2022 | Weeks 4–6

It’s been a busy start to the year… at my day job, which has had the knock-on effect of lower film viewing than has been the case in recent years. (I say that, but as February passes its midpoint, I’ve actually watched slightly more films than I had at the same point in 2020; but the last time I was lower than that was right back in 2014, so…)

As well as work, there’s the psychology of my new reviewing practices. These regular up-to-date roundups have taken me right back to the days when I used to review everything in order, and how not being caught-up on my reviews made me not want to watch anything more. I’m getting those same kinds of twinges now. I need to try to use them to my advantage — take the time to read more books or something.

Anyway, enough about me — let’s have some film reviews…

  • Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary (2016)
  • L’avventura (1960)
  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  • Don’t Look Up (2021)
  • Jackass: The Movie (2002)
  • Jackass Number Two (2006)


    Voyage of Time

    (2016)

    aka Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary / Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

    Terrence Malick | 46 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.90:1 | USA / English | NR / G

    Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary

    Calling a film “a visual poem” sounds either clichéd or pretentious, or both, but how else to accurately describe this work by Terrence Malick? It’s labelled “a documentary”, because only because it’s not strictly fiction — if you come looking for the kind of education you’d get from something narrated by David Attenborough or Brian Cox, say, then I think you’d leave disappointed.

    No, film-as-poetry is the most appropriate way to attempt to engage with Voyage of Time; and, as with so much written poetry, your personal tolerance for and interest in it will vary. That’s how I found it, anyway: like most poetry, I felt I should appreciate it, but really was glad it was quite short. (The non-IMAX version of the film, subtitled Life’s Journey, runs about twice as long.) There’s some stunning photography, of everything from the birth of the universe to prehistoric vistas (presumably shot in remote modern-day locales rather than computer-generated), and Brad Pitt occasionally whispers some abstrusely meaningful ponderings over the top. As much as the pretty pictures are a draw, you can also find gorgeous nature photography in a BBC Attenborough documentary, and you’ll learn something at the same time.

    The IMAX version of the film has been streaming on MUBI since the end of last year, and they definitely sold it on the visual experience, boasting about offering it in 4K. I found the quality to be variable, with the stream unable to keep its end up for the whole running time, sometimes sinking to sub-1080p levels, becoming blocky and compressed. This is why physical media remains the best, when possible.

    3 out of 5

    Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary is the 11th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    L’avventura

    (1960)

    aka The Adventure

    Michelangelo Antonioni | 143 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy & France / Italian, English & Greek | PG

    L'avventura

    I don’t have a great track record for enjoying acclaimed classic Italian cinema (neither Bicycle Thieves nor were to my taste, for example), so I’ve put off watching L’avventura for years, expecting I wouldn’t get on with it. But, inevitably, I had to face it someday… and, as it turned out, I really liked it… for a while…

    The film begins with Claudia (Monica Vitti) and her wealthy friend Anna (Lea Massari) meeting up with the latter’s wealthy boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), to go for a cruise on the yacht of some other wealthy friends. When they dock on a small island, Anna goes missing. The party scour the island, but there’s no sign of her. Police and divers arrive, but no luck. Reports suggest maybe she boarded another boat; possibly she was kidnapped. The wealthy friends quickly drift back to their lives, but Claudia and Sandro keep searching, following scant clues. Soon they too begin to get distracted — by each other.

    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that L’avventura starts out looking like a missing-person mystery only to get sidetracked into being a kind of romantic drama. I certainly knew that going in; and it’s probably beneficial to know it, spoiler or not, so as to manage your expectations of the film appropriately. Anyone expecting a Christie-style hunt through clues and suspects until the truth is unearthed will come away severely disappointed. No, this is the Mystery genre reimagined through an arthouse lens: it’s inconclusive, more interested in the characters than the hunt they’re on, and notoriously slow paced.

    With that in mind, I was surprised by how effective I found the mystery part of the movie. It’s not a whistle-stop action-adventure, but it’s not significantly slower than your average murder mystery, and accusations of it being uneventful seem misplaced — if I were expecting it to unfold like a regular mystery, there’d be plenty of places to look out for clues. It’s as the film shifts more towards Claudia and Sandro’s burgeoning romance that it begins to drag. The pair start just hanging around places as tourists, at which it does begin to seem like nothing’s happening and so what’s the point? The conceit of them falling for each other when they’re meant to be searching for someone they mutually care about is a good storyline, but I wasn’t convinced by how it played out. There doesn’t seem to be any time when they’re actually falling in love, they just suddenly are. Maybe I’m missing some point there. Or maybe it’s beside the point. Until I can work that one out, I’m going to have to chalk this up as half great, half A Shame.

    4 out of 5

    L’avventura is the 12th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    She’s Gotta Have It

    (1986)

    Spike Lee | 84 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    She's Gotta Have It

    Spike Lee’s post-student debut concerns twentysomething Brooklynite Nora Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who’s openly dating three men: upright ‘nice guy’ Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), preening model Greer (John Canada Terrell), and streetwise Mars (Lee himself). And let’s not be coy (because the film certainly isn’t): she’s not just dating them, she’s sleeping with them all. The story of this love ‘square’ is partially narrated to camera by its four participants, as well as some of Nora’s other friends and acquaintances.

    It’s kinda crazy to think that the American indies were making sexually frank films like this and sex, lies and videotape in the late ’80s (a precursor, no doubt, to the wave of ‘real sex’ movies in the early ’00s), while nowadays we regularly get young people on Twitter arguing that no movie ever needs to have a sex scene, ever. So while I’m tempted to describe the film’s views on promiscuity as “then-modern”, perhaps just “modern” will still suffice — it’s certainly taken most (arguably all) of the intervening decades to get rid of the double standard for men and women as regards having multiple partners. That said, what has perhaps changed is our idea of what counts as “sexually explicit”. The film was obviously quite shocking back in its day, with the MPAA insisting on cuts before they’d give it an R (the unrated “director’s cut” had a Criterion LaserDisc release, but hasn’t surfaced anywhere else since), but you’ll see more nudity, more thrusting and moaning, on certain TV shows nowadays.

    Sexual stereotypes are not the only ones Lee sought to subvert here, as he also attempts to combat stereotypical depictions of African-Americans on screen — note the prominent message in the end credits that “this film contains are no jerri curls!!! and no drugs!!!” (punctuation as seen on screen). It extends beyond those basic signifiers; for example, how Nora’s three lovers are such different personalities. Partly that makes sense for the plot — that different sides of Nora’s personality like different types of guy — but also it shows different ideas of male Blackness; that The Black Guy is not just one thing. The jazzy score is another definite contrast to what you’d expect from a Hip Young Black Movie in the ’80s. Maybe that’s just Lee’s personal preference, but maybe it’s another conscious subversion of expectations.

