Knives Out (2019)

2020 #55
Rian Johnson | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Knives Out

After creating the widely beloved and totally uncontroversial Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi, writer-director used his newfound filmmaking cachet to quickly launch a passion project that he’d been working on since after his debut feature, Brick: a whodunnit murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mould, a genre of which Johnson is a lifelong fan.

The story revolves around crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his family of hangers-on, played by an all-star cast (including the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and Don Johnson). When Harlan dies, seemingly by suicide, freelance detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has reason to suspect foul play, and teams up with Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), to find out which of the family members dunnit.

Knives Out is clearly built like a Christie story, though perhaps with a touch more satire and humour. That’s not to say it’s an outright comedy (though I’ve tagged it as one, because it’s often amusing), but this is a heightened world we’re in; it’s the real world, but filtered through the lens of a genre. And rather than follow the familiar formula of a Poirot- or Marple-type case, the film is like one of Christie’s other novels; one of the ones where the broad shape is the same, but there’s some twist or variant in how it’s told. Here, it’s that the detective isn’t actually our POV character, and at times we know a lot more than him (or, at least, different stuff to him). That leads to some effective twists that I won’t spoil, but which certainly keep you thinking and on your toes. I made a prediction as to the true solution before the halfway mark, and it turned out to be wrong, so that was fun (I don’t mean to boast, but plenty of murder mysteries are thoroughly guessable).

The name's Blanc, Benoit Blanc

That said, I wasn’t a million miles off with my guess, but that also doesn’t matter. As I noted in my summation of the film for my 2020 top ten, it’s not so important who actually dunnit when it’s so much fun spending time with the outrageous suspects and Craig’s implausibly-accented detective. That means it achieves something many mystery-based films miss: it’s highly rewatchable, because knowing the outcome isn’t the be-all and end-all. And yet, to achieve that, it doesn’t sell out the mystery entirely — I say “it barely matters who dunnit”, but it’s still an engaging riddle on first viewing.

Knives Out was a notable success, eventually leading Netflix to pay a frankly ludicrous sum for two sequels. I’m glad there’ll be followups, because more mysteries in this vein promises more fun, but it’s a shame that what could’ve been a non-superhero non-action-based big-screen franchise has been nipped in the bud by the streamer. I expect that was literally their goal (and why they paid so very, very much money), but that’s a whole other debate.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Knives Out is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It placed 13th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

Netflix’s currently-untitled sequel is due for release later this year.

Archive 5, Vol.5

I have a backlog of 427 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

Today, melancholic Frenchmen, screwball Americans, and royal Africans are followed by a superhero team-up and a lesson on the evils of social media.

This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • La Belle Époque (2019)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • Coming to America (1988)
  • Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018)
  • The Social Dilemma (2020)


    La Belle Époque

    (2019)

    Nicolas Bedos | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | France / French | 15 / R

    La Belle Époque

    Sixtysomething Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is officially a grumpy old man, and his marriage is on the rocks because of it. To cheer him up, his son buys him an experience with his friend’s company, who stage bespoke historical reenactments as a form of time travel. When Victor’s wife finally has enough and throws him out, he uses his experience to revisit 1974, when they first met and fell in love.

    To oversimplify things, it’s kind of like Groundhog Day by way of Charlie Kaufman: the immersive theatrical experience recalls Synechdoche, New York (in a superficial way, I guess), and Victor’s desire to live it over and over again is, well, obvious. Except he’s not stuck there, but choosing it. It’s a mix of nostalgia and melancholy, because, of course, he’s not actually reliving that day, however much he comes to believe in it.

    Advance reviews led me to believe La Belle Époque would be little more than a pleasant diversion, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It clearly has something to say as regards the power of nostalgia and the need to live in the present. But, deep thoughts aside, it’s also a charmingly romantic film — sharply witty, unexpectedly beautiful in places, and genuinely emotional by the end. It’s a shame that it seems to have had half-hearted distribution outside of France (perhaps the fault of it being acquired by Disney, I suspect with an English-language remake in mind, rather than a ‘proper’ distributor of foreign fare who would’ve shown it more love) because I think it deserves, and would reward, a wide audience.

    5 out of 5

    La Belle Époque was #140 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It placed 7th on my list of The 15 Best Films of 2019.


    The Awful Truth

    (1937)

    Leo McCarey | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

    The Awful Truth

    When Leo McCarey received his Best Director Oscar for this film, he said that he got it for the wrong film — a clear reference to his fondness for Make Way for Tomorrow, which he made the same year. I’m not wholly sure I agree with him, although Tomorrow’s is clearly the ‘worthier’ picture — but that doesn’t always mean better.

    The Awful Truth was the first of three screen pairings of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and the film that refined the latter’s famous screen persona. Here, the duo play a married couple who begin to divorce, only to then interfere with each other’s further romances. When it’s on form, the film is up there with the best of its subgenre: a sparkling screwball comedy with glorious dialogue, a pair of splendid lead performances, and a magnificent dog. Unfortunately, it goes on a mite too long and begins to lose steam in the final act. While that might hold the film back from perfection (and so open the door to the idea that Make Way for Tomorrow is somehow superior), the magnificence of what comes before means it’s still a must-see for fans of this style of comedy.

    4 out of 5

    The Awful Truth was #95 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Coming to America

    (1988)

    John Landis | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Coming to America

    Eddie Murphy plays a pampered but bored African prince, who dodges an arranged marriage to travel to America and find a bride. With that plot and the fact it was made a few decades ago, I was half expecting Coming to America to have aged badly. If nothing else, it seemed primed to base its humour around cringe-inducing culture-clash awkwardness — not necessarily an invalid kind of comedy, but not one I personally enjoy.

    As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s actually rather sweet and kind-hearted, with just enough lewdness to give it a kick rather than make it eye-rollingly vulgar (I’m sure it would only take a couple of minor trims to get that 15/R rating down to a 12/PG-13). Some have criticised it for being too slow — including director John Landis, who asked Paramount if he could re-edit it for the Blu-ray release (they refused) — but I thought it was quite well paced. It doesn’t move at whipcrack speed, but it doesn’t need to. All in all, it holds up well enough that I can see why they decided to produce a belated sequel (which is still on my watchlist).

    4 out of 5

    Coming to America was #28 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Scooby-Doo! & Batman:
    The Brave and the Bold

    (2018)

    Jake Castorena | 75 mins | digital (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold

    There are an awful lot of Batman movies nowadays (58 and counting, according to my Letterboxd list), but I thought I was at least aware of them all. Turns out not, because I hadn’t even heard of this one until I happened to see someone log it on Letterboxd several years after its release. (It’s a direct-to-video production that they didn’t bother to release on Blu-ray, so that’ll be a big part of why it slipped under my radar.)

