American Animals (2018)

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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.


  • I Care a Lot (2020)

    J Blakeson | 119 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    I Care a Lot

    Marla (Rosamund Pike) is a professional legal guardian, someone appointed by the courts to arrange care and legal affairs for elderly people no longer capable of doing it themselves. But her real trade lies in pinpointing wealthy people with no family who she can trick the court into placing in her care, at which point she can drain their savings and assets for her own profit. Yes, she is a thoroughly unlikeable, evil bitch. But when she pulls this con on Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), it inadvertently brings Marla to the attention of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful man who is not used to being messed with.

    Already I’m edging into spoiler territory there, and there’ll be more to come, because it’s hard to discuss what’s so fundamentally wrong with I Care a Lot without digging into what occurs past some of its twists — it starts as one thing (which works), quickly becomes something else (which also works), but after about the halfway mark, it ends up diving off the deep end into a mess of implausibility. It may be stylishly made and performed, but all of that is in service of a philosophically jumbled attitude to character.

    What makes the film fall apart is where it wants our loyalties to lie. I’ve often written that I’m fine with films that star unlikeable or unsupportable characters (the idea we need someone we can like/support at the centre of a work of fiction was recently described by someone as a childish impulse, and I agree to an extent), but that doesn’t give them carte blanche. As a commenter put it on iCheckMovies, “you can make a film about horrible, unredeemable characters, but you can’t also expect an audience to root for them when you put them in peril, especially when that peril is one of their own making.” This is the ‘trick’ I Care a Lot attempts to pull. It seems to think we’ll be aligned with Marla by a certain point, but we really aren’t — she absolutely deserves what’s coming to her.

    Talk to the hand because I don't care a lot

    Similarly, when she accuses the villains of “not playing by the rules”, it feels like the film is, again, assuming that will get us on her side; like, “yeah, she’s bad, but at least she plays by the rules, whereas the crooks are just crooks”. But I did not think that, at all. If anything, it makes her even more disingenuous. Yes, technically she’s working within the system — but she’s cheating it and bending it (breaking it, even) to make it work for her. At least the criminals are unquestionably criminals — they’re not pretending to be legit. So while intellectually we know that Roman and his chums are Bad Guys (they’re drug smugglers who don’t care if their human mules die!), in this particular storyline we are much more likely to be on their side: they’ve been wronged by Marla, they deserve their recompense. Heck, they even attempt to do it legally first — that’s more than we can say about other wronged heroes, like, say, John Wick.

    Even while I Care a Lot is watchable thanks to its strong direction and highly talented cast, it’s an awkward viewing experience because it feels like we’re constantly at odds with the movie itself. That it eventually gives us what we need (via a small part for Macron Blair, which merits a metatextual “huh” in relation to the themes of his role in Blue Ruin) is scant compensation for the difficulties up to that point.

    3 out of 5

    I Care a Lot was the 101st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen These Films from 1986?

    After a couple of years ‘off’ (or, if you prefer, combined with Blindspot, because they’re essentially the same thing), “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” is back!

    Now, it’s part of my All-New 100 Films in a Year Challenge (you may have heard about that — I feel like I bring it up enough) and has a slightly refined focus. Whereas before it featured great or significant movies I should’ve seen from across film history, now I’m giving it a specific theme each year. For the inaugural year of its new version, I’ve picked my birth year: the 12 films from 1986 that I’m most surprised I haven’t seen.

    First, the films I’ve chosen. After, I’ll natter a little about how and why.


    A Better Tomorrow

    A Better Tomorrow

    Cobra

    Cobra

    Flight of the Navigator

    Flight of the Navigator

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    The Hitcher

    The Hitcher

    Howard the Duck

    Howard the Duck

    Manhunter

    Manhunter

    Mona Lisa

    Mona Lisa

    The Name of the Rose

    The Name of the Rose

    Pretty in Pink

    Pretty in Pink

    She’s Gotta Have It

    She's Gotta Have It

    The Transformers:
    The Movie

    The Transformers: The Movie


    First, for the sake of context, here are all the feature films from 1986 that I have seen (taken from what I’ve logged on Letterboxd, which should be thorough at this point), in alphabetical order…

    Iron Eagle
    The Karate Kid Part II
    Labyrinth
    Laputa: Castle in the Sky
    Little Shop of Horrors
    The Money Pit
    Never Too Young to Die
    Platoon
    Stand By Me
    Top Gun
    When the Wind Blows
    .