    Lee’s politics are clear and forthright, but his filmmaking still needed some work. A lot of the film looks great, mostly shot in high-contrast black-and-white (plus one striking, ultra-saturated colour sequence), but some of the editing and performances could use refinement. Rough round the edges though it may be, She’s Gotta Have It is so clearly the calling card of a talented and individual voice with something brand-new to say that those rough edges are almost more of a feature than a bug.

    4 out of 5

    She’s Gotta Have It is the 13th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Don’t Look Up

    (2021)

    Adam McKay | 138 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Don't Look Up

    Oscar statue2022 Academy Awards
    4 nominations

    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Score.

    Having targeted those responsible for the 2008 financial crash in The Big Short, and Dick Cheney and his responsibility for everything bad that’s happened in the last few decades in Vice, writer-director Adam McKay now turns his satirical attention to a fictional scenario, basically so he can have a go at anyone and everyone he feels like. The plot concerns a giant asteroid headed for Earth; an extinction-level event just 6½ months away. But, despite a handful of scientists trying to warn everyone, nobody seems in a great rush to do anything about it. It’s all an allegory for America’s carefree attitude to climate change, see.

    Really, this is a film I should be fully onboard with. It’s setting its sights on vacuous mainstream culture and Trumpian politics, after all. The problem is, these targets are low-hanging fruit, and — somewhat ironically, given its title — Don’t Look Up is satisfied with only plucking those lowest branches. Repeatedly. Unhurriedly. When they said the comet was 6½ months away, I didn’t expect the rest of the film to feel like it was covering that in real-time. It needed a better editor, or perhaps a studio who exerted a bit more quality control than Netflix’s famed “do what you want, we’ll just release it” approach. There are funny moments, certainly, but they’re literally few and far between when the pace is languid and the satire so broad, simplistic, and repetitious. Indeed, the most laugh-inducing stuff has nothing to do with the satire at all, just funny bits of business along the way (the best is a running gag about a general and snacks, which keeps cropping up unexpectedly).

    And for a film that’s entire thesis is being critical of American attitudes, it’s (again) ironic that it depicts this global crisis as so America-centric. Sure, there are cutaways to people watching events in other parts of the world, and a couple of belated nods to the idea that other countries might have their own thoughts on this impending disaster, but that’s all they are — sops and nods. “If America’s not going to fix this, no one can,” says the film. Ah, fuck off.

    2 out of 5


    Jackass: The Movie

    (2002)

    Jeff Tremaine | 85 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Jackass: The Movie

    Jackass never appealed to me. I was a 14-year-old boy when it started, surely the franchise’s target audience; but I was an intelligent 14-year-old boy, so I was above it. Sorry, not sorry. But with everyone going on about the new movie, and reevaluating the whole franchise as some kind of essential classic of Cinema, I thought it was finally time to see for myself.

    For those not au fait with the series, it’s about a bunch of men who clearly aren’t old enough to know better performing stunts and pranks that no one in their right mind should ever want to do anyway. They’re frequently designed to induce pain. They’re often trying to be as crude or gross as possible. Some may make you feel ill just by watching them. And yet others are almost on the level of wholesome fun… albeit “wholesome fun” where you know participants will come away with bruises, at the very least.

    Almost everything the guys get up to is “dumb” — that’s kinda the point — and yet… It borders on “educational” when, for example, lead troublemaker Johnny Knoxville submits to being shot by “less lethal” riot control ammunition. The plan was for him to be shot in the chest, but the guys who make the stuff say if it hits his heart it could kill him, so they revise it to him being shot in the abdomen. Whereas most of the other stunts are followed by cutaways to the rest of the crew in hysterics, here the shocked silence of their reaction is telling. Or how about the kinda-feminism of a segment called “Ass Kicked by a Girl”, in which one of the gang enters the ring against a world champion female kickboxer. There’s no “haha, I can take her easily ’cause she’s a girl” posturing: the guy knows he’s about to get his ass handed to him. There’s some kind of respect for women in that, anyway, which you might not expect given the rest of the laddish antics.

    Taken as ‘a movie’, it’s rather formless — I suspect the TV show was exactly the same, just shorter — but the rapid-fire, standalone-stunt style does mean that no sketch hangs around too long. Some are literally seconds. But there’s not even a sense of escalation, say — it’s not like they save the largest or most outlandish stunt for the end (although there’s a post-credit scene that seems like it was probably the film’s most expensive single sequence). In some respects it doesn’t matter (who cares about the structure of a Jackass movie?), but in others, it’s what keeps it at the level of “feature-length special” rather than true Movie.

    But, ultimately, the important thing is this: some of it is funny. Reader, I laughed.

    3 out of 5


    Jackass Number Two

    (2006)

    Jeff Tremaine | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Jackass Number Two

    Even Jackass isn’t immune from the law of diminishing returns: after three seasons on TV plus a movie, this second big-screen outing feels kinda uninspired, like they’ve used up all their truly great ideas and are mostly running on fumes. That said, there are some good sequences — a variety of rodeo-based stunts with real live bulls are among the highlights — but other pranks feel reheated, or are just underwhelming; things you suspect would have been rejected in favour of better material before.

    In that sense it almost feels like it was rushed out to capitalise on success, but there’s a gap of four years, the TV show had ended, and they hadn’t necessarily intended to do any more — surely the only reason to return, then, was fresh ideas? Or, perhaps, being given the budget to do things they couldn’t before. That might be the case, because some of the material does feel like it’s got too much money and/or time behind it. I say “too much” because I think Jackass works best when it has a rough, cheap, “made at home” vibe. The finale here — a big “old Hollywood”-style musical number, with stunts mixed in — feels particularly out of place. Obviously it’s all a big joke, but the glossy, clearly-expensive visuals don’t feel of the right style.

    Plus, at various points you can feel some of the cast are getting genuinely fed up with this shit. Maybe they’d been doing it for too long by this point (I say there was a years-long gap, but some had been involved in spinoff projects). Whatever the reason, it serves to undermine the fun somewhat. One of the reasons you can enjoy these fools doing life-threatening stunts is because they’re volunteering for it and they seem to be having fun, however much they’re getting hurt or disgusted. But if they’re not enjoying it, aren’t we just watching people be tortured for our entertainment? It almost tips it from being stupid-but-funny into exploitative bullying. And we shouldn’t be having to think about anything that deep during a Jackass movie.