    A plot description is pretty unnecessary here: the title tells you all you need to know. The reason it’s a particularly unwieldy one is because Scooby-Doo and friends team-up with, specifically, the Batman from animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I watched a selection of episodes from that show a few years ago and, frankly, didn’t enjoy most of them (although a couple are excellent: Mayhem of the Music Meister is so good I watched it twice in as many days, which regular readers will know is very unlike me), so I didn’t have high hopes for this movie either.

    At least it’s an appropriate iteration of Batman to crossover with Scooby-Doo, because (a) the whole point of the show was team-ups, with every episode seeing Batman join forces with a different DC hero (the subtitle is derived from a classic DC team-up comic), and (b) the overall tone of the show was camp and comical, which chimes well with Scooby-Doo. In fact, despite Scooby-Doo getting top billing, the film is really a feature-length episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold guest starring Mystery Inc, rather than the other way round. I mean, it’s set in Gotham City, stuffed with appearances and cameos by other DC characters, and (most of all) it uses The Brave and the Bold’s animation style, even featuring a version of the series’ title sequence and theme music — with a Scooby makeover, of course. Nonetheless, it also adopts plenty of the tropes of a Scooby-Doo story, like the unmasking at the end.

    Thanks to all that, it’s everything you’d expect from “Scooby-Doo meets Batman” — they leave nothing on the table, right down to having Scooby actually say, “Holy Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Batman!” And would you have it any other way? It’s a daft concept, mashing these two cheesy franchises together — there’s no point trying to be above it. By embracing what it is, it delivers what you’d expect as well as could be imagined. For that, I quite enjoyed it on the whole. And so I would say that, if the basic idea of it doesn’t interest you, give it a miss; but if you think it sounds potentially appealing, you should definitely watch it.

    3 out of 5

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold was #105 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Social Dilemma

    (2020)

    Jeff Orlowski | 94 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Social Dilemma

    One of those Netflix documentaries that everyone seems to be talking about for a while but then forgets just as quickly, The Social Dilemma is essentially about how dangerous social media is, as told to us by the people who created it. Not the Mark Zuckerberg of the world, obviously — they’re still raking in far too much cash to want to dissuade us from using their products — but various other developers and whatnot who’ve been involved over the years.

    Naturally, the main reaction to all this information is: “OMG, I totally need to change all my social media habits!” And do people? Not as far as I’ve seen. As one contributor in the doc comments, “knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my usage. So that’s a little scary.” Eesh. We’re doomed.

    4 out of 5

    The Social Dilemma was #20 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • Archive 5, Vol.4

    I have a backlog of 432 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: singing vicars, grumpy gamers, very nice Kazakhs, and deleted actors.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Going My Way (1944)
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
  • Zero Charisma (2013)
  • Borat (2006)
  • The Thin Red Line (1998)


    Going My Way

    (1944)

    Leo McCarey | 126 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    Going My Way

    The Oscars, eh? Every year film fans pay them a load of attention, and every year we seem to be disappointed with the outcome. But this isn’t some new phenomenon: Going My Way hails from the 1940s, but is perhaps the definitive example of a film that managed to sweep the Oscars (it won seven awards from ten nominations) against a bunch of films that have endured to much greater acclaim (films it competed against included Double Indemnity, Laura, Lifeboat, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis. I think we can agree those are all better-remembered on the whole).

    None of which is to say it’s a bad film. It’s a gently-paced series of vignettes, almost like a collection of short stories, springing from young priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arriving to take charge of a struggling New York City parish. His modern ways clash with the old-fashioned values of the incumbent Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), but his worldly knowledge allows him to connect with some of the parish’s disaffected inhabitants. Despite the religious setting, it doesn’t lean too heavily on the wonders of Christianity (you know I’d be the first to rip into it if it did). Overall, it’s perfectly pleasant; an easy afternoon’s viewing.

    Incidentally (and here’s a good bit of trivia that might come in handy for a quiz someday), it was the first Oscar Best Picture winner to have a sequel: The Bells of St. Mary’s, released the very next year… and also the very next review in this roundup…

    3 out of 5

    Going My Way was #93 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The Bells of St. Mary’s

    (1945)

    Leo McCary | 126 mins | TV (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    The Bells of St. Mary's

    This followup to Going My Way was not only the first sequel to an Oscar Best Picture winner, but was also the first sequel to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

    Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley, sent to a new locale, ready to solve another series of subplots at a struggling religious institution, this time butting heads (sort of — it’s never as dramatic as that makes it sound) with Ingrid Bergman’s head nun. Like the first one, it’s really a bundle of subplots for Bing to ‘solve’. The low-stakes problems and amiable tone between the two leads, even when they’re disagreeing, makes for a gentle and relaxing kind of film. I’d give it the edge over its Oscar-winning predecessor, thanks primarily to Bergman’s performance, but neither film is likely to set anyone’s world alight.

    As well as their Oscar success, the films were the highest grossing at the US box office for 1945 and ’46, respectively, another first for a film ‘series’. And yet, with six decades distance, they’re little more than also-rans; nicely obscure trivia answers to “films that won/were nominated for Best Picture”. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for anyone obsessed with the current cultural zeitgeist.

    3 out of 5

    The Bells of St. Mary’s was #187 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Zero Charisma

    (2013)

    Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Zero Charisma

    I’d nickname this Portrait of a Manbaby on Fire. The manbaby in question is Scott (Sam Eidson), a stereotypical alpha-nerd: he has a neckbeard; he wears black T-shirts that feature elaborate depictions of grim reapers and the like; he lives with his grandma; he paints miniature fantasy figurines; he’s the Game Master of a role-playing group, which he rules with an iron fist. But when into-geeky-stuff hipster Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the group and everyone really likes him, Scott finds his position threatened, and he’s not happy about it.

    As much as geek/nerd culture has transitioned into the mainstream over the past couple of decades, there’s still stuff that remains the preserve of the hardcore; the truly nerdy. That culture clash is part of what Zero Charisma is about, of course, with Scott’s true old-fashioned kind of nerdishness clashing with Miles’s new-school cool. But it’s also a character study of the former. Scott may seem a stereotype — like The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy rendered in live-action — but I’d wager anyone who’s moved in nerdish circles has known someone at least a bit like him. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The film exposes and examines those to often amusing effect. Some have said it exaggerates these things, but I don’t think it’s particularly guilty of that. Maybe it generalises them, and lumps all the worst characteristics of the extremely nerdy together into one character, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate, just broad.

    My only real problem was the ending. There’s a scene where everything comes to a head — a climax, if you will — but, in the wake of that, I felt it lacked adequate resolution. Has Scott learnt anything from this experience? Is he a changed man? Maybe a little, but not completely. To be fair, that’s a realistic character arc, because whose personality changes overnight after a single revelation? And yet it also doesn’t feel like the filmmakers quite know how they want to leave things. If they’d been going for a “change takes time and is incremental, but Scott’s started on that road” kinda message, I would have approved. Instead, the film tries to have its cake and eat it by showing Scott as better on the surface, but then secretly GMing a game where he still behaves like an asshole. Maybe it’s trying to say we can never truly change, however much our flaws are highlighted to us, which would be a pretty glum way to end an otherwise likeable comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Zero Charisma was #109 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Borat

    (2006)

    aka Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

    Larry Charles | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Borat

    Ali G’s Sacha Baron Cohen adopts the persona of a Kazakh journalist to ostensibly interview Americans about their culture, but, unbeknownst to them, he’s of course really looking to expose their ludicrous views (you just know that, ten years later, a lot of these people voted for Trump) and take the piss out of them for our entertainment.

