Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Destin Daniel Cretton | 132 mins | digital (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan, keeping up with the MCU is beginning to feel more like a chore than entertainment. There’s just so much of it! No wonder it can feel like its fans never watch anything else, because getting through the myriad TV series and movies could conceivably fill most of your free time. That said, it’s obviously not doing the movies any harm (yet) based on the spectacular box office performances of No Way Home ($1.89 billion, the 6th highest grossing film of all time) and Doctor Strange 2 ($935.3 million and counting). And getting round to everything does have its benefits, because occasionally you find a diamond, and it’s not always one the critics or other viewers have flagged up. I mean, most of what I heard about the first Doctor Strange was that it was just the standard superhero origin story over again, but it’s one of my favourite films from the studio’s output, primarily thanks to the stunning visuals and a few other clever developments. Being another iteration of something isn’t always bad, especially if you’ve iterated closer to perfection.

Shang-Chi is the latest Marvel movie to fall into that camp for me. It is, again, a superhero origin story; but, again, one that’s been refined to a place where the hints of familiarity don’t really matter. It’s about Shaun (Simu Liu), an ordinary guy working as a valet in San Francisco… who it turns out isn’t such an ordinary guy, but is really Shang-Chi, the son of the magically-powered leader of a global crime syndicate known as the Ten Rings. Of course, events conspire to bring Shang back into contact with his estranged family, where he must choose whether to stand against his father’s evil plans.

The MCU publicity claim that any given film is “not just a superhero movie, it’s a [1970s conspiracy thriller / John Hughes comedy / whatever]” has, rightly, become a bit of a laughing stock. But I think Shang-Chi might be the first time it’s actually true. Yeah, it’s undeniably set in the MCU and, as such, plays by some of those rules (there are Blip references from early on, with the requisite cameos and mid-credit teaser scenes to follow), but the bulk of the movie itself is not really a superhero film as we normally think of them. Rather, it’s a martial arts fantasy-actioner. Now, maybe those are in the same ballpark — people with impossible abilities fighting each other — but I’d argue the style of it in Shang-Chi feels closer to something like Detective Dee or 47 Ronin (except good) than Iron Man or Captain America, or even the other fantasy/magic-based MCU sub-series like Thor or Doctor Strange.

A sticky situation

And for that, I loved it. Unfortunately, where it’s most like the MCU is in an ‘epic’ battle finale that, a few show-off moments aside, is mostly realised through CGI that looks like swirling mud. If it weren’t for that disappointment (and, to be clear, it’s not a disaster, just a bit of a let down), I might have given the film an even higher score.

I was also glad I bothered to track down the 3D version (only released on disc in Japan, I believe. I also believe Japanese imports are expensive. I wouldn’t know from experience, I’ve never bought one). I’m aware that 3D is an ever-dwindling format and that’s why major labels aren’t bothering with disc releases anymore (though it must be worth it at theatrical level, because they’re still shelling out for these post-conversions that cost millions of dollars a pop), but it’s a shame for those of us who enjoy it and still have the kit, because it’s as enjoyable as it ever was when done well. Shang-Chi may not be the height of the format, but lots of it looked nice with the extra dimension. Sadly, unlike many previous Marvel 3D releases, it didn’t have the bonus benefit of a shifting IMAX ratio. There is an “IMAX Enhanced” version of the film (it’s on Disney+), but, like the last two Avengers movies, it presents the entire film in IMAX’s 1.9:1 ratio, so no luck for us 3D fans there (or anyone bar Disney+ viewers, because it’s not included on the film’s 2K or 4K Blu-ray releases either).

4 out of 5

Top Gun (1986)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Top Gun

Up there with the best of the best

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes
BBFC: 15 (1986) | 12 (cinema, 1989) | 15 (video, 1996) | 12 (video, 2004)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 12th May 1986 (Mexico)
US Release: 16th May 1986
UK Release: 3rd October 1986
Budget: $15 million
Worldwide Gross: $357.5 million

Stars
Tom Cruise (Risky Business, Mission: Impossible)
Kelly McGillis (Witness, The Accused)
Val Kilmer (Top Secret!, Batman Forever)
Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds, Miracle Mile)

Director
Tony Scott (The Hunger, Crimson Tide)

Screenwriters
Jim Cash (Turner & Hooch, Anaconda)
Jack Epps Jr. (Dick Tracy, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas)

Based on
Top Guns, a magazine article by Ehud Yonay.


The Story
Fighter pilots Maverick and Goose are sent to the US Navy’s elite Fighter Weapons School, aka Top Gun, a combat training academy-cum-competition to establish the Navy’s best pilots.

Our Hero
Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell is a hotshot pilot who’s prone to bending the rules when he thinks it’s necessary. But that sort of behaviour doesn’t fly with the instructors at Top Gun. Is his daring what gives him the edge, or what makes him a liability?