    As I’ve given both films 3 stars, let’s be clear: I’d definitely rate the sequel lower than the first movie, just not a whole star lower — it doesn’t merit being pulled down to a 2, while the first doesn’t merit a retrospective bump up to 4. If this kind of tomfoolery tickles you, there’s still plenty of entertainment to be had in Number Two, it’s just (mostly) not their finest output — which I guess is kinda apt, given the title.

    3 out of 5

    Jackass Number Two is the 15th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • 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.


  • Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise (2007)

    Bruce David Klein | 88 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English

    Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise

    The singer Meat Loaf was very protective of his creative process, and apparently this documentary was the first time he’d allowed cameras behind the scenes to document it. Certainly, he’s frequently uncomfortable with or begrudging of their presence, although he seems to get used to them over time, allowing us some rare insights.

    The film follows Meat and his band as they prepare for and commence a mammoth 18-month world tour following the release of Bat Out of Hell III. Despite the lengthy schedule, a DVD recording of the concert is scheduled for just a few gigs in. It’s never mentioned who was responsible for booking that, but it clearly causes added stress for everyone: rather than allowing the show to become refined and polished over a long series of gigs, it’s got to be good enough to be documented almost as soon as it starts. No one here is ever pretentious enough to refer to the recording as an “historical record”, but that’s what it will be. This is the first tour in which Meat will perform songs from the entire Bat Out of Hell trilogy, and the gig that’s recorded for DVD is the one that will endure as the record of this tour. It’s got to be right.

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the fact that Meat Loaf is never satisfied. At one point, Meat’s mate Dennis Quaid is in town and pops by to watch that evening’s gig. Afterwards, he describes it as “an incredible show”. “It wasn’t one of my favourites, but thank you,” replies Meat. So Dennis asks, “how many times are they your favourite?” “Never,” Meat answers, “I hate ’em all… I’m waiting for the perfect show.” Of course, the perfect show never comes, and so Meat never feels it’s gone as well as it could have; he’s always apologising to fans that it won’t live up to expectations. But it’s not that the tour is genuinely coming up short — the band are happy; the crowds are certainly entertained — it’s just something in Meat Loaf’s character. He pushes himself so hard — too hard, given how exhausted it makes him, to the point he physically collapses after most shows. Whether you like his music or not, this film leaves you in no doubt about his dedication to his craft; to trying to give his fans exactly what they want.

    Looks like paradise to me

    That desire comes to a particular head in one of the film’s major subplots: the show is generally well reviewed in the press, but every critic takes issue with the staging of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, a number about teenage sex in which 59-year-old Meat duets with 28-year-old Aspen Miller — who looks a lot younger, especially in her skimpy cheerleader outfit. Frankly, I reckon the critics were at least partly jealous that Aspen Miller wasn’t writhing all over them, but maybe that’s just giving away something about me… Anyway, the number should be one of the highlights (as guitarist Kasim Sulton says, he’s been touring with Meat for decades and they’ve never done a show without it), but the criticisms are a cause of irritation backstage. Importantly, Miller doesn’t share the critics’ concerns; indeed, she seems to find it frustrating that they’re dismissive of her part in the performance, writing her off as a victim of it, when she’s an adult involved in the planning of what is a fully-choreographed routine. But the criticisms get to Meat even more — it’s not meant to be a song about a handsy old man attempting to assault a young girl, after all — and so various fixes are attempted to improve the song’s reception. It’s like a case study in revising a work while it’s already in performance, and shows that these tours don’t go out on the road locked and unchangeable — or, at least, they don’t when Meat Loaf is involved.

    The film’s final line is given to Meat Loaf himself. As he walks away after that all-important gig filmed for the DVD, he repeats several times: “I tried.” That’s his attitude in summation: he never thought it was good enough, but he always gave it his all.

    4 out of 5

    Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise is the 10th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    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.


  • 2022 | Weeks 1–3

    Here we go — finally, and somewhat later than anticipated (it’s been a slow start to the year, viewing-wise) — the new review format for 2022!

    …which you’ll have already seen in Archive 5, of course; and is fundamentally similar to what I was doing before in roundups and what-have-you; and which I’ve already ‘broken’, because my review of Flight of the Navigator came out so long that I posted it alone.

    But still, the intention is this is now my regular review format, popping up every week or two (or three) to review everything in a more timely fashion than I have for many, many years. We’ll see how it goes — I feel like I need to relearn how to write short pieces, because longer reviews feel like they should get their own posts, and that’s happened to pieces intended for every one of these roundups so far this year.


    Anyway — to kick things off for 2022, a film with a broadly appropriate title. Because, despite (deliberately misleading) hints to the contrary, I’m carrying on. Get it? Carrying on watching. And “spying” is a synonym of “watching”, right? (Look, there aren’t any Carry On films with more apposite titles, okay?)

    These weeks’ films are…

  • Carry On Spying (1964)
  • Penny Serenade (1941)
  • The Navigator (1924)
  • In the Line of Fire (1993)
  • Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper (2004)
  • Free Guy (2021)


    Carry On Spying

    (1964)

    Gerald Thomas | 84 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | UK / English | U

    Carry On Spying

    Believe it or not, I’ve never actually seen a Carry On film before. Maybe that’s not so surprising these days. They were once such a part of British culture that they produced 30 of the things, but I think they were seen as “a bit old fashioned” even before I was born, and by 2022’s standards… oof. But, lest you get the wrong end of the stick (oo-er, etc), this isn’t me intending to finally dive into all of them. Rather, as well as its timely title, I chose to watch Carry On Spying primarily because it’s a James Bond spoof — the first, I believe, seeing as it was released in July 1964, when the Bond series only encompassed Dr. No and From Russia with Love (Goldfinger would follow a couple of months later).

    With Bond not yet even properly into its initial phenomenon phase (the first two films were hits, but it was the next two that skyrocketed its popularity), you might think Spying came too soon, and would be disadvantaged by being produced before the famous Bond formula was fully in place. Instead, it sets its spoofing sights a little wider, including an extended riff on The Third Man. I couldn’t tell you everything it’s drawing on, but its third-act villain’s lair — all sleek metal corridors and little road-train thingies and jump-suited identikit henchpeople — appears to be a take-off of You Only Live Twice, some three years before that film even came out. So I can only presume Spying’s point of reference there is something else, which I can’t quite remember; some other spy fiction that was already doing stuff the Bond franchise would still be pulling off years later. That doesn’t reflect too positively on YOLT, when you think of it, although Bond’s cultural dominance and longevity has come to ensure it’s the one that’s remembered for pioneering all this stuff.