    As with most sketch-based comedy, the end result is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very funny; other times, it’s just being gross for the sake of it, like in a naked fight between Borat and his portly producer. A few bits don’t quite land — sometimes you can feel Baron Cohen’s not getting the response he wanted out of his target — and, even though he’s taking the piss out of people who deserve it, it sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable (though that might just be my English reserve/politeness kicking in and making me cringe). Most of the sketches are quite short, which is nice — they generally don’t outstay their welcome, and, if one isn’t working, you can be assured another will be along shortly.

    3 out of 5

    Borat was #220 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Thin Red Line

    (1998)

    Terrence Malick | 171 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Thin Red Line

    An extensive cast of famous actors and recognisable faces star as a battalion of soldiers who spend 2 hours and 51 minutes taking one (1) hill in Terrence Malick’s very Terrence-Malick-y World War 2 movie. I mean, this is a movie about a battle in which the first shots aren’t fired until past the 45 minute mark, but there are plenty of shots showing the minutiae of nature. And there’s a lot of discussion about how there isn’t enough water.

    None of which is necessarily a problem — indeed, there are plenty of people who think this is a great movie, and I’m glad for them. But for everyone who loves it, there’s someone who’d call it “pretentious and self-indulgent, despite gun battles and lush cinematography.” I find myself somewhat stuck in the middle. I mean, if you were expecting a normal combat movie from Terrence Malick, more fool you. And it’s unquestionably beautifully shot — so many gorgeous visuals, but also effective camerawork and editing to convey, say, the chaos of battle. But I also found it to be bitty and episodic. Well, calling them “episodes” might be kind — they’re scenes; sometimes less than scenes; just moments, or even shots. It’s like a really long deleted scenes package pretending to be a movie.

    Of course, the behind-the-scenes stories sort of support that reading. The first cut clocked in at five hours. It took two editors and thirteen months of post-production to get it to a manageable size. Hans Zimmer composed over four hours of music, but only for a few bits of his work made it into the final cut. Billy Bob Thornton recorded narration for the entire film; the released cut has eight different narrators, but none of Thornton’s work is in there. Many actors thought they had significant roles, but found their performances reduced to little more than cameos. Most famously, Adrien Brody thought he was playing the lead role, only to discover at the premiere that he’s in just a couple of shots, and doesn’t even speak until over halfway through (and then it’s just a brief voiceover). And then there are the actors whose work was left on the cutting room floor: Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke… This movie has more great actors whose performances were deleted entirely than most movies have in their entire cast!

    All of which suggests a movie that should be universally recognised as a disaster. That it isn’t — quite the opposite — is testament to something. Maybe someday I’ll rewatch it and find out what.

    3 out of 5

    The Thin Red Line was #77 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It was viewed as an additional film for Blindspot 2020 after I failed to watch it for WDYMYHS 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.3

    I have a backlog of 437 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today, everything from silent comedies to afterlife comedies to toy-licence-based adventure comedies (a burgeoning genre we’re sure to see more of in years to come). Plus a revisionist Arthurian legend for good measure.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Guinevere (1994)
  • The Kid (1921/1972)
  • Defending Your Life (1991)
  • The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
  • Sherlock Jr. (1924)


    Guinevere

    (1994)

    Jud Taylor | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA & Lithuania / English

    Guinevere

    This Lifetime TV movie is like an American Renaissance faire cosplay version of Arthurian legend. Its attempt at a feminist take on the famed stories is interesting, but deserves better writing, filmmaking, and accents.

    Most of Guinevere’s flaws come from its low-rent made-for-US-TV-in-the-’90s roots (the mediocre direction; the tacky music score), but that’s also its biggest asset, because when and for whom it was made means it was shot on film, which gives it a certain gloss (even when downgraded to SD) that taped or digital productions simply lack.

    Story-wise, the love triangle stuff from legend is there, but given a YA spin — it’s practically Arthurian Twilight. Are you Team Arthur or Team Jacob? The feminist bent is not subtle either, which, given changes in attitudes over the past few decades, makes you wonder if it’s ripe for a re-adaptation (it’s based on a trilogy of novels with magnificently florid titles like Child of the Northern Spring and Queen of the Summer Stars).

    You see, despite everything, I didn’t hate it. Maybe I should — it’s not good, by any means — but I liked what it was trying to do, even while it didn’t do it well (at all). It’s a concept someone should definitely take another run at.

    2 out of 5

    Guinevere was #209 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

    Charlie Chaplin | 50 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Kid

    Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length work as star and director sees his Tramp character caring for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan). I say “feature length”, but when you combine a re-edit Chaplin performed in 1972 with PAL speedup, it runs just 50 minutes. I’ve gotta say, I appreciated that. I’ve felt some of Chaplin’s other films have gone on a bit, whereas this didn’t outstay its welcome. That said, I did feel the Dreamland sequence near the end was filler. That aside, it’s quite a nice film. Coogan is particularly effective — he has just the right look for the role, and was obviously very good at imitation and/or taking direction.

    Regarding the length, the original 1921 release was 68 minutes, but for a 1972 reissue Chaplin cut some footage, appears to have sped up the frame rate of the rest, and added a score and some sound effects too. It’s only this cut that gets released on disc nowadays (often with the excised footage included as deleted scenes). The original cut clearly still exists, and yet everyone just seems to overlook it — it’s only if you bother to read up on the film that you discover what most people are watching and reviewing as “a 1921 film” is actually a 50-years-later director’s cut. Imagine if we all just ignored, say, Blade Runner’s original version and just treated The Final Cut as— oh, wait. Never mind.

    4 out of 5

    The Kid was #60 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

    Albert Brooks | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Defending Your Life

    Writer-director Albert Brooks stars as a loner advertising exec who dies and finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife where he has to prove that he overcame his fears. While he awaits his trial, he finally meets the love of his (after)life, Julia (Meryl Streep).

    For a film that’s literally about life and death, Defending Your Life is rather gentle. Like, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s often slightly amusing. And it’s unhurried, too: its 111 minutes aren’t tedious by any means, but it doesn’t rush anywhere. A fun side effect of this is how casual its world-building is. This is a very specific vision of the afterlife, an entire world with its own rules, and while that’s all explained, it’s not laid out in minute detail like a how-to guide. I feel like this is something movies used to happily do but has been eroded by the need for everything to be over-explained and -analysed.

    I liked Defending Your Life a good deal (I’ve picked up a couple more of Brooks’s films on Blu-ray off the back of it), and part of that is certainly its laidback style. Nonetheless, perhaps if it were snappier — quicker witted and paced — it might be a better-remembered film, comparable to something roughly contemporaneous like Groundhog Day.