    Yes, Biggles. I loved the books as a kid, so I guess I had to see the film, even though it’s some weird-ass post-Back to the Future time-travel-based reimagining.

    To select the list of films I needed to watch, I had a root around 1986’s highest-rated and most popular films (two different things) on both IMDb and Letterboxd, compiling a long-list of possibilities. That came to around about 30 titles, from which I selected the final 12 based purely on my own level of awareness — for example, Manhunter went straight into the final selection because, given the kinds of films I particularly like, it seems ludicrous I haven’t seen it yet. (It’s partly because I only own it on DVD. I never got round to importing the Shout BD, and now it looks to be out of print, with copies on sale for hundreds of dollars. Mad! And annoying.) I expect, if other people were presented with the same long-list, they might make slightly different selections. Such is life.

    One in particular that I nearly included was Star Trek IV. It must be good, right, because it’s an even-numbered one. Also, everyone seems to know about “the one with the whales”, and it’s that one. But as I’m currently working my way through the Trek films anyway (albeit slowly: TMP was last February and Wrath of Khan last July), it seemed unnecessary, even futile, to include one here.

    In conclusion, it wasn’t a particularly involved or technical selection process this time. At least that means this explanation is a lot shorter than my normal verbosity. In the unlikely event you’re missing that, there’s always my Blindspot post.

    The Fear of God: 25 Years of “The Exorcist” (1998)

    2019 #134
    Nick Freand Jones | 81 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

    The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist

    There have been some great made-for-TV documentaries down the years, but that status as “TV programmes” means it’s kind potluck if they’re still readily available to us years later. Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey? So acclaimed it got a DVD release and, recently, a Blu-ray upgrade. Mark Gatiss’s horror series? Too full of clips to be licensable. The Complete Citizen Kane? I don’t think this was available anywhere besides bootlegs, but will soon be included on Criterion’s 4K release of the film.

    I could go on, but let’s stick to the one at hand. This feature-length Mark Kermode-fronted doc was screened at festivals in 1998 before being shown on the BBC in an edited form. Down the years it’s been available on some of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases, but only in that shortened version. Finally, 20 years after its first release, the unedited original cut popped onto the BBC iPlayer for Halloween 2019, and tonight it will be broadcast for the first time ever, on BBC Four at 11:55pm.

    For those unfamiliar with him, Kermode is sort of the UK’s answer to Roger Ebert: a long-standing, widely-respected film critic across print, TV, and radio. The Exorcist is his favourite film, and (as he explains in a recently-shot introduction to this documentary) he’d written a book on it that its makers had liked, which led to him making The Fear of God.

    Mark Kermode and The Exorcist

    As with almost any documentary about a specific film, your interest in it is likely to depend on your interest in the original film. So, assuming you care to know the behind-the-scenes story of The Exorcist, this is definitely a good film. I get the impression it’s the original source for a lot of interviews and stories that have been repeated around the place; ones that I’ve personally picked up through osmosis down the years. Despite that, I still learnt new stuff, and there are some nice moments to witness, like when novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty suddenly realises, on camera, how he should’ve written a scene all along.

    If you’ve seen The Fear of God before (say, on one of The Exorcist’s physical media releases), how much this so-called “festival cut” is worth your time is a matter for your personal level of interest. Some DVD releases cut as much as 25 minutes out of the documentary, so if you’ve only seen that version then obviously there’s a lot of new material here. If you’re watching this version, you can be assured you’re seeing everything Kermode wanted to include as well as everything producer Nick Freand Jones wanted in. For example, there’s an interview with the woman who voiced the demon, who insisted her contribution was only in the BBC broadcast. Well, I guess this still conforms to that wish.

    4 out of 5

    The Fear of God: 25 Years of “The Exorcist” is on BBC Four tonight at 11:55pm, or on iPlayer now.