    I don’t know how many Carry On films were genre spoofs, but the series’ reputation is more for smut and innuendo. There’s pleasantly little of that here — some, for sure, mostly based around Barbara Windsor (of course) as a trainee agent; but while it’s all fundamentally juvenile, it’s not as ceaselessly ribald as I was expecting. Satisfyingly, it remains primarily focused on its chosen genre. In that respect, I’ve definitely seen worse spoofs.

    3 out of 5

    Carry On Spying is the 1st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Penny Serenade

    (1941)

    George Stevens | 120 mins | digital (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Penny Serenade

    This is the third and final film to pair up stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant as a married couple (I’ve watched all their collaborations within the past couple of years, but not posted reviews of the first two yet. I thought it was within the last year, but turns out I watched my first in May 2020. These strange days have really messed with my sense of the passage of time!) But where their first two films were screwball romcoms, this is undoubtedly a melodrama, following a couple as they meet, marry, and attempt to start a family.

    Dunne and Grant both make a fair fist of the serious stuff — Grant, in particular, gives an uncommonly sensitive performance at times — although they can’t resist slipping back into a spot of almost-slapstick given half a chance, with various individual sequences playing more like one of their comedies. Those scenes stand at odds with the film’s overall narrative and tone, which goes for full-on weepy. Indeed, if anything, I thought it was overdone, in particular an ending that throws in sudden tragedy followed so quickly by a pat happy ending that it feels almost distasteful.

    The film’s hook is that it begins with Dunne planning to leave, before she discovers a book of records that, as she plays them, take her back through their relationship. Different songs provoking specific memories is a neat narrative device on paper, but doesn’t really come across on screen. Aside from the first track, and maybe a later burst of Happy Birthday (although that could be almost any birthday, surely), the songs don’t seem to have any special relevance to the memories they supposedly call forth. It doesn’t help that, to modern ears, they all sound kinda samey. Plus, that the songs lead everything to unfurl in chronological order, with every major beat of their life story accounted for, is certainly convenient.

    If you can look past such artifice, and just want to revel in an old-fashioned bit of heart-tugging, Penny Serenade is fit to make you shed a tear. Personally, I’d rather the headline duo had given us another bout of screwball tomfoolery.

    3 out of 5

    Penny Serenade is the 3rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Navigator

    (1924)

    Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton | 66 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent | U

    The Navigator

    This is my fourth Buster Keaton feature now (I’ve only previously reviewed The General, but Sherlock Jr made it into my 2019 top 3), and he’s established himself as my favourite of the major silent comedians (I rarely enjoy Chaplin’s films as much as I feel I should; and, in fairness to Harold Lloyd, I’ve only seen one of his so far, which I liked a lot). The Navigator was the biggest hit of his career, though is probably my least favourite of his I’ve seen so far — though I don’t want to damn it with false criticism, because it’s still a brisk and entertaining comedy.

    Keaton stars as a spoiled rich kid whose marriage proposal is rejected. He’d already booked the honeymoon tickets, so sets off by himself; but, due to several points of confusion, he ends up adrift at sea on a decommissioned ship, empty but for one other passenger: his would-be fiancée (Kathryn McGuire). It’s up to this pair of brats to get along and survive while they hope for rescue. (Rescue does not come quickly. Considering McGuire’s father is a successful shipping magnate who’s aware of what’s happened, you’d think he’d send a vessel after them; but then, he might have his own problems, owing to a bunch of foreign spies who… look, it’s best not to overthink the logistics and plausibility of the plot.)

    Although Keaton gets the lion’s share of the gags, as well he might, for a stretch in the middle he and McGuire form an effective double act. The two rich kids being hilariously useless at household basics, like making coffee or opening a tin of food, is well observed; a flash-forward to their automated solutions is also fun. While Keaton still gets to show off by himself — particularly in an elaborate underwater diving sequence, naturally saved for the final act — McGuire makes the most of the material she’s given.

    The only outright demerit to the film is that the finale hasn’t aged particularly well: the ship finally drifts near land, but it’s an island with a village-full of black natives, at which McGuire immediately exclaims “cannibals!” That she’s sort of proven right when they start attacking the ship is… well, maybe not even worse, but at least just as bad. Still, by 1920s standards, maybe we can take comfort in the fact that it’s only casual racism…

    More than that, the reason I say it’s my least favourite Keaton so far is simply that it doesn’t have as many comedic highs as his very best work. Nonetheless, his genius regularly shines through in moments and even whole sequences, and there are a couple of individual gags that are all-timers.

    4 out of 5

    The Navigator is the 4th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    In the Line of Fire

    (1993)

    Wolfgang Petersen | 129 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    In the Line of Fire

    Clint Eastwood is a Secret Service agent who failed to stop the JFK assassination, now taunted by John Malkovich’s mysterious wannabe-assassin and his threats to kill the current President. It’s a fundamentally strong idea for a thriller, and works especially well by having the villain constantly phoning the hero for little chats. Malkovich’s always makes for a first-rate antagonist, and his slightly loony personality clashes well with Eastwood’s stoic, dry-witted, old-fashioned tough guy. There are a couple of chase scenes and shoot-outs here and there, but, rather than any elaborate physical action, it’s the verbal sparring that represents the film’s highlights.

    On the downside, the pace is a little on the slow side (perhaps matched to the “too old for this shit” age of Eastwood’s hero — in real life, he’d be a whole decade past the mandatory retirement age) and there are one too many clichés as important plot points (don’t get too attached to the partner who’s always talking about his wife and kids). Plus, there’s a wholly unnecessary romance between 62-year-old Clint and 39-year-old Rene Russo — the film doesn’t need it, even if there wasn’t that age gap. It leads to an (almost) sex scene that’s worthy of the Naked Gun films, which is amusing but tonally misplaced.

    They used to make this kind of political thriller on the regular back in the ’90s, one of those bread-and-butter genres for grownups that have fallen by the wayside in favour of hyper-budgeted kids’-movie spectacle that men of allegedly adult age flock to nowadays. In the Line of Fire may not truly stand out among its brethren of the era, but I do wish they still made ’em like this.