    4 out of 5

    Defending Your Life was #113 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

    Mike Mitchell | 107 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Denmark, Norway & Australia / English | U / PG

    The LEGO Movie 2

    After the surprise success of The LEGO Movie, naturally a sequel had to follow. Unfortunately, it’s altogether less surprising, because it’s that old fashioned sequel thing: a less-good do-over of the first movie.

    The Second Part feels less focused than its predecessor. It still has a positive message (about not needing to grow up, and about playing together, or something), but it takes a while to get to it, rather than baking it into the entire experience. Maybe that’s intellectualising things a bit — this is a family-friendly adventure-comedy starring toys, after all. But still, the overall journey doesn’t feel as exciting or fun. There are fun little bits on the way, but, moment to moment, it lacks the spark of the first one.

    For a specific example, take the breakout hit of the first film, the irritating song Everything Is Awesome. That angle has been doubled down on, with multiple attempts at emulating the “irritating but kinda loveable” song formula; but while these numbers are annoying while they last, they don’t have the irrepressible catchiness of the first film’s signature achievement — a mixed blessing, to be sure (at least they won’t be stuck in your head afterwards). The end credits are accompanied by a song that jokes about the credits being the best part… but, in this case, the credits kinda are the best part.

    3 out of 5

    The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part was #33 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

    Buster Keaton | 45 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    Sherlock Jr

    Apparently there are ever-raging arguments within the silent film fan community about who was the best comedian of the era. Charlie Chaplin’s got the most widespread recognition, but Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd have their advocates, of course, and I guess there are probably people shouting in favour of smaller names too. I didn’t think I’d ever pick a ‘side’ in these debates — I’m certainly not about to go seeking them out and wading in — and, fundamentally, I do hold with the notion that the greats are all great and so why not appreciate them all? — but, from what I’ve seen thus far, I’m finding Keaton’s work more consistently enjoyable than Chaplin’s. Sherlock Jr. is my favourite of his that I’ve seen so far.

    Keaton plays a film projectionist who’s studying to be a detective on the side. When he’s framed for the theft of a watch, his apparent guilt doesn’t give him much chance to put his skills to the test. But when he falls asleep during a movie, he steps inside it and becomes the world’s greatest detective. And when I say “steps inside”, I mean it in the most literal sense possible: the projectionist walks through the screen and into the movie, and is suddenly subject to its whims — for example, he’s confounded whenever it cuts to a new location. The sequence is both thoroughly entertaining and technically faultless — and I say that viewing it nearly 100 years after it was made, after all the advances in technique and effects we’ve had in that time. Reportedly, the film’s cameraman, Byron Houck, went as far as using surveying equipment to ensure the camera was positioned correctly so the transitions were seamless. The effort paid off.

    The same is true in several other incredible sequences, like a billiards game filled with trick shots, which Keaton rehearsed for four months with a pool expert and then took five days to film. Or a motorbike chase with more I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that death-defying stunts than one of Tom Cruise’s impossible missions. The technical skill is faultless and, even if you’re not wowed by how they pulled it off, the sequences are immensely entertaining in their own right. Maybe it’s just personal taste, but this is why I have a preference for Keaton: his skits are more ingenious, better paced, and backed up with impressive stunt work. When you mix those daredevil antics with genuine movie magic, as he does here, you get a majestic, unforgettable farce.

    5 out of 5

    Sherlock Jr. was #102 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019. It placed 3rd on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.2

    I have a backlog of 442 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: musical comedies from ’41 and ’51; murder mysteries from ’33 and ’73; and an animated film that changed the Oscars.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Royal Wedding (1951)
  • A Study in Scarlet (1933)
  • Chicken Run (2000)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

    Stanley Donen | 93 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Royal Wedding

    Cynically, I assumed this US production was designed as a cash-in to a news event, most likely the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen) and Philip. Although those are indeed the eponymous nuptials, they actually took place several years earlier, in 1947; and in the UK, for its initial release the film was retitled Wedding Bells so audiences wouldn’t think it was a documentary about the real event. So much for my modern cynicism.

    The actual plot is semi-biographical, inspired by the real-life dance partnership of the film’s star, Fred Astaire, and his sister Adele, and who she went on to marry. Here the sister is played by Jane Powell (almost 30 years Astaire’s younger) as the duo take their successful Broadway show across the ocean to London in time for the royal wedding. Such window dressing aside, the plot that unfurls is run-of-the-mill, with both siblings finding themselves in romantic entanglements, and the songs are unmemorable too. The object of Astaire’s affection is played by Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, which adds a bit of fun trivia, at least.

    There is one noteworthy highlight: a set piece in which Astaire dances up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room, an effect that’s achieved seamlessly — there’s no wobble or what have you to give away the trickery, and Astaire’s choreography helps hide the behind-the-scenes technique too. There are one or two other neat bits if you’re a fan of dance-y musicals, but, on the whole, this is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Astaire musical — not bad, just no more than adequate.

    3 out of 5

    Royal Wedding was #180 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

    Edwin L. Marin | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    A Study in Scarlet

    For some reason, cinema has a long history of taking the titles of original Sherlock Holmes stories but then producing an entirely new plot underneath. A Study in Scarlet — the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes works — seems to be a particularly afflicted tale. It features the first meeting of Holmes and his roommate / sidekick / chronicler, Dr Watson, but I think there are two adaptations that actually show this — and, ironically, neither of them are actually called A Study in Scarlet (one is the debut episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, and the other is the first episode of the Russian series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which is called Acquaintance). According to IMDb, “the Conan Doyle estate quoted the producers a price for the rights to the title and a considerably higher price to use the original story” — perhaps they did that all the time, hence my observed phenomena.

    Obviously, this ‘poverty row’ effort is one such example of title/story mismatch: this so-called adaptation stars Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… and that’s where similarities to the novel end. The pair don’t even live at 221b Baker Street — for no apparent reason, it’s been changed to 221a. Did the filmmakers just misremember one of the most famous addresses in literature? Having only paid for the rights to the title, the producers hired director Robert Florey (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts; Murders in the Rue Morgue) to write a new story, and actor Reginald Owen — who stars as Holmes — wrote the dialogue. Owen hoped this would be the first in a series of Holmes films starring himself. It wasn’t.

    Physically, Owen isn’t anyone’s ideal image of Holmes, but his actual performance is adequate. Much the same can be said of the whole film: it’s an entertaining-enough 70-minute crime romp, with enough incident to create a brisk pace, and a use of the rhyme Ten Little Indians that makes you wonder if Agatha Christie saw this movie before she published And Then There Were None six years later (or is it just a coincidence? The audio commentators spend a good deal of time chewing it over). Given second billing behind Owen is bona fide Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, even though she has relatively little screen time. She makes her mark, though, with a role that doesn’t simply conform to racial stereotypes (possibly an unintended side effect of her late casting rather than genuine progressivism by the filmmakers, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get).