    No Time to Die (2021)

    2021 #170
    Cary Joji Fukunaga | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English, French, Italian & Russian | 12A / PG-13

    No Time to Die

    Britain’s most famous secret agent is Craig, Daniel Craig for the final time in the 25th James Bond film. It’s also the fifth and (presumably) final instalment in an ongoing narrative within the series; the kind of internal continuity never before attempted in the franchise’s 59-year history. Sure, there have been some hints at continuity in the past — Connery’s Bond was almost always up against some agent of SPECTRE, and Diamonds Are Forever is technically a sequel to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — but never to this degree, and never with such keenly-felt emotional effects on our hero.

    Much fuss has been made in some quarters of Quantum of Solace being the first true sequel in the Bond canon, because it very much continues storylines from Casino Royale. If that’s the case, No Time to Die may be classed as the second such sequel, because it picks up on various hints and threads left dangling in Spectre and weaves them into its narrative. (You could also argue Spectre is a “true sequel” for the way it tries to tie together the entire Daniel Craig era, but I think No Time to Die is even more directly connected to its immediate predecessor.) All of this is primarily of note to fans of the series, mind, because it marks a change of form for this particular series. In the wider world of film franchises, that kind of continuity is nothing new. For all that it’s been a massively-popular trailblazer over the past six decades, the Bond films can be surprisingly reactive, often seeking to incorporate things that are successful in the wider filmmaking space — witness Moonraker coming on the heels of Star Wars, or Casino Royale and (especially) Quantum incorporating styles and techniques from the Jason Bourne films. All of which is really just to say that Bond is not some monolithic island unto himself — these films exist in context, just like any other.

    Bond's in the spotlight

    Perhaps the single most influential trend on No Time to Die is one for closure. Once upon a time, heroes carried on having adventures forever — whatever challenges they faced in one tale, they overcame and ‘rode off into the sunset’ ready to go again. Not nowadays. When Christopher Nolan decided to give Batman an ending to complete his trilogy in The Dark Knight Rises, it was seen as a radical move; an exception to the rule, just for this special case. Now, it’s de rigueur — look at Marvel bothering to wrap-up the stories of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in Avengers: Endgame, for example. They could have had these guys toddle off only to come back with an unexplained new face, just as has happened throughout movie franchise history, but instead they pay off the audience’s investment by giving them an ending. Spectre sort of did this, giving Craig’s Bond an ambiguous conclusion where he sort of seemed to retire and drive off with the girl. But that kind of ambiguity doesn’t cut it nowadays, and so No Time to Die finds that, yes, Bond did retire, but now he’s pressed back into service so we can get a more definitive fullstop on his story.

    To discuss the specifics of that ending would be to get into spoiler territory, of course, which I’m not going to do here (the film is out in most regions now, but won’t hit some markets until much later in the year; and I can understand if some people are still reticent to return to cinemas and so will wait for a home release. It’s fine — there’ll be plenty of time to talk about the ending in month and years to come, because it is, again, no spoiler to say this is an ending that will be discussed for a long time, one way or another). What I will say is that I, personally, wasn’t wholly convinced by it. I don’t know if it was the right move. I’m not entirely sure how it makes me feel. Others may have a more definitive reaction — I haven’t sought out other people’s specific thoughts, and they’re hard to stumble upon because everyone is (rightly) avoiding spoilers. That said, the mostly positive reception, from both critics and regular viewers, suggests that it’s not an outright problem — maybe people mostly love the finale, but even if they don’t, they’re like me in thinking it doesn’t undermine the quality of the rest of the film.

    The new 007

    And quality is in abundance throughout No Time to Die. When it emerged that it ran nearly two-and-three-quarter hours, some were concerned that was far too long for a Bond film, especially after Spectre’s two-and-a-half hours was deemed a slog by many. Such concerns prove unfounded, because No Time to Die moves at a solid lick throughout, never feeling its length — like all the best movies, whether they be 80 minutes or four hours, it’s just as long as it needs to be. In many ways it’s your standard Bond fare: there’s a nefarious villain out there planning to do something evil on a massive scale, and Bond is roped in to stop them. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And yet, the Craig era has tried to ‘fix it’. Casino Royale consciously dismantled the Bond formula, riffing on some of its famous tropes rather than including them properly (cf. his response to “shaken or stirred?”), but the subsequent films have sought to rebuild the style we knew and loved. It’s arguable whether they truly have returned Bond to his previous ways — every one of these movies subverts ‘the Bond formula’ in some way, large or small — but I think No Time to Die might be the closest. That’s not a criticism.