Our Villain
Maverick’s prime rival in the Top Gun competition is Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky, whose callsign comes from the his precise, ‘ice cold’ flying style — the antithesis of Maverick. In the real-world, the villains are the MiG fighter jets of a tactfully unnamed foreign power.

Best Supporting Character
Maverick’s best mate and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw. While Maverick seems to rub most people up the wrong way, Goose is widely liked. No idea where his nickname comes from.

Memorable Quote
“I feel the need… the need for speed!” — Maverick

Memorable Scene
For all the slick flying and whatnot, arguably the film’s most iconic scene comes on the ground, when the pilots relax by playing a game of beach volleyball — mostly shirtless, their sweaty muscles glistening in the sun. If you weren’t already feeling the homoerotic subtext, this kind of rams it home. (It’s a fairly incidental scene, but if you doubt its impact, know that the makes of the sequel felt they had to include a version of it, which led to the cast prepping for months to make sure their bodies were suitably toned.)

Memorable Music
Top Gun is blessed with multiple memorable tracks, both original songs and soundtrack cues. Several even won awards (see below). But the one that didn’t is the most iconic, and so catchy that it’s played several times throughout the film: Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone.

Making of
There was a lot of cooperation from the US Navy in the production of the film (it paid off: after release, they saw recruitment skyrocket), but they only authorised two actual missile shots for filming purposes. Both were were shot from multiple angles to generate extra usable footage, but it still wasn’t enough, and so the filmmakers commissioned further shots using miniature planes and rockets. These were done so convincingly that the Navy conducted an investigation into whether any unauthorised missile firings had been performed for the film.

Next time…
It took over 35 years (partially thanks to Covid-related delays), but a sequel was finally released this year. But of course you know that: Top Gun: Maverick is probably the most praised blockbuster of the year so far.

Awards
1 Oscar (Original Song (Take My Breath Away))
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Film Editing, Sound Effects Editing)
1 People’s Choice Award (Favorite Motion Picture)
1 Grammy (Pop Instrumental Performance (Top Gun Anthem))
1 Brit Award (Soundtrack)

Verdict

I loved Top Gun as a young kid — though, as is so often the case with movies from my childhood, I don’t actually know how many times I saw it. We weren’t great rewatchers in my household, so I expect I only actually watched it two, maybe three times, max. But my dad and I used to play jet fighter simulator games on our PC, with usernames like Maverick and Iceman, entirely inspired by the film. So, obviously, it comes with a dose of nostalgia for me, even though I hadn’t seen it for a couple of decades (my recent rewatch inspired by, of course, the release of the sequel). Does it hold up? Well, that depends what you want from a movie. It certainly comes with a more-than-healthy does of ’80s cheese and rampant-but-unacknowledged homoeroticism. For some, that makes it either unwatchable or two hours of laughing at the film. But if you’re onboard with its particular style, it’s still good fun; an entertainment-focused blend of fast-paced action in the skies and matey rivalry on the ground, with a dash of romantic melodrama for good measure.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Jon Watts | 148 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Spider-Man: No Way Home

I’m currently both behind and out of sync with my viewing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen Black Widow, but overleapt Shang-Chi and Eternals to get to this widely-discussed and already-beloved instalment. And that’s without discussing the various canonical TV series there now are, which I think some of us still thought would be treated as ‘side projects’ but seem to be being used to introduce and explore key elements that underpin Phase Four. Which is another way of saying: hopefully this film makes sense without having seen Loki. (It does, assuming you know what a multiverse is — and as that was also discussed in the previous Spidey film, I think we’re good.)

No Way Home picks up at the exact moment the last Spidey movie, Far from Home, left off: Peter Parker’s identity has been revealed to the public, and he’s accused of murder. Rather than make a whole story from the fallout, No Way Home uses it as a jumping off point. As revealed in the film’s own trailers, Peter asks Dr Strange to magic things back to how they were before, but the spell goes awry and drags in villains from alternate realities. As the trailers didn’t give away — but was, frankly, inevitable (and has been widely used in post-release promos, so I’m not counting it as a spoiler anymore) — it also pulled through alternate Peter Parkers, as played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.

And that’s not the half of it! It feels like they’ve gone out of their way to crossover with everything possible: as well as the two previous Spider-Man film series, there’s something from spinoff Venom, and even the MCU Netflix series, which were previously of dubious canonicity (of course, now they’re on Disney+ so they’re allowed to count again). About all that’s missing is Into the Spider-Verse, and there’s even an oblique reference to that. With all of that in the mix, it plays kinda like Fan Service: The Movie. Normally that would be a criticism, but it does it so entertainingly — and it’s so much the movie’s very raison d’être — that I think it works, in its own way. It feels similar to X-Men: Days of Future Past in the way it mixes different eras and facets of the same franchise together to create an ‘anniversary special’ kind of feel. That also means it doesn’t just feel like “The MCU: Episode 27”, but instead a climax to all the Spider-Man movies. That’s a pleasant change of pace, and one befitting such a storied superhero.

Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-meme

Keeping the appearance of the other Spideys out of the marketing may have seemed daft — of course we all knew they’d be in it — but it at least means we hadn’t already seen their best interactions in the trailer(s). How rare is it for a blockbuster nowadays to actually keep some of its biggest thrills for the film itself, rather than blowing them in advance! Indeed, my favourite bit of the whole film was the Spideys just hanging out and chatting while they waited for the villains to show up for the climax. It’s mostly fan service again — their discussion is almost entirely framed in references to previous films — but it’s nice as a moment of calm. And, like all of the film’s fan service, it tickles the nostalgia glands in those of us who get the references.

It’s notable that each of the Spider-Men has a distinct personality. We’re now familiar with Tom Holland’s childlike, motormouthed take. Garfield brings the earnest, kinda skater/surfer dude feel that he sometimes has in real life — witness the moment he pauses mid action sequence to tell the other two Spideys, quite sincerely, that he loves them. Maguire, on the other hand, is very quiet and still. He only speaks if he needs to, and that doesn’t seem to be too often. It’s an innate calmness — perhaps also maturity — but it goes beyond that. It’s not that you feel he doesn’t want to be there, more like he’d feel exactly the same way if he wasn’t there — whatever; it’s all fine. If that sounds like “laidback” might be the right label, it isn’t. It’s almost that he’s doing… nothing. But that would be a rude thing to say to an actor, because of course he’s not doing nothing. It’s a bit of an odd one; or odd within the context of the hyperactive MCU, at any rate.

The (literal) cheers that greeted No Way Home on its release have led to it being labelled a Great Movie by some (there was even a campaign to get it Best Picture recognition). Part of that is the regular thing of certain MCU fans apparently not watching anything other than MCU movies and so not having a proper frame of reference. But it’s also how the movie works: it tickles certain pleasure glands in such a way that, for some people, there’s confusion between “this is a lot of fun” and “this is a genuinely superb piece of cinema”. Heck, maybe, for some people, those are the same thing. Not for me. I don’t even think it’s the best Spider-Man film. But let’s not end on a negative, because it is a highly entertaining and, in its way, rewarding couple of hours of entertainment.

4 out of 5

2022 | Weeks 12–13

So, it’s already the 15th — fundamentally halfway through the month — and this is just my ffith post in May. (It would’ve been third, but then my West Side Story and F9 reviews felt like they should have their own posts.) In my mind, I’ve raced this batch out as quickly as possible following my start-of-month posts, but it certainly doesn’t feel very speedy when you look at the dates.

And, talking about messing with time, this roundup begins by taking us all the way back to March: week 12 ended on the 27th of that month. I might’ve posted sooner, were it not that week 12 seemed too small to run by itself. For what it’s worth, week 13 ended on 3rd April, so I’m still over a month behind now.

Anyway, here are the rest of the new films I watched that fortnight…

  • Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
  • Cobra (1986)
  • Django & Django (2021)
  • A Man Escaped (1956), aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé
  • Death on the Nile (2022)


    Muriel’s Wedding

    (1994)

    P.J. Hogan | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Australia & France / English | 15 / R

    Muriel's Wedding

    This is one of those films I’ve been sort of aware of forever, but never really paid a huge amount of attention, until suddenly I’m watching it almost on a whim. It’s the story of the misadventures of small-town Australian girl Muriel (a breakout performance from Toni Collette), who doesn’t fit with her family or ‘friends’ and so sets off to the big city for a different life.

    I don’t know what I was expecting from the film, exactly — a kooky Aussie romcom, I guess — but not a surprisingly dark, quirky almost to the point of being twisted, black comedy. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it kind of bamboozled me by being a lot odder and more tonally complex than I’d anticipated. I liked it, but it’s a weird one.

    4 out of 5


    Cobra

    (1986)

    George P. Cosmatos | 87 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Israel / English | 18 / R

    Cobra

    This is the kind of film I might never have watched were it not for my WDYMYHS challenge. It’s a film I’d heard very little about, and what I had heard wasn’t good, but when it came to selecting the 12 most significant films I hadn’t seen from 1986, it scraped in. I’m glad things like that happen, because while Cobra is far from being a new favourite or something, I did enjoy it.

    Sly Stallone stars as a hot-shot cop on the trail of a serial killer with cult affiliations. That’s about it for the plot. This is a film that’s all style and no substance — though, when you’ve got this much style, maybe that is the substance. It’s so much a stereotypical ’80s macho action fest that it plays like a spoof of itself in places, with over-the-top editing, performances, and one liners that all seem driven by some sense of ‘cool’. I kinda love it for that. Take the car chase at the halfway mark: it’s a ludicrous sequence (one bit barely connects to the next; cars explode when shot; etc), but it’s filmed and cut with style and packed with excitement. It’s epic.

