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
This is an easy pick. I didn’t hate it, but I was certainly left underwhelmed by Jon Favreau’s too-faithful live-action animated remake of animation The Lion King.

Song That Should’ve Been Retitled of the Month
Can You Feel the Love Tonight This Afternoon?

Joke I Stole from Letterboxd of the Month
See above + here.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It was a relatively meagre month for new posts. Well, in fact, there were 10, and my average for the first six months of 2019 was 13, so maybe not so relatively low after all. Whatever, none of those new posts challenged archival ones for popularity: this month’s victor may’ve been a Netflix new release (outside the US) but it only came 39th overall. Perhaps Shaft isn’t the man after all.



I didn’t rewatch a single film last month, which means I’ve got a mountain to climb to get to my goal of 50 rewatches this year — and July is barely helping…

#21 Die Another Day (2002)

To stay on target I should be on about #28 by this point. Oh dear. And the one I did watch was a fluke: I happened across it on TV the other day and ended up sucked in. So, okay, I didn’t really watch it — certainly not all of it — but I did see a fair bit of it; probably a comparable amount to when I caught Skyfall on TV last year, and I counted that, so here it is. I’m still intending to re-watch all of Bond properly at some point (or at least pick up where I left off, which was with OHMSS); but then I’ve been meaning to do that ever since the Bond 50 Blu-ray set came out in 2012…


I made a couple of trips to the cinema this month, but I still missed some big titles — primarily, Spider-Man: Far from Home. There was also Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle/Beatles comedy Yesterday (which actually came out in June, but I didn’t mention it last month), and smaller releases (which therefore weren’t necessarily playing near me or at accessible times) like Midsommar and The Dead Don’t Die. (If you’re a US-based reader wondering why I haven’t mentioned Quentin Tarantino’s successful new film, it’s not out here for another two weeks.)

Last month I noted that some cinema misses from February had now made it to disc, where I’d missed them again. That’s also true this month, with the release of Alita: Battle Angel. The same was true of Dumbo, though that was from my April failures — the fact it and Alita have now reached disc at about the same time shows something about the vagaries of release windows, I guess. Finally on disc, a rewatch candidate: Captain Marvel (not that I’ve posted a review from when I saw it in the cinema yet).

The noisiest releases on streaming this month were TV series, but a couple of Amazon co-productions came to Prime Video: Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, and Beautiful Boy, with a BAFTA-nominated performance from Timothée Chalamet. As for Netflix, they offered doc The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is the kind of thing that’s destined to sit on my watch list for ever and a day. They also threw up some stuff I missed from last year in the form of Paul Feig’s black-comedy mystery A Simple Favour and acclaimed comedy-drama Blindspotting.


So, in conclusion, July’s prospects were marred by my being away on holiday for almost half the month. Perhaps that means August will see things perk up again…

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #62

M:I-2

Also Known As: M:i-2

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 123 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 24th May 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 7th July 2000
First Seen: cinema, July 2000

Stars
Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Jack Reacher)
Dougray Scott (Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Enigma)
Thandie Newton (Besieged, Crash)
Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off)

Screenwriter
Robert Towne (yes, the author of The Most Perfect Screenplay Ever™, Chinatown)

Story by
Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: First Contact, Battlestar Galactica)
Brannon Braga (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Enterprise)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.

The Story
When rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose steals every sample of Bellerophon, the only cure to deadly man-made virus Chimera, his former colleague Ethan Hunt is assigned to get it back. His team includes Nyah Nordoff-Hall, Ambrose’s former lover, who Hunt must send undercover in the villain’s operation. Ambrose plans to blackmail Biocyte, the company behind Chimera, and potentially unleash the virus on the world — unless Hunt & co can destroy it first.

Our Heroes
Daredevil IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time with floppy hair! Basically a one-man team, the film nonetheless nods to Mission: Impossible’s original team-based format by having him recruit thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall and his computer expert chum from the first film, Luther Stickell. There’s also pilot Billy Baird, but I’d completely forgotten about him until I looked up a plot summary.