    Certainly, it has enough new going on to not feel like a throwback. Some of that is surface level, like the new 00 being a Black woman, played perfectly by Lashana Lynch. It’s an important bit of progressiveness, for sure, but in plot terms, replace her with a white man and everything still functions the same. Again, I don’t feel like that’s a criticism — sometimes the devil is in the details, and details matter. “Making that character a Black woman instead of a white man doesn’t affect the plot” is a reason to make such a change, not an argument against it. Conversely, Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann somewhat upends the traditional Bond girl role by having a secret past that has significant bearing on both the plot and Bond’s emotional state. The former may not be so new (there have been Bond girls with secrets in the past), but allowing Bond to actually have emotions, and be challenged by them, is very much a Craig-era phenomenon. Again, you can find specific examples of this throughout the series — OHMSS is the biggest example, but you could argue Brosnan’s Bond is affected by Elektra in The World Is Not Enough — but it’s never been done with such consistency, such centrality, as in the Craig era.

    Can anybody find him somebody to love?

    Aside from all this borderline-groundbreaking stuff, No Time to Die serves up a load of traditional Bond thrills. There are exotic locales, beautifully lensed by Linus Sandgren — he may not be as big a name as Roger Deakins, but his work makes this rival Skyfall for prettiest Bond film. There are epic action sequences — the series may have lost its rep for outrageous done-for-real stunts to Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible-funded death wish, but it can still pull together an outstanding car chase or shoot-out. The pre-titles in Italy; a party in Cuba; a chase through Norwegian woods — all could be franchise highs in the set piece department. And the production design, by series newcomer Mark Tildesley, harks back to Bond of old too, not least in the villain’s island lair. Oh yes, the villain has his own island — proper old-school Bond.

    Said villain is Safin, played by Oscar-winner Rami Malek. He’s not bad by any means, but he’s weirdly miscast (it’s not obvious until you think about it, but the character is meant to be 20+ years older than the actor) and he has little to do: Bond’s on his trail for most of the film, only confronting him in the final act. Maybe that’s not so different to many older Bond films either, but it’s out of place in the Craig era, where most of the villains have directly challenged Bond throughout the movie. Still, while he may not hit the highs of Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre or Javier Bardem’s Silva, he’s slightly less “villain by numbers” than Christoph Waltz’s disappointingly underwhelming turn as Blofeld, and more memorable than Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene (not the actor’s fault, I don’t think — Quantum tried so hard to keep Bond grounded and he suffers for that). In fact, he’s such a Macguffin of a villain that I’m not even sure of his motivation — I get how he intends to do A Very Bad Thing (the mechanics of it are very important, for several reasons), but I don’t recall the film ever bothering to tell me why.

    Old school Bond

    It’s this kind of little niggle that loses No Time to Die its edge. Make no mistake: this is an immensely entertaining Bond film. I haven’t even mentioned some of its other highs, like all-too-brief supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, returning as Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter, or Ana de Armas as a rookie agent who, it turns out, is as skilled as she is gorgeous, but is most memorable for being the most amusing part of the film — you’ll wish she was in it more. For all that, I foresee the film settling in as a well-liked entry in the series, and I’m sure it will cement a reputation as the greatest last-Bond-film for any actor (its only real rival in those stakes being Licence to Kill, which barely counts as it was only Dalton’s second). But, on the flipside, it doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of Casino Royale or Skyfall. Is that a problem? Nah. Not everything has to be “the greatest ever” to have merit.

    4 out of 5

    No Time to Die is in cinemas everywhere (except Australia and China) now.