    This particular Study in Scarlet is a long way from being a definitive Sherlock Holmes movie, but for fans of ’30s detective flicks, it’s nonetheless a likeable little adventure.

    3 out of 5

    A Study in Scarlet was #206 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

    Peter Lord & Nick Park | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English | U / G

    Chicken Run

    I’ve always enjoyed Aardman’s work. I grew up watching the Wallace & Gromit shorts on TV, and have seen all of their feature output — except their first. I’m not sure why it’s taken me 20 years to get round to Chicken Run. I guess when it was originally released I had grown out of “kid’s movies” but not yet grown back into them; but since then, to be honest, something about it never particularly appealed to me. It certainly has its fans: it’s still the highest grossing stop motion film ever; there was a push to get it an Oscar Best Picture nomination, the failure of which led to the creation of a category it could’ve won, Best Animated Feature (trust the Academy to shut the door after the horse had bolted); and when Netflix recently announced a sequel, there was much pleasure on social media.

    So, finally getting round to it, would I discover what I’d been missing all along? Unfortunately, no. I thought it was fine. In no way did I dislike it, but nor did it charm me in the way of my favourite Aardman productions. It’s rather dark for U-rated film — it doesn’t mince its words or imagery about the fact the chickens are being killed — and that contributes to some particularly effective sequences, like when our heroes end up inside the pie machine, or a suitably exciting climactic action sequence. There are some reliably decent gags along the way, too.

    I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel. Maybe I’ll like it more. But, I confess, the fact they’ve now announced a new Wallace & Gromit movie for the year after does have me even more excited.

    3 out of 5

    Chicken Run was #148 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

    Herbert Ross | 120 mins | digital (SD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    The Last of Sheila

    I’d never even heard of this before Rian Johnson mentioned it as an inspiration for Knives Out 2. Co-written by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from Psycho) and Stephen Sondheim (yes, the famous musical composer), The Last of Sheila is a murder mystery firmly in the Agatha Christie mould — despite the writers’ pedigree, there are no significant horror elements (even the deaths are, at worst, on the PG/12 borderline) and certainly no song-and-dance numbers (excepting a magnificently inappropriate song over the end credits, sung by Bette Midler). Apparently Perkins and Sondheim used to host elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they adapted them into a screenplay at the suggestion of a guest, Herbert Ross, who produced and directed the film (seems only fair).

    Further inspiration came from their professional lives and acquaintances, because the potential victims and suspects are all actresses, agents, and the like, gathered for a Mediterranean cruise aboard a producer’s yacht. He proposes they play a game about secrets and gossip — but clearly one of the secrets in play is too big, because someone winds up murdered. A well-constructed mystery is unfurled throughout the film, although its execution is a little variable: a fun, very Christie-esque first half gives way to long talky scenes in the second, as characters stand around and explain the plot to each other. But when that plot is as good as this — with some nice surprises, plus motives dark enough to give it a little edge — it feels churlish to object too strongly.

    4 out of 5

    The Last of Sheila was #186 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    * IMDb says it was given a 15 on video, but the BBFC say it hasn’t been rated since 1973, when it got an AA. The BBFC site is crap nowadays; IMDb will accept any old junk users submit. You decide. ^


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

    Victor Schertzinger | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Road to Zanzibar

    The second in what became the Road To… series — though it was never intended as such. What ended up becoming Road to Zanzibar was initially an original feature, first offered to Fred MacMurray (this before his roles in the likes of Double Indemnity and The Apartment) and George Burns (an actor I’m not particularly familiar with). After they rejected it, apparently someone at Paramount remembered Road to Singapore had done relatively well, and that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed like a good pairing, and so they were offered it.

    As I wrote in my last review of a Road To film (which was over 11 years ago?! Jesus…), if you’ve seen one Road To film then you’ve a fair idea what to expect from any other — essentially, a suitably daft bit of fluff and fun. This one’s a bit thin — on plot, on gags, on everything — but it skates by on the charm of Bob and Bing, joined, as ever, by Dorothy Lamour. The only serious problem is the same as Singapore: dated depictions of African stereotypes. It kind of gets away with it by being a spoof of “African adventure”-type movies, but maybe that’s me being kind with hindsight. Either way, the bit where the tribe’s African dialogue is subtitled with contemporary American vernacular is one of the film’s more amusing gags.

    3 out of 5

    Road to Zanzibar was #110 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019.


  • American Animals (2018)

    Bart Layton | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    American Animals

    I don’t want this to turn into a rant about IMDb — there’s a time and a place for those, certainly, but what’s meant to be a short review of one film is not one of them — but the way they’ve devalued the documentary in recent years is not also depressing but also inaccurate. Because anything that has the genre Documentary is now marked as “(documentary)” on someone’s filmography, and therefore IMDb, and/or its contributors, are reluctant to use it about anything that isn’t 100% a documentary. Something like, say, American Animals.

    To be clear: American Animals is unquestionably a documentary. It tells a true story, about some students who plan to rob a library of its rare books. It features interviews with the real people involved, both the students and others. But it’s mostly told via reenactments starring actors, several of them fairly recognisable faces. The real people appear as talking heads scattered throughout, particularly at key moments. So, it’s also unquestionably a hybrid of documentary and fiction. On the surface, it can look a lot like any fictionalised adaptation of a true story; but it’s hidebound to be more accurate than those often are, because it’s also got all these interviews. IMDb isn’t built for nuance such as this.

    Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance... possibly

    The film’s director, Bart Layton, previously made widely-praised definitely-a-documentary The Imposter. In my review of that, I described his style as “flashy” and “over-eager”, wondering if “perhaps he better belongs in fiction filmmaking? Perhaps that’s where he wants to go in future”. Here, I guess he’s moving to bridge that divide; but the blurred line means that, when the film says “here’s the real [person X]”, you kind of question it. Especially as, if a crime was committed, how come they’re interviewing the criminals?

    That latter thought contributes to a genuine tension and suspense throughout the film. How far will this plot go? Do they even actually attempt it? One of the guys keeps saying, “I expected there to be something to stop us”, and you think maybe something will stop them… but the fact this film exists, and there’s all the chat about how the boys let their parents down and whatever, shows something happened. (No spoilers!) Yet it’s also surprisingly funny, like a bit where we’re shown the “Ocean’s Eleven version” of the robbery, complete with Elvis song on the soundtrack.

    Some have criticised these kinds of flights of fancy, or the whole hybrid form, for inviting us to sympathise with these guys rather than condemn their actions. I think there’s room for both. The film seeks to explore what led these pretty normal guys to do such a thing, and (to an extent) how it has affected them since. I think you can both disapprove of what they did and seek to sympathise with them — to understand how it happened is not to condone it.

    4 out of 5

    American Animals was #107 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.
    It is streaming on All 4 until 10th February.