    4 out of 5

    In the Line of Fire is the 6th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Barbie as
    The Princess and the Pauper

    (2004)

    William Lau | 85 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA & Canada / English | U

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper

    One of the many film lists I have my eye on completing is Letterboxd 100: Animation, which lists the highest-rated animated feature films on the site (with a few caveats). There are over 40 titles left that I’ve not seen, and I could’ve chosen to watch almost any of them… but I chose the Barbie one. Well, not the Barbie one, because there are actually two Barbie titles on the list. And that’s not some temporary fluke: they’ve been on there for quite a while now. This merited investigation.

    As you’ve no doubt gathered from the title, this particular Barbie film is a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. A fairytale-esque story, about a princess, done as a musical? Yep, this is very much a wannabe Disney, but without the production values of that major studio: the computer animation here looks more like a PS2 cutscene. But hiding beneath the cheap animation is a halfway decent musical fairytale. Take the second musical number, How Can I Refuse, for example: it’s every inch in the mould of a “Disney villain’s song”, but is better than some genuine examples, and comes complete with a dance routine by the antagonist and his two henchman. This film has ambition, I’ll give it that.

    Other songs vary in quality. When the eponymous duo first meet, there’s an unintentionally hilarious number in which they sing about how similar they are, the indentured servant and the pampered royal. If you say so, girls. A later track is a typical “you be you” song, but sung to a pet cat who behaves like a dog. That’s a level of barminess I can get on board with.

    I would never have dreamed of watching this if it weren’t on the Letterboxd animation list. Now, I wouldn’t exactly say I’m glad I watched it, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would — even if sometimes that was due to laughing at it rather than with it.

    3 out of 5

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper is the 7th film in my 100 Films Challenge 2022.


    Free Guy

    (2021)

    Shawn Levy | 115 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Free Guy

    Ryan Reynolds plays his role again as Guy, a bank worker in city riddled with crime and superheroics. But, it turns out, Guy isn’t real — he’s an NPC in a computer game, programmed to do the same thing over and over and basically be ignored by the real-world players. Until, that is, he spots the woman of his dreams (Jodie Comer) and his programming breaks as Guy becomes self-aware.

    The basic concept sounds like a fun, fresh, and timely idea, right? Video games have never been more popular, AI is ever-improving, and there’s room for both gags and action in the core idea — that’s the winning Marvel formula, right there. Unfortunately, the execution is as if someone found a way to make a new movie by collaging others. Free Guy is just The LEGO Movie + The Truman Show + Wreck-It Ralph + Ready Player One + the PG-13 version of Deadpool 2 — not put in a blender, but cut up and stuck back together side-by-side, with snippets of Groundhog Day, Fortnite, and multiple Disney-owned properties scattered in for good measure.

    That last aspect, the Disney references, has been singled out for particular derision on social media. The film was initially produced by 20th Century Fox, but ended up a Disney title after the buyout, which allows a bunch of stuff they own to pop up in the movie. I know we’re supposed to find this infinitely depressing — a sad reminder that Disney are on course to own all culture, and that’s a bad thing — and it is bad, of course… but the bit with Captain America’s shield still made me laugh. Sorry, not sorry. Yeah, you can be miserable about this stuff, because obviously the total homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is not worth that a couple of meta gags; but the homogenisation of all American media under The Walt Disney Company is happening anyway, so we may as well enjoy the gags we get along the way.

    Whether you have that kind of attitude or not will probably dictate how much you enjoy Free Guy. Its originality is surface deep, at best, and at every second it will call to mind some other film that already did the same thing. But, allowing for that, it’s still a fairly entertaining couple of hours of action-comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Free Guy is the 8th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • 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 XXIX

    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.

    I’m cheating slightly in this roundup, because these are the final reviews from April 2019, a period that means I should also be reviewing Captain Marvel and Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The former I don’t have many notes on, so I’d like to make time for a rewatch and do it properly. The latter, well, as I’m in the middle of watching the whole RE series, I’ll either round it up with some of the other sequels or give it a standalone post. It wouldn’t have been the first time I included a mid-franchise instalment in a roundup, but it always feels a bit ‘ugly’ to do that.

    Anyway, enough about what isn’t here — here’s what is…

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
  • Click (2006)
  • Mortal Engines (2018)
  • The Help (2011)


    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
    (2010)

    2019 #63
    Edgar Wright | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

    Well, this is embarrassing: a film I ranked in my top five of the year, but I don’t have any notes to write up a full review — just like Heathers back in Roundup XI. Oh dear, again.

    In Scott Pilgrim’s case, it’s just about to be re-released in a restored/jazzed-up version (first in Dolby Cinemas, then on 4K disc), so I’ll surely rewatch it that way and hopefully try this again properly, maybe later this year. For now, in the spirit of these roundups (i.e. to clear old unreviewed films), here’s the paragraph I wrote when it ranked 4th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019

    If I’m honest, I was prepared to dislike Scott Pilgrim — I mean, there’s a reason it took me almost a decade to get round to it. It always looked Too Cool; kind of too hipster-ish, though I guess in a geeky way. (Well, “hipster” and “geek” have been more closely linked than ever this decade, haven’t they?) I remember distinctly when it went down a storm at Comic-Con and so everyone believed it was The Next Big Thing, only for it to flop hard at the box office (providing a much-needed course correction on everyone’s view of the power of Comic-Con).

    But here’s the thing: it’s directed by Edgar Wright, and I should have trusted that. And so the film is everything you’d expect from the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver — deep-cut references (this time to video games), piles of humour, but also a dose of genuine emotion. Best of all is how it’s ceaselessly, fearlessly, creatively inventive with its cinematic tricks. No other film on this list is so overtly Directed, but in a good way.

    5 out of 5

    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.

    Click
    (2006)

    2019 #64
    Frank Coraci | 107 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Click

    I am not, by an stretch of the imagination, an Adam Sandler aficionado. Besides this, the only films of his I’ve seen are Murder Mystery (which I watched in spite of him because I like murder mysteries), and Punch-Drunk Love and Uncut Gems, neither of which are “Adam Sandler films” in the widely-understood sense (and I didn’t much like either of them anyway). Indeed, the only reason I watched Click is because it’s on “most-watched movies ever”-type lists and I wanted to check it off.

    Sandler plays a workaholic family man, who’s missing out on time with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two kids while he strives for a promotion at work. But then he comes across a magic remote control that works on the world: he can mute arguments, rewind to the good bits, fast-forward to when he gets his promotion… He thinks it’s great — until, of course, it isn’t.