    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

    If adventure has a name,
    it must be Indiana Jones.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 118 minutes
    BBFC: PG (cut, 1984) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 23rd May 1984 (USA)
    UK Release: 15th June 1984
    Budget: $28 million
    Worldwide Gross: $333.1 million

    Stars
    Harrison Ford (The Conversation, Cowboys & Aliens)
    Kate Capshaw (A Little Sex, Black Rain)
    Ke Huy Quan (The Goonies, Finding ‘Ohana)

    Director
    Steven Spielberg (1941, Hook)

    Screenwriters
    Willard Huyck (American Graffiti, Radioland Murders)
    Gloria Katz (Messiah of Evil, Howard the Duck)

    Story by
    George Lucas (American Graffiti, Willow)


    The Story
    Escaping the evil machinations of a Chinese gangster, Indiana Jones, his child sidekick Short Round, and nightclub singer Willie Scott crash-land in India, where the fate of a blighted village points them towards an ancient palace, wherein hides a secret cult practising ritual human sacrifice…

    Our Hero
    Boldly billed as the definitive article ‘Hero’ in some of the film’s advertising, the man in question is archaeologist and adventurer — and, indeed, archetypical movie hero — Indiana Jones.

    Our Villains
    The Thuggees, an ancient Indian cult still active at the remote Pankot Palace, where they’ve kidnapped and enslaved children to work in mines, and execute elaborate ceremonies of human sacrifice.

    Best Supporting Character
    Indy’s pint-sized Chinese sidekick, Short Round. A child sidekick sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Short Round is actually pretty fun. Spielberg liked actor Ke Huy Quan’s personality so much that he had the boy and Harrison Ford improves scenes, such as the one when Short Round accuse Indy of cheating at cards.

    Memorable Quote
    “We are going to die!” — Indiana Jones
    (This isn’t a particularly memorable line in isolation, but it’s all in the delivery — and the sad face Ford pulls at the end.)

    Memorable Scene
    The film’s opening 20 minutes are an extended action sequence — more of a mini-adventure, really (there’s an entire musical number!) — that kick off the movie perfectly. Indeed, some fans even say it’s the greatest action scene in the entire series (I say it’s a contender, but the competition is stiff). I suspect Spielberg was using it to get a few things out of his system: as well as the song-and-dance, there’s a distinct James Bond vibe to the whole thing (Spielberg had put himself forward to direct a Bond film but was rebuffed).

    Memorable Music
    Oh, John Williams’ main theme… Okay, it’s not new — it’s from Raiders, obviously — but by God it’s good. Did you know: Williams was Oscar nominated for each of the first three Indiana Jones films, but lost every time. Raiders was beaten by Vangelis’ music for Chariots of Fire, Temple of Doom by Maurice Jarre’s score for A Passage to India, and Last Crusade by Alan Menken’s work on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Mad, really.

    Technical Wizardry
    The mine cart chase is not just another fantastic action scene, but it’s also a real showcase of filmmaking tricks. It was created with a mix of footage of the star actors, stunt people, miniatures, and stop-motion animation, but it never shows off about it — it’s cut together so well and so fast that you almost don’t notice all the different techniques that have been employed to create a wholly thrilling sequence.

    Letting the Side Down
    Willie Scott, the nightclub singer who’s forced to tag along on Indy’s adventure, but would rather be anywhere else. She’s not a wholly terrible character, but the only time the movie really threatens to slow down is when it indulges in her screechy, squeamish side. That said, at her best, her hot-and-cold relationship with Indy generates some classic screwball-esque scenes that really help to underscore the 1935 setting.

    Making of
    The dinner scene, infamous for its array of disgusting food like chilled monkey brains, came about because Spielberg, Lucas, and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck were concerned about keeping the audience’s attention during the expository dialogue about the Thuggee cult. Ideas such as a tiger hunt were rejected before they settled on the dinner sequence. Said Katz, “Steve and George both still react like children, so their idea was to make it as gross as possible.”

    Previously on…
    Indy made his debut in Raiders of the Lost Ark, although Temple of Doom is actually a prequel, set a year earlier.