    Remarkably, it’s based on a novel. I say that’s remarkable because novels are devoid of being able to show off flashy visuals or dynamic action sequences, so you think of them as being heavier on things like plot and character — but, as discussed, this has very little plot, and even less character development. The already-brief running time seems to mostly contain music montages and extended action scenes. Reportedly the original cut was around two hours, which was then mercilessly shorn down to the under-90-minute final cut in an attempt to squeeze in more screenings per day. I imagine a lot of what went was the plot, although apparently there was also a lot of graphic violence — and what we’re left with still earnt an 18.

    I guess if a “director’s cut” was going to surface it would’ve done so by now (given all the other films that got them back in the ’00s). It’s something of a shame, because perhaps that version would round out the storyline enough to match the flair that’s all we get from the existing cut. Really, it’s a trashy film, but I rather enjoyed its trashiness. As stated, it’s all style and, at just 87 minutes, all business.

    3 out of 5

    Cobra is the 23rd 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.


    Django & Django

    (2021)

    Luca Rea | 77 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | Italy / English, Italian & French | 15

    Django & Django

    The work of the “second-best Spaghetti Western director”, Sergio Corbucci, is analysed by admirer Quentin Tarantino, and supplemented with a handful of anecdotes from a couple of people who worked with him. The small number of interviewees means the film is lacking in the depth you get from having multiple perspectives, but it’s a fine overview of Corbucci’s work nonetheless.

    Indeed, the title — implying a focus on two specific films — is a bit of a misnomer. Not only is it about Corbucci’s career as a whole, with Django just one film among many, but there’s only a single clip from Django Unchained, when QT mentions how Corbucci’s style influenced his choice of Southern setting. That’s it for discussion of Tarantino’s own work — barring a lengthy opening aside into the alternate history of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; a ‘short story’ about Rick Dalton’s time in Italy and his meetings with Corbucci. Tarantino relates these events as if they’re historical fact — the guy really did thoroughly imagine his alternate history!

    3 out of 5

    Django & Django is the 24th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    A Man Escaped

    (1956)

    aka Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut

    Robert Bresson | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | France / French & German | U

    A Man Escaped

    Most “prisoner of war” movies are about plucky Brits and/or Yanks stuck in jail somewhere behind enemy lines, working out ways to escape almost as a time killer, or at best a matter of honour. A Man Escaped is something different. Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance held in a French prison by the occupying Germans during World War II, and written and directed by Robert Bresson, who was also imprisoned by the Germans as a member of the Resistance, you can’t doubt its pedigree for authenticity. Indeed, Devigny was an adviser on the film, and lent the production the actual ropes and hooks he had used in his escape. More than these points of fact, it’s the film’s overall tone that’s striking — more dour and pessimistic than the usual POW drama, at least as I remember them. Here, the need to escape isn’t a game, it’s literally life or death.

    Bresson certainly knows where he wants his focus to be. The film begins with our hero, Fontaine (François Leterrier), arriving at the prison, although an escape attempt on the way there sees him immediately condemned to solitary confinement. Nonetheless, we remain by his side, never leaving him or his point of view, right until the end, when… well, that would be a spoiler. In terms of background, there’s only what we can pick up along the way; the barest outline of who he is, why he’s there, and what awaits him on the outside. That’s extraneous detail — this is all about his time in prison, his mentality in prison, and how he intends to escape the prison.

    To that end, Bresson spends a lot of time detailing very little. The process by which Fontaine fashions ropes, or chips away at a crack in his door to facilitate a way out, is shown in almost-excruciating detail. It’s all about the prep. When something truly dramatic does happen — like Fontaine gaining a roommate, and the question of whether that man can be trusted — it’s dealt with quickly, confined to a couple of quick scenes. I can only think that’s part of the point: much of the work to escape prison is tedious preparation, but when a spanner gets in the works it has to be dealt with quickly lest it derail the whole enterprise. Such ‘big things’ are a potential threat, but it’s arguably the little things that are even more dangerous. Accidentally drop something noisily, thus alerting the guards to your suspicious activities, and it’s all over.

    As a film, it doesn’t feel as strikingly stylised as the other Bressons I’ve seen, but it definitely has a stripped-back simplicity that’s part of his overall ethos. It’s debatable if we need the semi-monotone voiceover that describes exactly what we can see on screen — I’m no expert, but such an unnecessary and purely cinematic addition seems out of sorts with Bresson’s usual style. That said, at points it adds insight into Fontaine’s thought process, so the narration is not without merit.

    4 out of 5

    A Man Escaped is the 25th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    Death on the Nile

    (2022)

    Kenneth Branagh | 127 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & UK / English & French | 12 / PG-13

    Death on the Nile

    Kenneth Branagh returns as both director and star for another Hercule Poirot mystery, after the somewhat-surprising success of his Murder on the Orient Express — “surprising” in the sense that it did better at the box office than I think anyone expected. It performed less well with critics, but I enjoyed it. Sadly, this followup is not its equal… though that’s not necessarily saying it’s bad.