Our Villain
A former IMF agent gone bad, Sean Ambrose therefore has access to some of the same skills and tech as Hunt, like those (basically magic) masks. Not so fond of dangling from ventilation shafts, though.

Best Supporting Character
For some reason Richard Roxburgh has always stuck in my mind as Ambrose’s South African henchman, Stamp. It was the start of a very successful few years for Roxburgh, in which he had leading roles in high-profile movies like Moulin Rouge, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Van Helsing, playing Dracula in the latter, and was also Sherlock Holmes in a major BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess the lack of critical success that greeted most of those is why he’s somewhat fallen off the radar since.

Memorable Quote
“Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you.” — Swanbeck

Memorable Scene
At the sale of the cure, Ambrose’s henchman, Stamp, captures Hunt and drags him before his boss. As Ambrose gloats, Hunt can only mumble in protest because Stamp broke his jaw. With great glee, Ambrose unloads his gun into Hunt… and only then spots his little finger, which is missing its tip — just like Ambrose did to punish Stamp earlier. He approaches Hunt and pulls his face off to reveal the real Stamp, his mouth taped shut. Meanwhile, ‘Stamp’ is running off with the cure, and as the Mission: Impossible theme surges on to the soundtrack he whips his mask off to reveal (of course) Hunt. #owned.

Memorable Music
The rock version of the main theme, composed by Hans Zimmer and also turned into a song (a song! with lyrics!) by Limp Bizkit, was ever so cool at the time, at least to my teenage ears (I loved the entire soundtrack, actually). It all sounds terribly dated and turn-of-the-millennium now, but hey, that’s music and the ravages of time for you.

Technical Wizardry
For the much-trailed close-up shot where Ambrose nearly shoves a knife in Hunt’s eye, Tom Cruise — in a typical daredevil move — insisted a real knife be used and that it stopped just a quarter-inch from his eyeball. To achieve it with some degree of safety, that knife was attached to a cable that was carefully measured to ensure it wouldn’t, you know, half-blind a major movie star.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
John Woo’s final cut was 3½ hours long. The studio balked at this (understandably!) and ordered a final length of no more than 2 hours. According to IMDb’s trivia, “this could explain why there are so many plot holes and continuity errors in the theatrical cut.” I’ve never noticed those, personally, but now I’d be fascinated to see that longer version. Considering it’s 16 years later and the film isn’t well liked, I guess we’ll never get the chance.

Previously on…
Part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s, the original Mission: Impossible TV series ran for seven seasons, was revived for two more at the end of the the ’80s, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in ’96. (That film narrowly missed out on a place here.)

Next time…
To date, three more sequels, with a sixth (at least) in development. The third also missed out on inclusion here, while the fourth and fifth are part of 100 Films.

Awards
2 Razzie nominations (Worst Supporting Actress (Thandie Newton), Worst Remake or Sequel)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Male Performance (Tom Cruise), Action Sequence (the motorcycle chase))
2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (including Wipeout Scene of the Summer)
[Thandie Newton was also nominated for Female Newcomer at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, British Actress at the Empire Awards, and Supporting Actress at the Image Awards. Take that, Razzie!]

What the Critics Said
“The first Mission: Impossible (1996) had a plot no one understood. Mission: Impossible 2 has a plot you don’t need to understand. It’s been cobbled together by the expert Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne out of elements of other movies, notably Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from which he takes the idea that the hero first falls in love with the heroine, then heartlessly assigns her to resume an old affair with an ex-lover in order to spy on his devious plans. […] If the first movie was entertaining as sound, fury and movement, this one is more evolved, more confident, more sure-footed in the way it marries minimal character development to seamless action.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
“compared to the wildly complicated and almost infuriatingly labyrinthine plot of DePalma’s Mission: Impossible it seems like nothing is happening in M:I-2, but the plot here is actually pretty top-notch. […] what I once considered emotionally unsatisfying and intellectually sub-par now seems kind of fascinating. I still tend to not like plots that revolve around a man-made disease as a MacGuffin — I have no idea why, but they always seem lazy to me — but the Cruise/Newton/Scott love triangle holds some very honest beats […] Scott plays a very interesting, unique kind of villain, one I can’t entirely explain. But I think he succeeds in humanizing somebody who is written to be despicable. Scott’s tearful intensity when he learns of Thandie’s betrayal is almost sympathetic.” — Marcus Gorman, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