    Next time…
    The Indiana Jones trilogy was completed in 1989 with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but that was far from the end for the character. On screen, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles traced the character’s adventures in childhood across three seasons and 32 episodes, originally released between 1992 and 1996. Over a decade later, in 2008, an older Indy returned to the big screen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and production has just begun for an adventure starring an even older Indy, with the currently-untitled fifth film due for release next year. Away from TV and cinema screens, Indy has featured in dozens of novels, comic books, computer games, and so on, including a live stunt show at Disney World that’s now been running for over 30 years.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
    1 Oscar nomination (Original Score)
    1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
    3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
    7 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Actor (Harrison Ford), Younger Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Director, Writing, Costumes, Make-Up)

    Verdict

    Whereas Raiders was balanced to perfection, Temple of Doom pushes everything that worked up to maximum: it’s more playful and it’s sillier, but it’s also more gruesome and more overtly an action movie. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s as good as anything else in the franchise, including scenes that stylistically evoke many a genre from classic Hollywood (there’s a hefty dash of screwball comedy in some of the relationship between Indy and Willie). Even at its worst, it’s not bad — it moves like the clappers and is committed to being almost relentlessly entertaining. Perhaps it’s a little hardcore for younger fans (and even that aspect has lessened with age, with the chest-ripping special effects looking a little ropey nowadays), but otherwise, what’s there to complain about?

    Psycho Goreman (2020)

    2021 #26
    Steven Kostanski | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.40:1 | Canada / English | *

    Psycho Goreman

    In the recent episode of his Secrets of Cinema devoted to cult movies (which I covered here), Mark Kermode asserted that filmmakers can’t choose to make a cult movie — it’s up to the audience whether a film becomes a cult favourite or not. While this may be true in a sense, it’s also the case that, after several decades of the phenomenon being observed, any filmmaker who is interested in making a cult movie can consciously include the kinds of ingredients that provoke such devotion, thus giving themselves a head start. Psycho Goreman is one of the most recent films that seems custom-made to be a cult hit, and while only time will tell if it’s truly a “cult classic” or just a passing flavour of the month, it’s already attracted plenty of word-of-mouth attention — indeed, that’s precisely what led me to seek it out back in January, long before it had a confirmed UK release date (which, FYI, is today).

    While digging up their back garden for a game, a pair of siblings — obnoxious Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her pushover older brother Luke (Owen Myre) — unearth a strange gem, which turns out to be a key imprisoning an intergalactic alien mass murderer. The monster now freed, he sets off to dominate and destroy Earth… except whoever possesses the gem can control him, and that’s Mimi. She christens her new pet/toy Psycho Goreman — PG for short — and the cruel, twisted, depraved mastermind sets about using the alien criminal for her own playful ends.

    There’s a distinctly ’80s vibe to this whole setup and how it’s presented on screen, both in storytelling terms and in the use of practical suits, models, gore, and special effects. Once he’s free, PG’s old friends and enemies are all out to find him, which puts a wide array of fantastical creatures on screen. None of them are a slouch. The fact such extensive effects work must’ve been achieved on a tight budget, but by clearly enthusiastic and talented craftspeople, only furthers the throwback feel. Indeed, the creature outfits are so impressively designed and realised that, although I haven’t bought an action figure in many years, it made me really want ones of PG and, in particular, his robotic-ish police-lady nemesis, Pandora. (Funnily enough, they’re making some; but they’re retro-style, which I know is a popular thing nowadays, but I don’t think is as cool as a properly-detailed figure. Of course, those kind tend to be rather pricey; but the ones they’re making are far from cheap, especially with international postage. Oh well.)

    Mimi and friends

    Everything about the filmmaking here has been leveraged to tickle the nostalgia glands of genre fans who grew up with trashy but ambitious sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fare on video, probably when they were officially too young to be watching it. Added to the mix is overt and knowing comedy, because now we’re all in on the joke. I found this aspect a bit hit or miss. When writer-director Steven Kostanski’s work is really on form, it’s frigging hilarious — although do note it can be quite dark comedy at times (which works for me) — but the film doesn’t nail the schtick as consistently as I hoped it would. For every few gags that land or subplots that pay off, there’s something that misses an opportunity or seems to get forgotten. On the other hand, this roughness round the edges is part of the genuine cult movie charm. With geek culture having become mainstream, the high-value neatly-polished version of what used to be direct-to-video schlock is more-or-less what Hollywood serves up at the multiplex every couple of weeks (under normal circumstances). Arguably, a true cult movie has faults that its fans either overlook or embrace because of how much they love the overall result. Psycho Goreman certainly does enough right to inspire that kind of affection.