    For me, it was a film of two halves — although, often as not, those two halves occurred simultaneously. For example: there’s an over-reliance on CGI for the Egyptian vistas makes many scenes look disappointingly fake; but then there’s a fantastic, huge set for the boat where much of the film takes place, and the real-life elements are quite handsomely shot on 65mm. Story-wise, there’s been a lot of rejigging (try to line up the cast with who played the roles in previous adaptations, for example, and you’ll soon discover a lot of the characters are amalgamations), but Christie’s typically excellent plotting survives mostly intact. That said, the ratio of buildup to detective work feels off, with the murder seeming to occur quite late in the film and the subsequent investigation feeling rather rushed.

    The motive behind screenwriter Michael Green’s remixing seems to be a serious attempt to make the film All About Love — not just the motive for the crimes, but all the subplots and whatnot too. I guess they were seeking some kind of justification for why this story is being filmed again, and what makes it worthy of the all-star movie treatment, rather than being just a run-of-the-mill, see-it-every-week-on-TV whodunnit. Plus, there’s a bizarre attempt to provide a backstory for Poirot’s moustache. No, seriously.

    Branagh initially seemed miscast as Poirot, but wasn’t bad in Orient Express, and that continues here. His version of the character is rather likeable, imbuing the Belgian with a neat sense of humour that marks his interpretation out from previous incarnations (Ustinov often played it for laughs too, but with less subtlety). There’s the customary all-star supporting cast, but they’re somewhat wasted, with some big names or talented performers left with too little to do. Though, when about half of them are employing dodgy accents, maybe that’s no bad thing.

    A mixed bag, then. It’s far from my favourite Christie adaptation; although it might actually be my favourite Death on the Nile by default, because I don’t think the previous versions (a Ustinov film and Suchet TV episode) are the best their respective series have to offer either. Whatever — I love this kind of stuff, and I’m glad to hear they’re intending to forge ahead with a third outing.

    3 out of 5

    Death on the Nile is the 26th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • Fast & Furious 9 (2021)

    aka F9

    Justin Lin | 137 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Fast & Furious 9

    Between spinoffs and Covid-related delays, it’s been four years since the preceding film in what we’re apparently now meant to call “The Fast Saga”. As the series’ storyline has become increasingly serialised, I’m sure I can’t be alone in wishing they’d begin with some kind of “previously on”. That might sound a bit much for a series whose rep is, not undeservedly, “dumb action with cars”; but while that action was revving up, I was left digging around in my memory for where we’d left these characters and why some things were the way they were.

    But, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter all that much, because before long they were racing around (literally) after one Macguffin or another, plus all the requisite shooting stuff and blowing stuff up and performing physics-defying CGI-aided stunts that have become The Fast Saga’s hallmarks. If that makes it sound a bit tired — just “more of the same” — well, remember, we’ve reached film #9. Now, in fairness, if there’s any franchise that bucks its numbering system, it’s The Fast Saga: it tried on different lead characters and various underlying formulae throughout its first four movies, only settling on one that sang in the fifth film. Nonetheless, that means we’re now on the fifth instalment that’s driven by said formula — sixth, if you count the Hobbs & Shaw spinoff, which we should — and it’s beginning to wear thin.

    Since landing on that magic formula, the series has walked a couple of tightropes: with its action, being outrageous and ridiculous but still exciting and fun; and with its mythology, being unnecessarily complicated but still followable. F9 is where, for me, it finally stumbles, and perhaps even falls off. Who can still remember the ins and outs of what went on with Han and when? Not me! And… rocketing a car into space? Seriously? Well, Top Gear almost did it for real once, so maybe it’s not entirely implausible. But that’s far from the only so-ridiculous-it’s-ridiculous stunt in the film. Fast’s stunts have never carried the same thrill as, say, Tom Cruise’s in the Mission: Impossibles because they’re unquestionably not being done for real. We’re not impressed by what they managed to physically pull off, more amused by what they dreamt up and rendered in a computer. Most of them are implausible. But here, it reaches the tipping point where I went from laughing along with it to just finding it silly.

    Sunday drivers

    What changed? Well, missing from the cast are Jason Statham and The Rock, perhaps the only two actors in the franchise who knew precisely where to pitch their performances to reassure us the filmmakers knew it was all ludicrous but it was ok. But they were only supporting players — does removing them from the equation answer every misstep? Surely not. Perhaps the director? But that’s Justin Lin, the man who saved the franchise in the aforementioned fifth film, continuing the style into the sixth; so he’s only sat out #7 and #8. But perhaps his taste or touch for the material has gone — he did recently abandon production of the series’ forthcoming two-part finale, after all.

    Whatever the root cause, I found F9 lacked the fun of the last four films (five, counting the spinoff). Looking at it another way, five entertaining movies is a good run — they were overdue another dud. As that, it’s certainly not the weakest film the series has to offer.

    3 out of 5

    2022 | Weeks 9–11

    Right, let’s try (again) to get things back on track.

