Empire of the Sun (1987)

2015 #44
Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Empire of the SunSteven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim, the son of British ex-pats in China when the Japanese invade during World War II. Separated from his family as they try to flee, Jim encounters born survivor Basie (John Malkovich) and, when they wind up in an internment camp for the rest of the war, a cross-section of the rest of the left-behind. To Jim, a somewhat naïve but capable, confident and determined endurer, the whole thing is a big adventure; we can see the truth, though: that it’s a grim slog of life and death, and most succumb to the latter. The reality of the situation gets to Jim in the end, too… but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

At two-and-a-half hours and with a plot that spans a good chunk of the war, Spielberg crafted a certifiable epic here — not his first, and most certainly not his last. Even then, swathes of material reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor, with top-billed cast members like Miranda Richardson reduced to extended cameos. Paul McGann got an early taster of how he’d be treated on Alien³ a few years later: his part is reduced to literally a single shot.

Nonetheless, some still consider the film to be overlong. It’s a criticism not without basis, even if the material included — and the intrigue of what was lost — remains fruitful. In truth, perhaps the scope and scale of the story leave it better suited to a TV miniseries, where the distinct sections of the narrative (life before the invasion; Jim alone after occupation; life in the internment camp; the free-for-all at the end of the war) could be parcelled off into individual episodes, rather than having to coexist in a single sitting.

Born survivorsAs it stands, the film is a fascinating insight into a less-often-covered aspect of the war. Even in small roles, the quality cast keep it watchable and relatable. Bale’s performance comes in just the right side of annoying — quite an achievement for a character who seems inherently brattish and prone to irritate.

On balance, Empire of the Sun isn’t among Spielberg’s finest achievements. There’s an element of je ne sais quoi in trying to work out why that’s the case — it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but at no point does it fully come together in the way his greatest movies do. Still, my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Spielberg movie is upheld.

4 out of 5

Southland Tales (2006)

2008 #63
Richard Kelly | 139 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Southland Tales

– confusing mess? or profound experience?

I won’t go into my full “how I discovered Donnie Darko” spiel [save that for whenever I finally watch the Director’s Cut!], but ever since I saw Richard Kelly’s first writing/directing effort way back on its original UK release I’ve been waiting eagerly for his second film. It’s a testament to the negativity of the reviews it received — and, perhaps, the influence of reviews in general — that I skipped Southland Tales at the cinema, left it five months after release before getting it on DVD… and even then it was only a rental.

At some point, Kelly split his story into six parts and, in a Star Wars-like move, the film was to be Parts 4-6, while the first three would be told in accompanying graphic novels. “The film will work fine without reading them,” he said (I paraphrase here), “but reading them will lead to a deeper experience.” Southland Tales: The Movie begins with a long recap of events from these books, going so far as to include images from their art. “Oops”?

You have to wonder, if you switched “Directed by Richard Kelly” for, say, “Directed by David Lynch”, would the critics’ reviews have suddenly jumped up a star or two? [some of it is certainly very Lynchian in feel — not a normal film with bemusing aspects, like Donnie Darko, but an all-out muddled weird-fest]

  • David Lynch fans may find this more entertaining than most. Or they may hate it for trying to be Lynchian but failing, or perhaps like it as an example of why Lynch is so good and others fail when they attempt similar feats. I don’t know how they’d use it like that, but I expect they would know.
  • the clear IV, V and VI presented at the start of each chapter — as well as showing I, II and III blatantly on screen during the recap, and having the narration have to recap bits of them — seems to hammer home that this is really for people who are prepared to invest in the whole thing, not people who just watch the film

** raises the question, should you ever have to go further (e.g. reading companion books, comics, websites, etc) to understand a film? Yes and no. If it’s consciously part of a wider ‘experience’, labelled and marketed as such, then why not? But if it’s sold as a film in its own right — or, at least, potentially in its own right (as this was) — then it should really work that way too.

  • narration: tries to explain everything, though does very little to help (difference between Kelly and someone like Lynch, who just leaves it all up to the viewer?) — at times almost uncomfortably over-explaining — you wish it could’ve been done properly, rather than with narration
  • Kelly spent months re-editing, following the critical panning it got at Cannes, trimming the length and restructuring it. And it seems to show, as it feels like a failed attempt to construct something legible out of a mess of half-thought-through scenes and subplots
  • one feels a good director’s commentary and/or the original cut might shed more light on things — this is the sort of film that could benefit from a decent DVD edition, that it probably won’t get due to its lack of popularity… unless it gains surprise critical acceptance years down the line, which isn’t unheard of… though I wouldn’t bank on it here. Perhaps, one day, when we’re all watching Data Crystals, Kelly will have gained enough reputation that a 20th anniversary release will finally explain the damned thing
  • seems to become clearer toward end — there are some answers, at least — but ultimately a lot is left out
  • too many of the ‘underlying ideas’ in the climax feel like a Donnie Darko rehash; odd musical numbers and long takes add to this feeling — almost like Kelly’s taken what he did in Darko and tried to expand it into some ensemble epic kinda thing

i thought, with respect to the film’s crazy half-constructed mess of half-ideas, i’d copy&paste my notes rather than a normal review. so at least that’s one answer at the end for you.

when it was originally conceived, it was set a couple of years in the future; now, it’s just set ‘now’; and soon, of course, it will be set in a fictional past — the copyright year on the film is 2005; it’s credited as 2006 on IMDb (which is when it turned up at Cannes); it was finally released in 2007; and it’s set in 2008

I really wanted to like Southland Tales, in spite of the critical mauling it received, and because I loved Donnie Darko and actually enjoyed Domino too (which Kelly wrote). Maybe — maybe — with time to invest in reading the prequel graphic novels, and exploring whatever official sites or crazy fan theories may be out there on the web, I could get more from this film. Personally, I don’t have that kind of time to invest right now, but I might give it a shot sometime. Until then, it will just remain a largely disappointing mess.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405336/faq

this is the way the review ends, not with a bang but with a whimper

2 out of 5

Southland Tales featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

2008 #4
Peter Richardson | 84 mins | TV | 15

Churchill: The Hollywood YearsWhat if the Americans made a movie of Winston Churchill’s life, prone as they are to re-write World War 2 history to show they won it all by themselves?

This is ostensibly the premise of this spoof from some of the team behind Channel 4’s The Comic Strip. I say ostensibly, because the film is bookended (for padding, I suspect) with scenes that suggest that the real Churchill was an American GI, and the British simply re-wrote history using a somewhat chubby actor called Roy Bubbles. Sadly, the joke was funnier when it was riffing on those US historical re-writes.

The problem with killing that joke is, it’s the best one the film’s got. It’s also just about suitable for a five-minute comedy sketch, or, at a stretch, a series of sketches. The strategy for drawing this out to movie-length seems to have involved those bookends, as well as bunging some outtakes at the end and including a bunch of ridiculous, irritating, and unfunny subplots with Hitler and his entourage. It’s a shame to see the talents of actors such as Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson frittered away on such material.

This is all being a tad harsh, because Churchill actually has its fair share of amusing moments. The supporting cast of British TV comedians are mostly very good, Neve Campbell’s posh English accent (usually such a stumbling block for Americans-as-Brits) is as good as anything a British actress could have delivered, and Christian Slater and Romany Malco make for a likeable pairing. But, again, most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding.

In that respect it’s quite a shame, because there’s a good idea, good potential, and some good laughs in here.

2 out of 5