    One complaint I’ve read fairly often, even from those who fall within the film’s target audience, is that Mimi is an annoying brat. Well, it’s pretty clear that’s intentional (as opposed to, say, the result of poor casting). I wouldn’t say the film celebrates her for it, but it doesn’t really punish or develop her either, so perhaps there’s some kind of tacit acceptance there. But then, she’s a preteen girl, so I don’t know how harsh you’d expect it to be on her. Anyway, your mileage will vary as to whether she’s annoying but still amusing, or just plain irritating. I err towards the former.

    Gory man

    Having outlined the film’s supposed intended audience earlier, I must say it doesn’t technically include me. I was much too mainstream in my childhood viewing, so it’s only in later years that I’ve come to appreciate more of the bizarre deviances in cinematic history. Those who grew up on that stuff may get the biggest kick out of the film, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t delight in its gonzo joys. I won’t be surprised if Psycho Goreman has a bright future ahead as a new cult staple.

    4 out of 5

    Psycho Goreman is available on Shudder from today.

    * To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been rated by either the BBFC or the MPAA, the two classifications I normally cite. If you’re interested, for reference, classifications in the rest of the world are all in the 15–18 range. It is very gory, but it’s obviously fake and often comical. ^

    Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

    2019 #68
    Alexander Witt | 94 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Canada, UK, Germany, France & USA / English | 15 / R

    Resident Evil: Apocalypse

    2002’s film adaptation of popular horror video game series Resident Evil may not have been particularly game-accurate (from what I can gather — I’ve never played them), but it was sufficiently entertaining as an action/horror movie in its own right, and consequently it spawned a sequel (and, eventually, four more). Picking up where the first movie left off — with the zombie outbreak, er, breaking out, expanding from one facility into a whole city — Resident Evil: Apocalypse widens the scope of the movie series’ action. It also begins to introduce more characters and plot points drawn from the games, presumably in a deliberate attempt to court fans who were disappointed first time round. Unfortunately, it’s all in aid of a film that just isn’t very good.

    Where the first film was a riff on something like Assault on Precinct 13, Apocalypse turns its attention to another John Carpenter classic, clearly trying to be a version of Escape from New York. Set in a semi-abandoned, zombie-overrun city where it’s perpetually nighttime, Alice (Milla Jovovich) and the ragtag group of survivors she encounters must make it out before a nuclear bomb is dropped on it.

    It’s a perfectly serviceable storyline, and I have no problem with movies broadly borrowing storylines and whatnot in homage to other flicks. The problem is, Apocalypse is an awfully written and produced film. The first film’s writer-director, Paul W.S. Anderson, sits out the latter role this time, but returns as sole screenwriter. His dialogue is bad, devoid of realism or logic. One example: they’re trapped in a walled-off city, remember, and when one character informs the others that tomorrow morning it’s going to be hit with a tactical nuke, the first response is: “what yield?” Like it fucking matters! They’re dropping a nuke designed to wipe out the city you’re in — doesn’t matter what precise yield it is, you’re all dead. Unsurprisingly, his characterisation isn’t any better, and the cast don’t have the chops to save it, even though there are some decent-to-excellent supporting players here, like Oded Fehr, Thomas Kretschmann, and Jared Harris.

    Make my day, zombie

    His narrative structure isn’t great, either. Take the ending. The closing moments of the first film could be interpreted as a cliffhanger or sequel tease, I guess, but the final shot also work in its own right as a fatalistic reveal: that despite the efforts and sacrifices of our heroes to contain the virus, it got out and the world has gone full zombie apocalypse. Here, though, the last ten minutes or so of the film are an almost total sidestep from the story we’ve had thus far, their only purpose being to suggest some onward direction for the next movie. I suppose that’s par for the course nowadays, in the era of cinematic universes, but I still don’t think it’s good form. There are ways to have hints and teases for the future without turning a significant chunk of your current movie into an extended trailer for the next one.