    Archive 5, Vol.1

    Part of the impetus behind this new era of 100 Films was to solve ‘problems’ like my repeated failure to post reviews. Hopefully my plan for regular groups of capsule-sized reviews will solve that going forward. But this has been an issue for a while, and that’s led to a huge backlog of unreviewed films from 2019 to 2021 — it totals a ridiculous 449 feature films (counting shorts too, it goes over 500). Rather than abandon those to the mists of time, I present a new weekly (more or less — let’s not overcommit myself) series: Archive 5.

    Essentially, it’s the same format as new viewing: each post is a collection of short reviews; but here they’re five titles plucked at random from my archive of unreviewed films (and I’ve used a random number generator, so it’s genuinely unmethodical). If I can keep this up weekly, it will take me just under two years to clear the backlog — which means I could still be reviewing stuff from 2019 in 2023. Hahaha… haha… ha… ugh.

    With that in mind, there’s no need for further ado. This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Never Too Young to Die (1986)
  • Bachelor Knight (1947)
  • Little Women (2019)
  • Aniara (2018)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

    (I Care a Lot was originally intended to be part of this post, but then the review turned out a little long, so I spun it off by itself. That’s the kind of thing I’ll probably keep doing, too.)


    Never Too Young to Die

    (1986)

    Gil Bettman | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Never Too Young to Die

    If you dropped A View to a Kill, Rocky Horror, WarGames, and Mad Max 2 into a blender, the end result might be Never Too Young to Die. And if that sounds like a ludicrous, unpalatable mash-up… yep, that’s Never Too Young to Die.

    This direct-to-video action-adventure stars a pre-Full House John Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a teenage gymnast whose dad is a secret agent (played by George Lazenby — aged 47 at the time, but looking at least 20 years older). When daddy is killed, Lance teams up with his partner (singer turned actress Vanity) to go after the culprit: gang leader and wannabe terrorist Velvet Von Ragnar (Gene Simmons (yes, from Kiss), chewing scenery as if he’s not been fed for months).

    If you’ve never heard of this film… well, neither had I, until a Cracked article suggesting comical substitutes for Covid-delayed blockbusters. But what really convinced me to watch it is that it has The Greatest Trailer Ever Made. If you set out to make a spoof ’80s trailer, I’m not convinced you’d be able to beat that. Unfortunately, neither can the film as a whole. It’s fun at times (the boob-biting final fight, or a scene where Stamos tries to distract himself from Vanity’s sexuality by… eating multiple apples), but it’s not quite camp or daft enough to really earn a place as a cult classic.

    I’ll say this for it, though: rewatching that trailer has made me really want to watch the film again…

    3 out of 5

    Never Too Young to Die was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Bachelor Knight

    (1947)

    aka The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

    Irving Reis | 91 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Bachelor Knight

    If you ever need to name an obscure Oscar winner for some reason, you could do worse than Bachelor Knight — or, to give it its even-dumber-sounding original title, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Yes, this won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the other nominees aren’t the greatest field you’ve ever seen, but altogether they’re either better-remembered or were considered good enough to nominate for other gongs that evening, so quite how this took the prize, I don’t know).

    The plot also stretches credibility: after high schooler Susan (Shirley Temple) becomes infatuated with artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant), she sneaks into his place to model for him, much to the disapproval of her older sister Margaret (Myrna Loy), who also happens to be a judge; and when Nugent ends up in her court room, she sentences him to date Susan until her infatuation inevitably wears itself out. I know things are different in the US, and also in the past, but did/do judges there really have the power to hand out any crazy made-up sentences they like?

    On the bright side, the film moves sprightly through its plot. Perhaps that’s because it takes a whole 40 minutes to get through the basic setup, even while running at a pace, means there’s less screen time left to dwell on all that follows. Not that some individual bits don’t go on a tad, like a picnic sequence; but others work very well, like a scene in a nightclub that is a nicely-written bit of escalating farce.

    It’s not the best work of anyone involved, but Bachelor Knight belies its iffy title (both of them) to be a likeable-enough 90 minutes of screwball comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Bachelor Knight was #70 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Little Women

    (2019)

    Greta Gerwig | 135 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Little Women

    Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel was greeted in some quarters by questions of if it was necessary: it’s the sixth big-screen version of Alcott’s book, and came just two years after a major new BBC adaptation. Well, I don’t know if it was ‘necessary’ or not, but Gerwig’s version is definitely a very good film.

    A key point that marks it out from other adaptations is that Gerwig has restructured the story: instead of playing out in a straightforward chronological fashion, it flashes back and forth in the sisters’ lives, starting with them as young women in 1868, with Jo in New York and Amy in Paris, before mixing in events from their childhood, seven years earlier, when the four sisters lived together in Massachusetts. This might seem like a rejig for the sake of differentiation, but Gerwig uses it to create interesting juxtapositions or to reframe plot points. For one example (spoilers follow, if you’re not familiar with the story), I felt it made Laurie and Amy’s relationship less creepy. Told chronologically, they first meet when he’s a young man and she’s a child, and he only moves his affection to her after Jo’s rejected him and Amy’s grown up. In Gerwig’s version, we first meet them together in Paris, and they seem more destined for each other, with a genuine spark between them as individuals, rather than a nagging sense of “if I can’t have one sister, this other will do”. It’s only later we learn the full backstory of Laurie and Jo — and, for that matter, of Jo and Amy — which, yeah, is obviously still a bit creepy, when you think about it.

    Whichever way you cut it, Gerwig seems to really get to the heart of the meaning in the story and characters, as well as giving it a lightly feminist polish (misogynists would probably consider it Terribly Feminist and Evilly Revisionist, if they watched it, which I don’t imagine they would). A star-studded cast ensure the whole thing is well acted, and it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. Questions about ‘necessariness’ are particularly irrelevant when the work is this good.

    5 out of 5

    Little Women was #4 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Aniara

    (2018)

    Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Sweden & Denmark / Swedish & English | 18 / R

    Aniara

    A sci-fi movie based on, somewhat oddly, a 1950s Swedish poem, Aniara is about a spaceship transporting migrators from Earth to Mars that accidentally veers off course and heads irretrievably into deep space. Rather than the kind of action-adventure this might provoke if it were a Hollywood production, Aniara follows how the passengers and crew attempt to cope with their new lives.

    It’s a premise interesting enough that you feel it could fuel a TV series — how this mass of people, forced together by accident and terrible circumstance, comes to function (or not) as a society. Or maybe the remake of Battlestar Galactica already nailed that kinda thing. Either way, here it’s condensed into about 100 minutes; and because it has such a long-term view of what it wants to pack in, there are some surprisingly large time jumps (by the half-hour mark we’ve already reached Year 3). It takes some odd detours when it does that (society completely breaks down into weirdo cults… then a probe that might allow them to return home is discovered, at which point everything goes back to normal), but overall it has a pretty clear thesis about humanity and how we cope with things — “not well”, fundamentally.