    These compilations were/are meant to keep my reviewing roughly up-to-date with my viewing, but I don’t think stuffing them with too many films at once is the right way to go. I don’t know about anyone else, but I feel like five or six per post is about right (with some leeway, of course — I’m sure four or seven would be fine too). However, dividing like that means getting out of sync with Real Life, so I suppose I should clarify when “weeks 9–11” were: Monday February 28th to Sunday 20th March, to be precise. And back then, I watched…

  • Tintin and the Temple of the Sun (1969), aka Tintin et le temple du soleil
  • Los Olvidados (1950), aka The Young and the Damned
  • The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee (2020)
  • The King’s Man (2021)
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
  • Nothing Like a Dame (2018)


    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun

    (1969)

    aka Tintin et le temple du soleil / The Adventures of Tintin: The Prisoners of the Sun

    Eddie Lateste* | 75 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Belgium & France / English | U

    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun

    This fourth big-screen outing for the Belgian reporter also continues the popular TV series, Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, made by Belgian studio Belvision from 1957 to 1962. Having adapted ten of Hergé’s volumes for TV, here they tackled two more: two-parter The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. The story sees Tintin and chums head to Peru on the trail of their kidnapped friend, Professor Calculus, and to investigate an Incan curse that has befallen a previous party of archaeologists.

    Trekking up mountains and through jungles, with nefarious agents in pursuit, plus all the to-do with ancient curses and whatnot, this is chock-a-block with good old “Boy’s Own Adventure” stuff. As with so many of those, the joy lies in being swept along with the adventure rather than thinking about it too hard (our heroes are saved at the end because the Captain happens to have a scrap of newspaper that Snowy happens to steal that Tintin happens to fancy having a look at that happens to mention a handy forthcoming event). By the same token, there’s also the unavoidable effects of time: some of it feels a teensy bit racist nowadays; Tintin makes his way through the jungle merrily murdering animals left, right and centre. The animation itself is fine, with designs and an overall visual style that emulate Hergé well, but it does have a certain TV-ness.

    It’s also not available in the greatest of copies, at least to English-language viewers. Reportedly the original version contains two songs, both of which were cut from the UK video release, but only one of which has been restored for the DVD (and, I presume, the version currently available to stream from Apple, etc). Although most of the film is dubbed, the song is in the original French, unsubtitled; and has clearly been edited, because there are digital freeze frames around it. At the start of the film, the title card has been replaced in a similarly awkward fashion. Then there’s the 5.1 remix, which seems to be missing some effects and music cues. You can still enjoy the majority of the film despite these distractions, but it’s disappointing that we still have to put up with such palaver nowadays.

    3 out of 5

    Tintin and the Temple of the Sun is the 19th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    * Many (but not all) online sources list Lateste as the director, including IMDb, but the film itself doesn’t actually credit him — the only director-like credit is for “Belvision”. Lateste is credited as one of the screenwriters, at least. ^


    Los Olvidados

    (1950)

    aka The Young and the Damned

    Luis Buñuel | 81 mins | digital (HD) | 1.37:1 | Mexico / Spanish | 12

    Los Olvidados

    Combine the literal translation of the film’s title — The Forgotten Ones — with the US retitling — The Young and the Damned — and you build a sense of what Los Olvidados (as it’s been released in the UK) is about. To be clearly, it’s a socially-realist depiction of life for children in the slums of Mexico City. Although initially condemned (according to IMDb, it only played for three days in Mexico before the “enraged reactions” of the press, government, and upper- and middle-class audiences caused it to be pulled), it’s since been reevaluated as one of the greats of Latin American cinema. Certainly, watching it after films like The 400 Blows (made almost a decade later), City of God (over 50 years later), and Capernaum (almost 70 years later), its influence is felt.

    The downside to that is the film feels somewhat less fresh and more worthy than the later efforts. It’s got an overt anti-poverty message that is admirable but sometimes heavy-handed (a school principal character feels like he’s been inserted just to state the film’s thesis out loud) or naïvely optimistic (the opening voiceover asserts that child poverty will ultimately be solved by progress. Over 70 years later, I don’t think progress is doing a great job…) While much of the movie works at its intended goal, when aspects like these intrude it stops feeling like a realistic depiction of poverty and more like a straightforward polemic about how it should be fixed. On the bright side, it avoids the lure of a pat happy ending — although one was actually discovered in 2002, apparently shot to appease Mexican censors. Clearly they managed to get the film released without having to cave on that point, and it’s better for it.

    4 out of 5

    Los Olvidados is the 20th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee

    (2020)

    Dean Murphy | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee

    Not a fourth Crocodile Dundee film, but rather a depiction of the accidentally-chaotic life of that series’ leading man, Paul Hogan, the archetypal Aussie now living in LA and, reaching his 80s, somewhat bemused by the modern world.

    Even from that quick summary, you can tell it’s not a terribly original premise. Couple that with a clearly small budget and you have a recipe for many dismissing the film out of hand. Personally, I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable, in a laidback, undemanding way. None of it is properly hilarious (though a bizarre musical sequence comes close), but it’s kinda amiable, and almost heartwarming at the end. Discerning viewers should perhaps not apply, but if you have any affection for the second or third Crocodile Dundee films (again, widely maligned instalments that I found passably entertaining), this is worth a punt.

