The Snowman (2017)

2018 #84
Tomas Alfredson | 119 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Snowman

I read a comment somewhere that said Tommy Wiseau’s notorious film The Room is like a movie made by someone who’s never seen one but has had the concept thoroughly explained. The Snowman is like that but with crime thrillers.

Michael Fassbender stars as Norwegian detective Harry Hole — I presume there’s been some kind of fault of culture or translation there because, in English, that’s pretty much the worst name for a detective ever conceived without deliberately trying to be awful. He’s kind of washed up, with a terrible private life, but he’s also an unassailably brilliant detective — oh yeah, the originality keeps on coming. Anyway, after a woman disappears, an ominous snowman built near the crime sets Hole and a younger cop (Rebecca Ferguson) on the trail of a serial killer who’s been active for decades.

All of which should make for at least a solid crime thriller, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s like the whole thing has been almost-correctly-but-not-quite translated from another language. I’m not just talking about the dialogue (though that’s sometimes that way too), but the very essence of the movie — the character arcs, the storylines, even the construction of individual scenes. Like many a Google Translate offering, you can kinda tell what it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t actually make sense in itself. According to the director, around 15% of the screenplay was never even filmed due to a rushed production schedule, which perhaps explains some of these problems.

Mr and Ms Police

Said director is Tomas Alfredson, the man who gave us Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so you’d expect a lot better of him. Even the technical elements are mixed: there’s some stunning photography and scenery, contrasted with occasional bad green screen; and all of Val Kilmer’s lines had to be dubbed (due to his tongue being swollen from cancer, apparently), but it sounds like it. His performance on the whole is weird, just one more part of the film that doesn’t sit right. It all builds to a massively stupid, unremittingly nonsensical finale. It’s during the final act where things finally goes overboard from “not very good” to “irredeemably bad”.

Indeed, some of the The Snowman is so shockingly awful that I considered if it merited my rare one-star rating. It’s close, but a lot of the film is fine — it actually toddles along at a reasonable three-star level most of the time, before falling apart entirely towards the end. “It could be worse” may be the faintest of praise, but it certainly doesn’t deserve any more.

2 out of 5

The Snowman is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

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Lady of Burlesque (1943)

2016 #5
William A. Wellman | 89 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

Based on the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (as in Gypsy), Lady of Burlesque stars Barbara Stanwyck as Gypsy surrogate Dixie Daisy, a performer in a burlesque show in New York where the backstage arguments turn murderous.

The story unfurls in the traditional Christie-esque shape of a murder mystery: we find out all the different reasons why everyone hates a particular character, then that person dies and they all have motive. For set dressing, instead of the English country houses and other upper-middle-class establishments of Christie, we have the slightly seedy, slightly risqué world of ’40s burlesque… tempered by the strictures of the production code, of course. Stanwyck may get out on stage and wiggle around, but she’s largely shot from the waist up; and it may’ve been released as Striptease Lady in the UK (allegedly), but the clothes remain on (I can’t imagine anyone expected anything else, then or now).

Nonetheless, the world of the story adds some sparkle to proceedings. The investigations are largely confined to a couple of lengthy scenes when the cops turn up, led by Charles Dingle’s meticulous Inspector Harrigan (“This is my first experience with burlesque. It’s a surprising profession.”), and question everyone in one room. These bits have their moments, but feel a little heavy-handed. Around them, the world of burlesque, and the relationships between its performers, rolls on.

Stanwyck carries the film, both on stage and off. Her “will they/won’t they (of course they will)” romance with Michael O’Shea’s comic is kept aloft by her biting ripostes to his advances, and when a comedy sketch is interrupted by backstage noises she saves the day by breaking into song, doing the splits, a cartwheel, and the Cossack dance in quick succession. Not bad for a 36-year-old!

Ostensibly a murder mystery, in practice Lady of Burlesque plays as all-round entertainment with a bit of everything: comedy, romance, songs, shoot-outs, and, yes, both mystery and murders. It’s not the kind of film that will linger long in the memory (apart from Stanwyck’s gymnastics, that is), but it’s entertaining while it lasts.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Horns (2013)

2015 #173
Alexandre Aja | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15* / R

Did Daniel Radcliffe murder his girlfriend? Sprouting devilish horns doesn’t help his case…

Ostensibly a fantasy-horror murder-mystery, in execution Horns is mostly black comedy: the horns force people to tell the truth, to amusing effect. The mystery is so-so: it’s glaringly obvious whodunnit… though, ironically, one reason it’s obvious is ultimately inaccurate. Oops.

It goes wrong in the overblown climax. It’s like someone didn’t know how to conclude the story so went all-out Fantasy. It would’ve been stronger to stay grounded, stick with the characters’ emotions, rather than getting sidetracked into a profusion of effects.

Still, fun while it lasts.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* Horns was cut to get that 15 — details here. It’s available uncut, rated 18, on Blu-ray (but not DVD). Unusually, it’s the edited version that’s on Netflix UK. ^

Murder by Death (1976)

2015 #120
Robert Moore | 91 mins | download | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

A gaggle of famed detectives are summoned to a remote mansion to solve a murder in this detective spoof by playwright Neil Simon. The twist is, all the characters are spoofs of famous literary/film/TV ‘tecs. Also, that the murder hasn’t happened yet. And also, that the person inviting them is Truman Capote. Not “someone playing Truman Capote”, but “Truman Capote playing someone”.

A comedy where a bunch of people are invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder? Yes, it does sound an awful lot like Clue. Indeed, based on my reading, almost all modern assessments of the film seem to boil down to two straightforward alternatives: “it’s not as good as Clue” or “it’s better than Clue”. As it pre-dates Clue by almost a decade, maybe that shouldn’t be our only point of reference? Still, I guess the ’80s-ness and name-y cast of the later film has helped it gain more traction — it certainly seems to be on TV regularly, whereas I only learnt of Murder by Death as a footnote when reading up on the Thin Man series.

For what it’s worth, I think its quality is about level with Clue. Such appreciation may partly depend on one’s familiarity with the characters being spoofed, however: it’s a funny story in and of itself, but a fair dollop of the humour revolves around riffs on the personalities, quirks, and storytelling tropes of Nick & Nora Charles, Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan, whereas Clue requires, at most, that you know the icons from Cluedo.

I said Clue has a namier cast, but Murder by Death is no slouch, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, and Alec Guinness as a blind butler, an affliction that’s mined for all its comedic value (and then some). They all give great comic performances, as does James Coco as the film’s version of Poirot. There are some neat send-ups of the genre — the literally-impossible mysteries and all that — as well as some good old-fashioned wordplay and silliness. The only downside is it loses its way a bit by the end. I suppose it doesn’t strictly need a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, because it’s only a spoof ‘n’ all, but I feel like it would’ve benefitted from a stronger finale nonetheless.

However, it’s a consistently amusing film, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time. It’s definitely worth seeking out for fans of detective fiction who don’t mind the genre being gently ribbed.

4 out of 5