    The final act kind of rushes a similar point, skipping ahead (several times) to how things are even worse without really tracking the descent. Maybe that’s why I liked the idea of a series version so much: to fill in all those blanks. But I don’t want to take this criticism too much to heart. If anything, the fact I wanted more detail is a compliment. It’s not the film bungling developments and me searching for justification, but rather that I’d be interested in seeing the themes and characters explored in even more detail. As it stands, Aniara is an epic-scale story told well in a somewhat condensed fashion.

    5 out of 5

    Aniara was #65 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It placed 21st on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.


    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    (1966)

    Mike Nichols | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12

    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    When a middle-aged college professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) have his new young colleague (George Segal) and wife (Sandy Dennis) around for drinks one evening, the occasion soon degenerates into a verbal slanging match between the elder couple, the younger inescapably caught in the middle.

    And as the film takes place in almost-real-time, in just a couple of locations, it feels like we’re trapped with them. With a running time north of two hours, the film’s drunken sardonicism almost becomes an endurance test, particularly when it goes on a bit too long in the middle. But it’s carried through by some magnificent performances. Everyone talks about Taylor — just 33 at the time, she wasn’t sure she could play the part of a bitter 52-year-old, but she’s excellent — or they talk about Taylor and Burton — similarly, he wasn’t sure he could play a beaten-down failure of a man, having been used to taking dashing heroic roles — but Sandy Dennis is great too, and deserved her Oscar. Of the four actors, its George Segal who draws the short straw, not really getting the material to truly stand toe-to-toe with the other three (he still got an Oscar nom, though).

    Director Mike Nichols insisted the film be shot in black & white, which helps it to pull off Taylor’s ageing makeup, but was also intended to stop it seeming too ‘literal’ and instead give an abstract quality. That fits the material, because the characters, events, and revelations are all pretty odd; the way it plays out pretty strange. Plus, the pitch-black darkness of the night fits the film’s themes. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler does a superb (indeed, Oscar-winning) job, the photography looking more striking than you might expect, or even need, for such an actor-focused character piece.

    A whole featurette on the film’s disc release discusses how it was “too shocking for its time”, mainly because of the language used (the fact the film was made relatively unedited set a ball rolling that, just a couple of years later, saw the Production Code replaced by the modern MPAA classification system). While such concerns are no longer really relevant (once-controversial terms like “screw” and “goddamn” are hardly “fuck”, are they?), that the film is still powerful shows it was never truly about what was said, but who said it and how they said it. I don’t mean to say that it would still be offensive today, but rather that it still packs an emotive punch.

    5 out of 5

    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was #22 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • The Secret Life of Pets 1&2

    Imaginatively-titled sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today, so what better time for me to finally get round to reviewing both that film and its predecessor? (Unfortunately, the first one isn’t currently available on any subscription streaming service.)

    The Secret Life of Pets
    (2016)

    2019 #73
    Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    The Secret Life of Pets

    In a Manhattan apartment, terrier Max’s quiet life as favourite pet is upended when his owner brings home stray Duke. But they must put their quarrels aside when they get lost in the city and discover that abandoned magician’s bunny Snowball is building an army of lost pets, determined to wreak their revenge. — adapted from IMDb

    Make your main character a cute little terrier-like dog and you’ve basically halfway sold me on your movie already (see: Hotel for Dogs; Benji). It works best with a real cute little dog, of course, but The Secret Life of Pets is proof the effect can carry over to animation, at least somewhat. It helps that the behaviour of the various animals in the film is all quite well observed — heightened, obviously, but there are many reasonable riffs on pet behaviour… that is until the revolutionary group led by a bunny, who’s followed by a tattooed pig and a lizard, hijack an animal control van. That’s a bit silly.

    From the trailers, I thought the animation style looked a bit flat — presumably a deliberate choice, almost like it was going for a Peanuts Movie kinda style — but watching it in 3D adds some pleasing depth and shapeliness, especially as I don’t think flatness actually was the intended effect for the whole movie.

    The Secret Life of Pets mostly reheats, remixes, and recombines stuff you’ve seen done in other movies (although as it came out around the same time as Finding Dory, it’s really a toss up as to who can claim that “animals in control of a human vehicle” climax), but it manages just enough charm to tick over as entertaining rather than irritatingly derivative.

    3 out of 5

    The Secret Life of Pets 2
    (2019)

    2020 #81
    Chris Renaud | 86 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

    The Secret Life of Pets 2

    Max faces some major changes after his owner gets married and has a child. On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets farm dog Rooster and attempts to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget tries to rescue Max’s favourite toy from a cat-packed apartment; and Snowball sets off on a mission to free a white tiger from a circus. — adapted from IMDb

    As the above plot description goes some way to indicating, The Secret Life of Pets 2 feels like watching three episodes of a Secret Life of Pets TV series strung together: for most of its running time, it cuts back and forth between three completely unrelated storylines, seemingly just so that every major character from the last movie has something to do. Things do tie together in the final quarter-hour for an all-action climax, but that doesn’t stop them being entirely disconnected until that point.

    The only thing that really elevates it above TV-level is the visuals, which show off suitably expensive and slick animation, especially in 3D. At this point it almost goes without saying that computer-animated movies look fantastic in 3D, but it’s still pleasing.

    None of which is to say The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an outright bad movie. It’s a step down from the first (as things have panned out, I’ve given them both the same score, but the first one is kind of a 3+), but it has its moments — like the opening five minutes, where Max bonds with his owner’s new kid, which are sweet and cute; or the casting of Harrison Ford as a take-no-bullshit farm-dog, which is perfect. If you liked the first movie, this one passes some time amiably.

    3 out of 5

    The Secret Life of Pets 2 is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    Palm Springs (2020)

    2020 #163
    Max Barbakow | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Palm Springs

    For a couple of decades, Groundhog Day stood alone in a genre of one. But no good idea is allowed to rest in the Hollywood machine, and so the last few years have seen a veritable explosion in time loop stories, like sci-fi-actioner Edge of Tomorrow; or a slasher variant in Happy Death Day; or darkly comic Netflix mystery Russian Doll; or, most recently, teen romance The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. But just as you begin to think that maybe time loop comedies are becoming repetitiously overdone (irony), along comes one of the most acclaimed entries in this newly-abundant subgenre: Palm Springs, which debuted on Hulu in the US in the middle of last year and is now finally coming to the UK via Amazon Prime Video.

    In this instance, the scene is set at a wedding, where two disconnected guests — Nyles (Andy Samberg), the boyfriend of the maid of honour, and Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the sister of the bride — end up stuck in a loop together, reliving the day of the wedding over and over. And I’ll say no more on that, because even giving away that it’s time loop comedy spoils what would otherwise be a first-act twist. (I don’t know if they ever thought they’d get away with keeping that a secret, what with it being a foundational conceit of the entire film, but some official blurbs do try to keep it hush-hush. Not many reviews, or even news articles, have been similarly circumspect, so I feel at this point trying to pretend you, dear reader, don’t already know (or wouldn’t accidentally find out some other way) is a fool’s errand.)