    3 out of 5


    The King’s Man

    (2021)

    Matthew Vaughn | 131 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The King's Man

    Co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn expands the Kingsman universe with this World War I-era prequel that delves into the backstory of how the eponymous organisation was founded. Unlike so many prequels, this does feel like a story worth telling — we don’t necessarily need it, but it’s not merely an exercise in visualising events we’ve already been told, or coming up with over-elaborate reasons for people’s names or whatever (why couldn’t Han Solo’s birth name have just been Han Solo, hm?)

    The story begins with Europe on the brink of war, and our heroes — led by the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) — attempting to stop it. History tells us they fail, and so the narrative unfurls across WWI as they try to bring it to a close. That will see them come up against the manipulations of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who’s part of a secret organisation plotting to bring down the great empires.

    Let’s cut to the chase: the Kingsman films have a rep for elaborate fight scenes set to pop music. One of the major villains is Rasputin. You only need a passing familiarity with the disco hits of the ’70s to know what I was looking forward to here. Well, it doesn’t happen. Indeed, that stylistic calling card is more or less entirely abandoned (the fight does happen, of course, but it’s set to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — kind of like era-appropriate ‘pop’ music, I guess?) Apparently Vaughn did originally intend the sequence to be set to an orchestral version of the song in question, but ultimately felt it didn’t work.

    This, perhaps, speaks to another concern I had going in, which was that Kingsman’s highly irreverent, almost satirical tone might clash with the all-too-real WWI setting. Such an historical tragedy doesn’t feel right to be made light of in that way, even over a century later. So, as if to compensate, Vaughn and co have toned down the humour, making The King’s Man fairly serious… but without fully sacrificing the near-whimsy at other times, because, well, it’s part of the franchise. The result is a little awkward, tonally, swinging back and forth between historical seriousness and franchise-establishing fun. Put another way, it’s hamstrung by being an entry in a series known for its irreverence that feels the need to show due reverence to WWI. That’s a clash of values it struggles with, some might say admirably, but can’t quite reconcile. In short, it’s too serious to be a Kingsman film, but too Kingsman-y to be a standalone WWI-set action-adventure.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a disaster, by any means — but then, I enjoyed The Golden Circle when many lambasted it, so make of that what you will. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to the next film getting back to Eggsy & co in the present day.

    3 out of 5


    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

    (1988)

    Frank Oz | 110 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

    Michael Caine and Steve Martin star as a couple of chalk-and-cheese con men, pilfering the fortunes of wealthy single ladies on the French Riviera, in this fun con caper with a neat sting in its tail.

    Caine hits just the right note as a charming con artist, his manner inspired by David Niven, who played the role in the original, 1964’s Bedtime Story. I was unaware the film was a remake until after watching it, though I did know it was itself subject to a gender-bent do-over in 2019, The Hustle. I don’t know how similar Bedtime Story and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are, but, based on its trailer, The Hustle seems to be a direct lift from this, albeit peppered with the kind of pratfalling that’s de rigueur in modern big screen comedy.

    Marlon Brando was Niven’s co-lead, whereas here Caine gets Steve Martin as the very embodiment of a brash American — a little too brash, if anything, though reportedly there were bits he actually reined in. The running time could have done with a similar consideration, because it’s a little long for its breezy premise and tone (running 110 minutes, it would be better nearer 90), but that’s a minor complaint — it rarely feels too slow or draggy, just a little long overall.

    4 out of 5

    Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the 21st film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    Nothing Like a Dame

    (2018)

    aka Tea with the Dames

    Roger Michell | 77 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

    Nothing Like a Dame

    Four thespian friends, Dames all — Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith — gather for a natter about their careers and lives. That’s it, that’s the film.

    Given the setup, plus the style of advertising and US retitle, you’d be forgiven for expecting a gentle bit of fluff; eavesdropping on a pleasant chinwag with four venerable British actresses. The film is that, in places, but it also has a surprising undercurrent of sadness running throughout, as these ageing ladies reflect on the ups and downs of their careers and personal lives now that they’re (shall we say) closer to the end than the beginning. It rarely bubbles to the surface, but it always feels like it’s there, somehow inescapable.

    If that gives proceedings more texture than you might’ve expected, then the film’s biggest flaw lies elsewhere. For me, it’s that it wasn’t long enough. The conversations are often delightful and occasionally insightful, but you feel like there’s so much more to be gleaned from these women. The film chops about between topics and pairings, always feeling like we’re getting snippets of the full conversation, never the true depth; like we’re watching a highlights reel of what should be a three-hour series, or something like that. I know it’s an old theatrical adage to “leave ’em wanting more”, but I really did want some more.