How M:I-2 Makes More Sense If You Consider It In a Different Context
“Fully asserting the series reboot mantra, M:I-2 eschews the original’s ethos in favour of […] traditional, near self-parodic Woo bombast (not enough for some fans, but there’s set pieces here that are among his very best). It’s often dopey, but then, to be fair, so are a lot of Hong Kong action films that don’t tend to get flak for that attribute, including Woo’s own action masterpieces made there. Fifteen years on and three more sequels later, it’s curious to observe how Woo’s film is even less like a traditional Hollywood action blockbuster than De Palma’s.” — Josh Slater-Williams, Vague Visages (the full piece has more analysis in this vein)

Verdict

M:i-2, as we used to call it, is pretty much everyone’s least-favourite Mission movie, a place only cemented by the two excellent instalments that have been released during this blog’s lifetime. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure why. It’s very much a John Woo movie, all overblown action and melodramatic stakes, and I’d be tempted to say that turns people off were it not for the love Face/Off receives. Personally I like his style, and I always thought it neat that the Mission series aimed to avoid having a “house style” by hiring distinctive directors for each instalment (a plan that went out the window almost as soon as it began thanks to tapping the bland J.J. Abrams for the third one, but hey-ho). For my money, M:I-2 has a strong storyline (as action-thrillers go), a threatening villain (particularly with his IMF-recruited ex-girlfriend undercover in his operation), and entertaining action sequences. For its genre, what more do you want?

#63 will be about… truth, beauty, freedom, love.

Face/Off (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #28

It’s like looking in a mirror — only not

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 27th June 1997
UK Release: 7th November 1997
First Seen: TV, 22nd September 2002 (probably)

Stars
John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray)
Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Ghost Rider)
Joan Allen (Nixon, The Bourne Supremacy)
Alessandro Nivola (Mansfield Park, Jurassic Park III)
Gina Gershon (Bound, P.S. I Love You)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission: Impossible II)

Screenwriters
Mike Werb (The Mask, Firehouse Dog)
Michael Colleary (Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, Firehouse Dog)

The Story
FBI agent Sean Archer finally corners his nemesis, Castor Troy, knocking him into a coma in the process. Unfortunately, Troy has planted a bomb that will destroy Los Angeles, and the only other person who knows its location is his brother — and he ain’t talking. So Archer comes up with the perfectly sane and utterly foolproof plan to secretly have a face transplant and assume Troy’s identity. Unfortunately, the real Troy wakes up, takes Archer’s face, and kills everyone who knows the truth. Hilarity ensues! No, wait, it’s not that kind of movie — violent bloody action ensues.

Our Hero
Sean Archer, super cop. Looks like John Travolta, until he looks like Nicolas Cage. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when you’re watching the film.

Our Villain
Castor Troy, super villain. Looks like Nicolas Cage, until he looks like John Travolta. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when— wait, I did that bit.

Best Supporting Character
Castor’s brother, Pollux. Yes, that’s his name. Looks like Alessandro Nivola throughout.

Memorable Quote
Castor Troy: “Sean Archer here, who’s calling?”
Sean Archer: “Well if you’re Sean Archer, I guess I’m Castor Troy.”

Memorable Scene
The good guy’s teenage daughter — played by Dominique “Lolita” Swain, as if to ram the point home — is hanging out in her bedroom wearing next to nothing, when in walks the villain, who starts perving over her… oh, and he’s got her dad’s face at the time. This is the kind of scene you can have when your body-swap movie is rated 18, I guess.