    The paucity of quality in the screenplay could perhaps be allowed to slide if Apocalypse delivered on its main goals. It’s an action/adventure/horror flick, after all — the boxes it’s looking to tick are not “character drama” and “narrative coherence”, necessarily. Sadly, it doesn’t tick the other boxes either, more scribbles vaguely around them. The action is terribly directed, a blur of meaningless visual noise. Taking Anderson’s place in the director’s chair is Alexander Witt, who had previously been a second unit director on some very good movies, like The Hunt for Red October, Gladiator, The Bourne Identity, and Pirates of the Caribbean. I can only presume his unit wasn’t responsible for any of the action sequences in those films. Apocalypse remains his only primary directing credit: he’s gone back to second unit, working on some more very good movies, like Casino Royale, X-Men: First Class, Skyfall, and Avengers: Infinity War. For whatever reason, I guess that’s a better fit for him.

    One of the advantages to coming to a film series years after the fact is you can benefit from the perspective of others. To wit, I’ve seen people say this is the worst of the series. I pray they’re right, because I’ve kinda committed to watching them all now and I’m not sure I can take another four films this poor or, God forbid, worse. I had it down as a 2 for my 2019 stats, but I can’t recall a single redeeming feature now, so:

    1 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup XXXII

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s pair are the final films from May 2019

  • The Saint (2017)
  • Hairspray (1988)


    The Saint
    (2017)

    2019 #92
    Ernie Barbarash | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

    The Saint

    Leslie Charteris’s “modern-day Robin Hood” Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was adapted into a successful film series in the ’30s and ’40s, and an enduringly popular TV series in the ’60s, so it makes sense that, every now and then, someone tries to revive the property. This latest effort began life as a TV pilot in 2013, which was rejected. Reshoots to extend it into a feature were shot in 2015, but it was only released in 2017, as a ‘tribute’ to Roger Moore (star of the ’60s series, of course, and who makes a cameo here) shortly after his death. I guess that was the only way it could find distribution. You might think the fact it failed on its own merits, twice over, before having to rely on a beloved star’s death to get any kind of release, augurs badly for the film’s quality… and you’d be right.

    Adam Rayner plays the newest incarnation of the eponymous antihero, here tasked with recovering both stolen Nigerian aid money and the thief’s teenage daughter, who was kidnapped as leverage by a mysterious crime organisation. Cue lots of tech-based heist hijinks (gotta make sure we know this is a modern adaptation) and made-on-a-budget action sequences. The overall impression is of something that would’ve been a minor success as a syndicated TV series in about 1995, which obviously means it seem badly dated by today’s standards. The content of the reshoots is a little too obvious: a tacked-on prologue and epilogue, which come in the form of long scenes in limited locations with a small cast. That said, the whole production is so cheap that these additions don’t stick out too much. That’s not a compliment.

    It’s been a very long time now since we’ve had a decent version of The Saint (I rewatched the ’90s Val Kilmer film recently and it’s not some forgotten gem). As such a storied franchise, I’m sure someone will try again — indeed, we might not have to wait long at all, as it’s been reported that Dexter Fletcher is working on a new film that will star Chris Pine. I live in hope.

    2 out of 5

    The Saint featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Hairspray
    (1988)

    2019 #94
    John Waters | 88 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hairspray

    John Waters is not the kind of filmmaker whose movies you’d expect to see being adapted as a big Broadway musical. But then, Hairspray is not your typical John Waters movie, leaving behind the transgressive, gross-out elements that make films such as Pink Flamingos infamous and unpalatable to this day, replacing them with the sweet story of an overweight high-schooler who wants to be a dancer on her local TV dance show, with a self helping of racial equality — it’s set in 1962 and the show’s black dancers are still segregated.

    Although the end result is resolutely PG material, the film still feels a world away from the slick big-budget studio production values of the stage-musical-based remake — a bit of the grungy, independent, low-budget roots of Waters’s other films has survived into the vibe of this film. In a way, the nice thing about that is that the two screen versions cater to different demographics. So many remakes are aimed at fundamentally the same audience, but in shiny new packaging to attract the imbeciles who refuse to watch any films made before whatever year they’ve arbitrarily selected. Conversely, the two Hairsprays are distinctly different interpretations of the same base material, with a shared socially-conscious vision, but different aesthetic and artistic goals. Both are valid; both are good. My personal preference errs towards the remake, but I appreciate the qualities of the original, too.

    4 out of 5