    While the premise may be more-or-less familiar, one thing Palm Springs has in its favour is it upends numerous tropes that the subgenre has already acquired, even in its short lifespan. Some of these variations have already been explored in other examples listed in my opening paragraph, but Springs has one or two more up its sleeve, and its own way of tackling them. It can also boast its own tone and style of humour, which will be broadly familiar if you’ve seen any other Samberg vehicle (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, say, or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). For the uninitiated, it’s kinda silly without going to Pythonesque extremes, and kinda earthy without being vulgar (that the BBFC classification says the film contains “strong sex” is ridiculous).

    Let's do the time loop again

    Notably, when Palm Springs was sold at Sundance it went for the highest price ever paid for an acquisition at the festival: $17.5 million… and 69 cents, those few cents adds in order to beat the previous record. That they chose that additional figure gives you some insight into the film’s level of humour. But it also says something about how positively the film was received, which led to a degree of buzz that, personally, I found crippled the final film somewhat. To be clear, I still really enjoyed it, but, from reading reviews and watching the trailer, I was half expecting to be blown away by a new comedy masterpiece. Such is the danger of letting yourself get hyped up — if I’d seen it with no prior knowledge, I might’ve enjoyed it even more. The one benefit from the ludicrous delay in it crossing the pond is that hype has cooled to an appropriate background level; from a “OMG watch this new innovative groundbreaking amazing best comedy ever!” to more of a “that’s good, you should see it”.

    All of which said, you should see it. I don’t want to accidentally undersell the movie by citing my own misapprehensions, because it’s definitely a funny, likeable, surprisingly romantic (but not twee) film. Indeed, even without the time loop USP, Palm Springs would be welcomed because it hits a really good tone on the romance angle. It doesn’t dive into full romcom cheesiness, but it’s also not that kind of “tacked on love story that the filmmakers clearly wish they didn’t have to bother with” that you normally find in these sorts of (for want of a better word) edgier comedies. Rather than rolling your eyes as the inevitable plays out, you might actually be rooting for these crazy kids.

    4 out of 5

    Palm Springs will be available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from tomorrow.

    Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

    2020 #38
    Michael Dougherty | 132 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA, Japan, Canada & Mexico / English | 12 / PG-13

    Godzilla: King of the Monsters

    Five years on from the events of Godzilla, the world is very much aware of the existence of Titans, gigantic prehistoric creatures — or, if you prefer, monsters. These creatures are studied and, where possible, contained by the secretive organisation known as Monarch, and one of their scientists, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), has developed a device capable of attracting Titans and altering their behaviour. When Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by a group of terrorists, Madison’s father and former Monarch employee Mark (Kyle Chandler) is re-recruited by Monarch to help track them, before the terrorists can unleash the Titans to wreak havoc on mankind.

    As well as a direct followup to the 2014 reboot of the Godzilla franchise, King of the Monsters is the third film in Legendary’s “MonsterVerse”. The in-between entry was 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, whose 1970s setting kinda leaves it adrift and standalone from the rest of the present-day-set films in this shared universe (although, following the Marvel template, Kong did have a post-credit scene designed to vaguely tee-up King of the Monsters). That said, it does have a role to play tonally. Whereas Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was a fairly strait-laced, serious take on the concept of a giant lizard attacking mankind, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island took a more pulpy approach to the movie, playing like a monster B-movie with a modern spectacular effects budget.

    Here, Michael Dougherty’s offering feels like a combination of those two previous MonsterVerse films. As a direct sequel to Godzilla, it brings in plot threads and a couple of supporting characters from that movie (namely Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of Monarch scientists, given more prominent roles here). It also adopts the dark visual style of Edwards’ movie, eschewing the colourfulness that was part of Vogt-Roberts’ contribution. But what Dougherty does retain is that pulpiness in the storyline. I mean, Godzilla showed us a world where the real-life (more or less) military had to scramble to find a way to respond to a giant lizard suddenly appearing.

    Puny humans

    Conversely, in King of the Monsters we find a government organisation that maintains multiple huge facilities around the world to research and contain a variety of giant beasties (one of whom is an alien, by-the-way), and a terrorist organisation that’s well organised and financed enough to break into several of those facilities and set about freeing the Titans. And that’s without mentioning a side quest into a vast sunken kingdom. If you wanted more of the real world Edwards gave us in the first film, sorry, you’re shit out of luck; but if you’re into some of the craziness that other kaiju movies have doled out down the decades, here we go!

    And, in some respects, that makes this the first MonsterVerse movie that truly feels like it’s in a shared universe of monsters. Sure, the previous films had monster antagonists — MUTOs in Godzilla, Scullcrawlers in Kong — but, frankly, they were kinda generic nasties to give our hero-monsters something to fight. In King of the Monsters, we finally get to see some of the big-name stars from Godzilla’s rogue gallery; namely: inventively-named giant moth Mothra, pterodactyl-like Rodan, and the baddest of them all, three-headed dragon Ghidorah. Okay, we haven’t been introduced to these creatures in previous movies, so it’s not technically a team-up / versus movie in that sense, but you can still feel these are headline-bout-worthy characters in a way the franchise’s previous villains just weren’t. Obviously there’s still no doubt about who the ultimate victor of these monster punch-ups is going to be (clue’s in the title), but the brawls are meatier and more impactful.

    I imagine that’s even more true for long-time kaiju fans, who’ll have a much greater familiarity with the ‘supporting’ monsters. Indeed, there’s a sense in which King of the Monsters has been made expressly for those fans, because it’s absolutely loaded with nods and references to the older films. I’ve not seen many classic Godzilla movies, so my knowledge of what was being referenced was second-hand at best — though one I’ll make room to highlight is composer Bear McCreary’s new realisation of Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme. It’s epic and awesome; a real hair-raiser when it kicks in.

    There can be only one

    Unfortunately, the parade of callbacks seems to have been a major problem for some viewers. Fans who got the references regard them as either hollow fan service or a pointless remix of past glories, while normal folk found it all a bit confusing and weird — because God forbid any blockbuster try to do stuff from outside your normal well-worn expectations. Clearly, these monster flicks aren’t for everyone. Even among those who like them, you don’t have to read many viewer’s rankings before you’ll have seen every possible iteration of which film is better than which, often accompanied by bafflement that anyone could hold an opposing view. It’s like an inadvertent case study for the fact that different people want different things. So it seems none of these movies please everyone, although personally I like the idea that each film is its own thing to some degree; that you might not love every film in the MonsterVerse, but hopefully one of them will hit the sweet spot for you. The MCU cookie-cutter format may be reassuring, but there’s delight in variety too.

    There’s certainly plenty of variety here. The MonsterVerse could’ve gone down the route of wheeling out these storied foes one by one, eking the franchise out across Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Rodan, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah… Instead, we get them in one Titan-sized hit. If you’re in the mood for gigantic creatures thwacking each other, there’s something wholly satisfying about that.

    4 out of 5