Making of
According to IMDb, the studio wanted John Woo to take the slash out of the title, but he kept it so people wouldn’t think it was a hockey movie. I don’t know why you’d think it was a hockey movie without the slash, or why adding a slash magically stops it being a hockey movie, but that’s what it says.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Director, Writer)
7 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Younger Actor/Actress (Dominique Swain), Music, Make-Up)
2 MTV Movie Awards (including Action Sequence for the speedboat chase)
4 MTV Movie Award nominations (including Best Villain, shared between Nicolas Cage and John Travolta)
1 Golden Trailer Awards nomination (Best of the Decade)

What the Critics Said
“Travolta and Cage make superb adversaries, flip-flopping roles, first as hero, then as villain. What titilating fun to observe Cage seethe with venom and Travolta meet danger head-on, then see Cage become Travolta, as the latter adopts the unmistakable characteristics of the fiend. […] Face/Off is a masterpiece equal to the action classics Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Gorgeously shot with lots of Ol’ West style close up on the eyes while silence is only interrupted by the sounds of gun magazines falling to the ground. Woo’s directorial vision and the clever exchange of snark and built up bitterness displayed in the dialogue are just two of the beautiful components displayed in the first 30 minutes of this film that set the tone of the fucking masterpiece that it is.” — Amy Seidman, This Film Is Better Than You, Deal With It

Verdict

After making his name as an “heroic bloodshed” director par excellence with films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo headed for Hollywood… and made Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and nuclear-warhead-theft thriller Broken Arrow. But after those he made this, surely one of the best action movies of the ’90s. Its sci-fi high-concept allows Travolta and Cage to have a whale of a time in each other’s bodies, and Woo’s trademark OTT action is as exciting as ever.

Next: #30, ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!

Hard Boiled (1992)

aka Lat sau san taam

2008 #43
John Woo | 122 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Hard BoiledThe first John Woo film I saw was Mission: Impossible II. I think. It may’ve been Face/Off, which I love, but this works better with M:I-2 because most people don’t like it. Personally, I like M:I-2. It’s not the greatest action thriller ever, but it has its moments and the plot isn’t half as complex as some like to claim. It’s certainly more fun than Brian de Palma’s Euro-thriller first film, which in retrospect looks a bit like a proto-Bourne. Of course, what M:I-2 really had going for it were its action sequences, which are occasionally a bit out there but always expertly done. Face/Off’s are even better again. Anyone with a basic understanding of structure can’t fail to see what I’m going to say about Hard Boiled.

I don’t think realism is Woo’s strong point — at least, not in his straight-up action movies. That’s not a flaw, though, but a deliberate choice — he dispenses with the realism of what a gunfight would be like (presumably, bloody scary and with fewer shots fired) and pushes the male fantasy of mindless slaughter to the limit. Which means his action sequences are pure adrenaline-pumping fun. Chow Yun-Fat single handedly slaughtering a warehouse full of heavily armed gangsters? Well, of course! Or directly hitting a small object wedged in an electrical pipe with a shaky shooting arm? Naturally! The action may have all the realism of a Dali painting, but it also has all the gleeful fun of repeating everything your sibling said when you were five — except with more choreography. It’s a cliché, but there’s something about Woo’s action that makes you want to use the word “balletic”. Not that I’ve ever really watched ballet. I expect it involves fewer guns.

These sequences seem to have been designed with one thing in mind — cool. And they are. There are a few holes in the plot and characters’ logic, but that doesn’t matter when they can leap around firing two pistols at once and always hit their target, while the bad guys — who could shoot just fine when they slaughtered some innocents a few minutes ago — keep missing them… with machine guns. If you think about it too hard then of course it’s nonsensical, but somehow, in some way, this sort of action seems to appeal to most men (not all, of course, and if you enjoy it then don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re a bloodthirsty braindead weirdo). One particularly astounding sequence is achieved in a single long take, as Yun-Fat and Tony Leung make their way down several corridors killing Very Bad Men literally left, right and centre. It’s both exciting and technically impressive, considering how many squibs, blood packs, weapons and extras must have been involved to pull it off in one uncut shot.

If you don’t care for people shooting at each other, especially when it pushes believability beyond the limit, then there’s not really anything for you here. There’s some male bonding stuff, and other bits about duty and honour and sacrifice, and a climactic subplot involving lots of cwute lickle baby-wabies; but Hard Boiled is most at home when the bullets are flying and things are blowing up. And what a lovely home it is.

4 out of 5