    From the very start, it’s clear Click isn’t running high on originality, with “gags” about having lots of remote controls and about a dog humping a soft toy. The former was surely already old-hat observational comedy by 2006, while the latter has always been on about the same level as fart gags. As Sandler watches the dog’s actions, he comments that it’s something his young kids shouldn’t “know about” for 10 years for the boy and 30 years for the girl. Within the first few minutes, Click has managed to be overfamiliar, underdeveloped, crude, and socially regressive, all at the same time. And then it throws some racism in for good measure, with a foreign prince whose name the characters mispronounce as things like “Ha-booby” and “Hubba-bubba”. This is all before the ten-minute mark. Never mind a magic remote control — you might be contented reaching for the real one.

    The film’s a Fantasy because it’s about a magic remote control, but the wish fulfilment definitely extends beyond that. I mean, Kate Beckinsale as Adam Sandler’s wife? Pull the other one. Plus, all the young attractive women in his office seem to fancy him, too. Someone’s ego was getting stroked here.

    The comedy continues in its thoroughly predictable vein until things inevitably start to go wrong, at which point they really pile on the tortuous misery. It’s such a sharp and drastic change in the second half that it’s liable to give you tonal whiplash. Plus, the film already felt like it was running too long, and this new avenue just piles on the minutes. They should’ve cut at least quarter-of-an-hour out of the whole thing. When it eventually drags itself to the end, that’s a terrible cliché too.

    Click does have its moments, although not too many of them, and they’re of the “this is adequate to lounge in front of” variety rather than anything fresh or invigorating. Fortunately, you don’t need a magic life-control to skip it.

    2 out of 5

    Mortal Engines
    (2018)

    2019 #69
    Christian Rivers | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

    Mortal Engines

    Based on the first book in a series of beloved young adult novels by Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines is set in a post-apocalyptic future where towns and cities have been transformed into gigantic vehicles that roam the world consuming each other for scarce resources. On London, a young fugitive out for revenge, Hester (Hera Hilmar), ends up thrown in with an outcast (Robert Sheehan) as they uncover a world-changing conspiracy.

    Billed as being “from the filmmakers of The Lord of the Rings”, Mortal Engines is one of many would-be PG-13 fantasy franchises that have sprung up in the couple of decades since Rings and Harry Potter’s dual-pronged success at the end of 2001. And, like so many of them, it failed to find a theatrical audience and so stalled out after just one film. Fortunately, when Reeve wrote the original novel it wasn’t intended as a series, so while there was clearly opportunity for sequels, this nonetheless tells a contained story.

    In practice, “from the makers of Lord of the Rings” means it was adapted by that trilogy’s screenwriting team (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson), was filmed in New Zealand with Weta on design and effects work, and is the feature directorial debut of Christian Rivers, who previously served various art, effects, and second-unit roles on Jackson’s films as far back as Braindead. All of which means you can be assured the film looks fantastic — the production design, and the epic visuals that show it off, are consistently magnificent. Equally, the story has some bold and original ideas that are equally as exciting. So it’s a massive shame about the sometimes awkward dialogue and narrative choices, as well as the variable quality of the acting, and at least one subplot that was obviously butchered in post (what we see on screen is jumpy and clearly incomplete). By falling short in such fundamentals, it lets down the imagination on display elsewhere.

    Nonetheless, there’s enough to appreciate it in Mortal Engines that I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps it’s a shame we won’t get to see the other books adapted, but at least the fact it works as a standalone movie means that, unlike some other failed franchises, it can still be watched and enjoyed as is. Maybe it’ll find an audience belatedly and, like other aborted film adaptations before it (A Series of Unfortunate Events; His Dark Materials), we’ll be treated to a TV do-over later this decade.

    4 out of 5

    The Help
    (2011)

    2019 #70
    Tate Taylor | 137 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | USA, India & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Help

    Jackson, Mississippi, the 1960s: society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns from college determined to become a writer, so she decides to interview the black women who have spent their lives taking care of southern white families, to capture their view of the hardships they go through on a daily basis, starting with her best friend’s housekeeper (Viola Davis). Initially controversial in both white and black communities, as more maids come forward to tell their stories, everyone in town finds themselves unwittingly and unwillingly caught up in the changing times. — adapted from IMDb

    For some reason I thought The Help was based on a true story, but it’s actually just adapted from a novel. That makes accusations of it being a “white saviour” narrative worse, because it loses any defence of “well, this is what really happened” — it’s a creative choice. Instead, what if the maids had decided they needed to tell their own story, but had to use a sympathetic white woman as a front to get it published? Same general point, but it gives more agency to the black women in controlling their own story.

    Anyway, while there is plenty wrong here (too much focus on the white characters; aimless subplots, like a romantic one; the overt air of Worthiness), it’s still watchable and engaging, there are some very good performances, and it’s not as if the message isn’t an important one — and, sadly, still relevant.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVII

    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 selection includes the first reviews to be rounded up from April 2019

  • The Howling (1981)
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • A Good Year (2006)


    The Howling
    (1981)

    2019 #50
    Joe Dante | 87 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Howling

    After a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, television newswoman Karen White becomes emotionally disturbed and loses her memory. On doctor’s orders she’s sent to the Colony, a secluded retreat where the creepy residents may not be what they seem… — adapted from IMDb

    Released the same year as John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, I think it’s fair to say The Howling has been overshadowed by its UK-set counterpart, which has left a more enduring mark on the werewolf subgenre. But it would be a shame to ignore director Joe Dante’s effort entirely, because it’s a strong movie with its own pleasures — where American Werewolf is mostly quite comical, The Howling is more of a straight-faced horror movie.

    Indeed, at the start it feels more like a ’70s thriller than a campy horror — a Network-esque newsroom drama crossed with a seedy serial killer flick, in which the handheld neon-lit photography of nighttime ‘mean streets’ reminded me of something like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. When the plot heads out into the countryside, the sub-Hammer antics feel a bit low-rent by comparison; but once the proper werewolf action kicks off, it picks up again. Special makeup maestro Rick Baker may have abandoned this project for American Werewolf, but the special effects feature sterling work nonetheless, including a couple of superb transformations. Hurrah for practical effects.

    There’s room for improvement here — it needs a more cohesive, thorough, better paced screenplay (after an effective opening, it takes time to get going again, but then the climax is a bit rushed) — but the bits that work are so good that The Howling still ends up as a great werewolf movie.

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush
    (1925)

    2019 #52
    Charles Chaplin | 95 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent | U

    The Gold Rush

    Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush exists in two versions: the 1925 original, and a 1942 re-release for which Chaplin cut whole scenes, trimmed others, and reinserted some outtakes and alternate shots, plus adding a synced soundtrack that included voiceover narration by him. The re-release is the ‘official’ version according to Chaplin’s estate (on the 2-disc DVD I own, the ’42 version is by itself on disc 1, with the ’25 version among the special features on disc 2), but from what I read it seems most people regard the ’25 original as the superior version, so that’s the one I chose to watch.