    4 out of 5


  • Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

    Jason Reitman | 124 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Ghostbusters: Afterlife

    Among the many, many discussions provoked by the last Ghostbusters movie was the notion of the 1984 original as “a comedy”. In short, people who consider themselves Very Clever were keen to point out that the ’84 film is, in fact, “a comedy”, and not whatever they thought some of its fans thought it was — a serious fantasy-horror film, I guess. But, as I see it, it’s the people insisting the original is “a comedy” who are actually the ones missing the point. It may star a bunch of SNL alumni, and it’s got a few gags, and if definitely doesn’t take itself seriously, but it’s not just a comedy — it’s a fantasy-adventure-horror-comedy. Those other three genres are just as important to the film’s style and tone — and to people’s love for the film — as the funny bits.

    I bring all this up because I think it has coloured reactions to Afterlife, a film which isn’t just the franchise’s fourth movie, but is very much a direct sequel to its first. Said reaction has been mixed, with some criticising it as a soulless exercise in nostalgia; a reaction and over-correction to the outright-comedy of the 2016 reboot, which was unpopular in some corners for daring to star women. That’s a dumbass criticism which, in the eyes of some, tars anyone who dislikes that movie — which is unfortunate, because a lot of perfectly rational people didn’t like it simply because it wasn’t very good (personally, I thought it was middling). On the flip side, a lot of people have found Afterlife very enjoyable — and I’m one of them. One of the reasons I’ve laid out that opening argument is because I don’t think Afterlife has been created as a reaction against the 2016 film — it’s tone hasn’t been set in opposition to the previous film, but rather is taking its cue from the 1984 original. In other words: it’s not just a comedy, it’s a fantasy-adventure-horror-comedy.

    Bustin' makes me feel good

    Set in the present day, it sees a family — mother Callie (Carrie Coon), son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) — inherit the remote farmhouse of the kids’ grandfather; the father their mother never even met. Turns out he was a Ghostbuster back in the day, and — surprise surprise — he ended up living in a back-of-beyond small town for a reason. With Callie uninterested in the father who was never interested in her, and Trevor off falling for a local waitress (Celeste O’Connor), it falls to curious Phoebe to investigate her grandfather’s life and, along with her new friend Podcast (Logan Kim) and summer science teacher Gary (Paul Rudd), discover what ghostly secret he was keeping.

    Really, Afterlife is a tribute to the original Ghostbusters. It’s full of nods and Easter eggs — some obvious; some subtle; some witty — and so will undoubtedly play best for a viewer who loves the original as much as the filmmakers seem to. That’s me, so I’m pretty much okay with the balance the film strikes. In other words, there’s enough new stuff to hang the old stuff on that I was able to just enjoy it. It would seem the film doesn’t play as well to viewers without that connection to the original, although I really think it depends how critical you’re being. This is a fun film — there are plenty of gags, plus a couple of suitably exciting action sequences — that I think anyone with reasonable expectations should still find it entertaining. As Phoebe, Mckenna Grace is particularly great — a really likeable lead to centre the narrative around.

    I’ve avoided stating which of the original Ghostbusters the new characters are related to because the film does the same, but — skip this paragraph and the next if you really want to avoid spoilers! — I don’t think it’s a particular secret, really. I mean, Phoebe’s been given a look that’s clearly reminiscent of her grandfather; and with the whole “he’s dead” plot point, well, that best applies to one of the actors, doesn’t it? So here’s another thing: Afterlife isn’t just a tribute to Ghostbusters ’84, but also to its co-writer and co-star, Harold Ramis. The characterisation of Callie and Phoebe was inspired by the autobiography of Ramis’s real-life daughter, Violet Ramis-Stiel, to the extent the actors were asked to read it as part of their preparation. Ramis-Stiel also signed off on her dad’s posthumous appearance in the film.

    Ghost in the machine

    Yes, thanks to CGI, the dead walk. This has been a controversial thing recently, mainly thanks to how the Star Wars films and TV series used it. Just last week there was a particularly big hoo-hah about Luke Skywalker being revived in The Book of Boba Fett. Generally, I agree that it’s distasteful. Using computers to ‘resurrect’ dead actors just so their pop-culture-favourite characters can live on? It’s kind of ghoulish. But I think the situation with Afterlife is a little different. Rather than a mega-corporation wanting to keep their space opera franchise stuck in the fan-pleasing past, this has been made by the actor’s friends and family as a tribute to him. If you bear that in mind, coupled with how exactly he’s used in the film, I actually think it’s rather sweet, and liable to bring a tear to the eye (though not to mine, because I am still a hard-hearted cynic in my core).

    I don’t know if Afterlife’s detractors will come round to it with time. Frankly, I don’t really care — if they didn’t enjoy it, that’s their business. At worst, it’s their loss, because this is an appropriately fun and affectionate addition to the franchise.

    4 out of 5

    Archive 5, Vol.3

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

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

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

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


    Guinevere

    (1994)

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

    Guinevere

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

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


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

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

    The Kid

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

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

    Defending Your Life

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

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

    The LEGO Movie 2

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

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

    Sherlock Jr

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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


  • 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.


  • 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.