Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

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  • Show Boat (1951)

    2014 #110
    George Sidney | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Show BoatYou’d be forgiven for thinking MGM want people to forget this movie even exists: it was dumped on US DVD back in 2000, it’s never had a UK disc release, and a long-rumoured special edition has never emerged. That’s a shame, because there’s a good-quality musical tucked away here.

    The titular boat floats into a small community, where things immediately begin to go awry: someone reports the star couple (Robert Sterling and, more importantly, Ava Gardner) to the authorities for their interracial relationship, leading to them being carted off; fortunately, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) is around to hop on board in their place, owing in part to his instantly falling in love with the ship’s captain’s daughter (Kathryn Grayson). To be honest, I found much of this opening a little hoary, including an insipid and instantly forgettable love song between Keel and Grayson.

    With that out of the way, however, things begin to warm up: the boat sets sail (not that any sails are involved) into the early-morning mist, to the strains of Ol’ Man River, a downright fantastic song. “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living and scared of dying”*Ol' Man Rivera bit fatalistic for a bright little musical about two people falling in love on a show boat? No, it’s just an indication of where things are going — into darkness, as modern parlance would have it, because from here on out everything goes to pot. To detail the ins and outs would be to spoil the narrative, but much of the film is more tragedy than cheesy Hollywood musical.

    I think people forget just how many musicals actually are pretty glum. They’ve acquired the image of being happy-clappy-smiley-singy nonsenses, but many of them — and most of the best ones — come with a thick undercurrent of reality, or classical tragedy. I mean, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, for crying out loud — and doesn’t really sanitise the ending, as musical-haters might expect. Show Boat may build to a largely happy finale, but it’s not so for everyone, and the journey there is not all toe-tapping tunes and jazz hands.

    This is the third film of Show Boat, based on a stage play that’s based on a novel. Apparently this version cuts back on both comedy elements and racial elements, so is presumably both less funny and less serious than some of the other versions. It seems many critics, scholars and fans consider one or more of the other versions to be superior. They may be right — I’ve not seen or read any of those — but, on its own merits, I think this is a very fine version of the apparent story, songs and themes.

    The show boatPerhaps it isn’t a film to ease back with on a Sunday afternoon, but not every old film or musical needs to be. If you can get past the opening, Show Boat offers a tough, emotional, perhaps even challenging, view of the world that marks it out as a film deserving of some rediscovery. Can we have that special edition now, please?

    4 out of 5

    * In case anyone thinks I’m trying to deny black people their voice or something, the original lyric, as written, goes: “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin'”. I changed it for clarity when read, though it being sung like that is in many respects vital to its intent. ^