    As with the other Chaplins I’ve seen, it’s an episodic series of skits with a linking theme — this time, his Little Tramp character is prospecting for gold in the Klondike. It’s an interesting mix of the expected slapstick humour with something that’s more… not serious, exactly (although a subplot about a wanted criminal who murders a couple of lawmen is a bit incongruous), but there are sequences that aim at distinctly different emotions, like pathos (not unfamiliar when it comes to the Little Tramp), or overt thrills, including a cliff-edge climax.

    Then there’s the ostensibly happy ending, in which our hero gets the girl. That’d be the girl who stood him up, who doesn’t really care for him, who got railroaded into posing with him and kissing him… but gets with him right after she learnt he’s now a multimillionaire. Are we sure that’s a happy ending?

    4 out of 5

    The Gold Rush was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    A Good Year
    (2006)

    2019 #54
    Ridley Scott | 113 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    A Good Year

    Ridley Scott, the acclaimed director perhaps destined to be best remembered for sci-fi classics like Alien and Blade Runner, and actor Russell Crowe, who made his name with hard-man roles in films like Romper Stomper and L.A. Confidential, have collaborated multiple times. Together they’ve created action-filled historical epics like Gladiator and Robin Hood, and contemporary thrillers like American Gangster and Body of Lies. But in amongst all that they made… this, an oddity on both man’s filmography: a gentle romantic dramedy about a London banker who inherits a vineyard in Provence and learns to love a simpler life.

    Ridley Scott directing a sunny romcom sounds like a daft idea, doesn’t it? Well, turns out it’s not only daft, it’s quite bad. Apparently Scott conceived the story, and everything (apart from scenes in London) was shot within eight minutes of his home in Provence. In some hands that might lead to a very personal story, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I once read someone argue that the entertainment an artist enjoys consuming isn’t necessarily the same as what they’re good at creating, and this seems like a case in point. The storyline and atmosphere may’ve been inspired by Scott’s love for the region he’s made his home, but it doesn’t match his skills as a filmmaker very well at all.

    It’s as inappropriately directed as you’d expect, with moments of almost slapstick comedy that feel decades out of date, and other parts that are shot and scored more like a thriller than a breezy comedy-drama. In front of the camera, Russell Crowe does his best to be Hugh Grant, and he could be worse, but it does make you appreciate how good Hugh Grant was at being Hugh Grant. His love interest is Marion Cotillard, playing a character whose name sounds like “Fanny Chanel” — one character responds to being told that with “ooh la la”, which might be the most succinct “British person’s view of the French” dialogue exchange ever written.

    Much as Crowe’s continued exposure to the region and its people slowly charms him, so did I gradually warm to the film. When Scott isn’t trying too hard it has a certain laidback good humour, with the bonus of beautiful scenery and beautiful women, so that it becomes not unpleasant to watch. If that sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. A Good Year is not a good film, but it is, ultimately, a mostly pleasant one.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

    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 selection, the final two films from March 2019, includes a pair of awards-worthy short animations — the first won an Oscar, the second was nominated for one. I was going to include more films in this week’s roundup (effectively bundle two weeks into one), but it felt like a disservice to this pair.

  • Paperman (2012)
  • Waltz with Bashir (2008)


    Paperman
    (2012)

    2019 #48a
    John Kahrs | 7 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / silent | U / G

    Paperman

    This Disney short was originally released alongside Wreck-It Ralph (and can now be found on that film’s Blu-ray; as well as on Disney+, I presume) and, as I recall, attracted a lot of praise at the time, primarily for its visual style. That was an innovation in creating 2D-looking animation via a 3D system — so it seems a bit daft that I watched it in 3D. I have to wonder if the added visual dimension highlights the underlying 3D animation, because it’s quite obviously been created in 3D with a 2D style over the top.

    That said, it look gorgeous, however you cut it. There’s an inherent beauty in how it’s executed, while the chosen black-and-white style emphasises the apparent setting (’40s New York) and also gives it a timeless quality. The 2D/3D combination works well, giving it the fluidity and dynamism of CG animation, but with a certain roughness — a hand-made-ness — that comes from 2D cel animation. Of course, that’s artificial, injected via design choices (like scruffy outlines on the characters), but it feels authentic.

    As for the actual story, it’s a charming little romantic number involving paper aeroplanes… until those sheets of folded paper become sentient and omniscient, at which point it lost me with its silliness. But as an exercise in style: lovely.

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

    2019 #49
    Ari Folman | 87 mins | TV | 16:9 | Israel, France, Germany, USA, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium & Australia / Hebrew, Arabic, German & English | 18 / R

    Waltz with Bashir

    One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari Folman about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by vicious dogs. They conclude that there’s a connection to their Israeli Army service in the first Lebanon War of 1982. Ari can’t remember that period of his life, so he meets and interviews old friends and veterans, hoping to discover the truth about that time and reconstruct his own memories of the conflict. — adapted from IMDb

    This search for the truth has led Waltz with Bashir to be labelled an “animated documentary”, which sounds like an odd idea, almost oxymoronic — you can tell a true story with animation, of course, but can you document something? Well, yes. Rather than talking heads, what animation allows is the visualisation of the narrators’ memories and dreams alike, and means we can flow between them, too. On a practical level, it allows the film to stage scenes that would be impossible in live-action without a huge budget, meaning it doesn’t have to compromise on the stories it tells. More thematically, having a shared style between ‘reality’ and ‘dream’, plus the distancing effect of it being drawn, not ‘real’ — of being unequivocally created, not just filmed — helps to underscore larger points about the reliability (or otherwise) of memory. The dreams are connected to the memories; are the memories a kind of dream?

    Given the time period being remembered, of course the film is about war and how that affects the mind of its participants, but it’s also memory in general, I think. You’d think such extreme, unique experiences would be unforgettable, and yet the workings of the mind and memory aren’t that straightforward. One strand I found particularly fascinating was the way people are haunted by the suffering of animals in the conflict, perhaps more so than by the human-related atrocities they saw. Is this just a coincidence of the people Folman spoken to? Is it a particular interest of Folman himself? Or is it a genuine phenomenon? I don’t know the answer, but (outside of, say, War Horse) I don’t remember it being such a clear thread in a war-related film or documentary before.

    I’ve seen people say they couldn’t connect with Waltz with Bashir because they didn’t know the history of the period well enough. Conversely, I felt that was part of why the film was so effective: not really knowing what was going on or what was being referred to, I was discovering it as the character did. Some parts along the way could perhaps have used further clarity or explanation for those of us entirely unfamiliar with the conflict, but there’s enough information disclosed to be going on with. I found the film’s ending to be powerful beyond words, and part of what makes it so shocking and impactful is not knowing about it, of learning about it for the first time with the characters.

    5 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXIV

    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 selection includes three films from March 2019

  • Bruce Almighty (2003)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)
  • Life Is Beautiful (1997)


    Bruce Almighty
    (2003)

    2019 #31
    Tom Shadyac | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Bruce Almighty

    Television reporter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) doesn’t think the world is treating him fairly, but when he angrily rages against God, he actually gets a response. God (Morgan Freeman) decides to take a holiday, leaving Bruce in charge with His divine powers. As Burce puts his omnipotent powers to the test, he comes to realise that with great power comes… yeah. — liberally adapted from IMDb

    I mean, in fairness to Bruce, Spider-Man only came out the year before — maybe he just hadn’t seen it yet.

    Anyway, Bruce Almighty is almost entirely fuelled by Carrey’s antics — if you enjoy his zany style, you’ll lap it up; if you hate it, there are no redeeming qualities that haven’t been done better in other broadly-similarly-themed films (see Groundhog Day, for example). I say “almost entirely” because there are brief asides where Morgan Freeman or Steve Carrell get to steal a scene. Indeed, Freeman earned the film’s only out-loud laugh from me when he casually throws in one of Carrey’s best-known catchphrases.

    Personally, I’m in between on comedy-mode Carrey, and so that’s where I landed on Bruce Almighty. He doesn’t push his schtick so far that it becomes irritating to me, as in the Ace Ventura films (I quite liked them as a kid but feel I’d hate them now), but nor is it inspired enough to really transcend being just what it is.

    3 out of 5

    Isle of Dogs
    (2018)

    2019 #32
    Wes Anderson | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English & Japanese | PG / PG-13

    Isle of Dogs

    Wes Anderson has a weird proclivity for killing dogs in his movies, so it seems almost like some kind of atonement that he’d turn around and make a movie whose title is a homophone for “I love dogs”.

    This animated adventure is set in a near-future Japan, where a canine flu is spreading through the city of Megasaki. To stop it, the mayor orders all dogs be banished to Trash Island — starting with Spots, the pet of his orphaned 12-year-old nephew, Atari. So Atari steals a plane and flies to Trash Island, where he teams up with five stray dogs to search for his exiled pal.

    Isle of Dogs attracted a certain amount of criticism when it was released for its treatment of the Japanese characters and, especially, language; primarily, that the Japanese dialogue is not subtitled, thereby ‘othering’ those characters because we’re prevented from engaging with them. When watching the film, my first thought was those complaints were being a bit daft: the dogs speak English, the humans speak Japanese, and we’re clearly being placed with the dogs — the humans are ‘other’ because they’re human, not because they’re Japanese. But then the film keeps jumping through hoops to get around this, for example with translators on TV to re-speak the Japanese in English; or an American exchange student to speak for another group with English dialogue. This is where it does tip into being problematic; where it can feel like a Western director playing around with another culture.

    All of which said, I still very much enjoyed the film. As a fellow Anglophone admirer of Japanese culture, that aspect broadly worked for me. Setting aside the controversy, it’s still amusing, in Anderson’s normal mode, with a suitably exciting and action-packed quest narrative.

    5 out of 5

    Life Is Beautiful
    (1997)

    aka La vita è bella

    2019 #33
    Roberto Benigni | 116 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian, English & German | PG / PG-13

    Life is Beautiful

    In 1930s Italy, a carefree Jewish librarian named Guido starts a fairytale life by courting and marrying a woman from a nearby city. They have a son and live happily together until the occupation of Italy by German forces, when they’re separated and sent to concentration camps. Determined to shelter his son from the horrors of his surroundings, Guido pretends that their time in the camp is merely a game. — adapted from IMDb

    Every summary of Life is Beautiful concentrates on the “they end up in the Holocaust” bit — which is fair enough, it’s rather a major thing. But this is really a film of two halves. The first is a broad, sketch-like comedy, in which Guido (played by cowriter-director Roberto Benigni) bumbles around, woos his wife, and starts a lovely life. It’s the kind of comedy in which there’s a single sequence where a bunch of sketches all pay off at once, in a series of coincidences that’s somewhere between artful and ludicrous. The second half is a kind of concentration camp comedy, which is just as unwieldy as that sounds. The almost farcical humour of the first half attempts to linger on, but it buts awkwardly against the unspeakable horrors that occur.

    Eventually it comes to an ending that I was similarly divided about. It’s clearly designed to be hyper-emotional, and it pulls at some very obvious strings to get there quickly, which seems to work for many viewers, but I didn’t feel it. Why? Well, it’s based in the relationship between father and son, and I don’t think the rest of the film really is. The first half of the film is all about investing us in the relationship between Guido and his wife — we follow their relationship from the very beginning, and the film charms us and connects us to their coupling. But then the second half virtually tosses that aside to make the important relationship the one between Guido and his son. We get two or three quick scenes that incidentally suggest a good father/son bond, then it’s off to the camp, which is a whole other kettle of fish. We’re not given the time to properly buy into this father/son relationship. That’s not to say I don’t believe it, just that we’re only learning about it at the same time as we’re supposed to be affected by its endurance. Doing both at once doesn’t work, in my opinion. Now, if the first half (or even just the first act) had been about Guido and his son’s wonderful relationship before the occupation, it would have established that well and connected us to it; then, if the rest of the film unfolded as-is, I think it would have made for a much more powerful ending, because it would have had the full weight of their entire relationship behind it. Instead, as well as being a film of two halves, Life is Beautiful ends up a film of two relationships, one in each half.

    Despite the film winning awards at Cannes and the Oscars, and being in the top 10% of IMDb’s Top 250, etc, this “two halves” thing — the awkward balancing act between comedy and tragedy — has been noted by critics ever since its initial release. It makes for a wavering viewing experience. It’s kind of inappropriate, but kind of isn’t; it kind of celebrates the ingenuity of the human spirit, but kind of belittles the real tragedy in the process; it’s kind of a success, but kind of a well-meaning misguided effort. It’s this sense that the film’s heart is in the right place that sees my score err upwards.

    4 out of 5

    Life is Beautiful was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.