2022 | Weeks 16–17

Ooh, it was gonna be a classy one this week, with two recent Oscar winners — of Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, no less — and a highly-acclaimed Kurosawa classic — the 12th greatest film ever made, according to Letterboxd users. But then two of those reviews got so long I thought they better belonged in their own posts, and so we’re just left with two very different coming-of-age movies…

  • CODA (2021)
  • Cruella (2021)


    CODA

    (2021)

    Siân Heder | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Canada / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    When CODA became the Best Picture victor at this year’s Oscars, it wasn’t exactly unforeseen, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone had expected early on in the awards race. Indeed, the very reason it had became some people’s prediction hinged on the way the Best Picture votes are counted: a preferential ballot, which means that having a lot of second- and third-place votes is arguably even more important than first-place ones. The idea behind the system is to create a consensus around the winner, rather than the award going to the film with the largest minority of voters backing it. Certainly, pretty much everyone can agree that CODA is a nice film — but probably too “nice” to have won Best Picture, unfortunately.

    It’s not the kind of movie many will come away from feeling wowed. It’s a solid drama about a teenager coping with fairly typical teenage stuff, with the added twist that the rest of her family are deaf but she isn’t. Chalk up a mark in the ‘positives’ column for representation, then, in this case of the deaf community. It’s not one token character, either, but several major characters, who the film treats as real human beings who happen to be deaf, rather than as The Deaf Character. One reason it succeeds at this is because they’re not all perfect people just because they have a disability. Another is that the film doesn’t pretend their deafness isn’t a barrier — there are multiple obstacles it creates when engaging with the rest of their community. But CODA is a nice movie, remember, so everything turns out alright in the end; and it does so with enough effectively-managed (some might say “manipulated”) emotion that you may find yourself with a tear in your eye; or perhaps even bawling with tears flowing down your cheeks, depending on your susceptibility to such things.

    So, the best film of 2021? Almost certainly not. The one everyone is likely to agree they all liked? Most probably.

    4 out of 5


    Cruella

    (2021)

    Craig Gillespie | 134 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    Disney’s wave of live-action remakes seem to fall into one of two camps: straightforward remakes of the original Animated Classics, sometimes to the level of feeling like shot-for-shot do-overs; or extensions and reimaginings that seek to fill in around the edges of the original work. Perhaps because they already did a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians back in 1996, Cruella takes the latter approach. It’s a prequel, naturally, showing how an ordinary(-ish) little girl grows up to be a wanton dog murderer.

    Except (non-specific pseudo-spoilers incoming!) not really, because the film ends in such a way it’s very hard to imagine this Cruella becoming the deranged villain of the original text. Indeed, I’ve seen some commenters refer to this as a reboot rather than a true prequel, which seems like a fair enough angle. I mean, this is a Cruella de Vil who has a dog for a best mate. Even with the “dalmatians killed my mother” backstory (which I think the film knows is a gag. Considering that such a plot point came up as a joke on social media as soon as the project was announced, you’d hope the filmmakers were aware how daft the audience would find it), it’s hard to imagine how this version of the character could go from how we see her here to being prepared to roundup and kill hundreds of animals.

    Setting aside the need for connectivity and looking to the film in its own right, I would describe it as delightfully stylised. It’s got a particular tone and style that will turn off some viewers (and, certainly, some critics), but — even if you don’t personally enjoy it — I think it’s something we should celebrate. We sometimes talk about big-budget movies being homogenised; focus-grouped to the point of blandness and similarity. Cruella isn’t that, instead hitting notes that are suitably camp and gloriously unhinged. It certainly isn’t the most radical variation in tone ever — it merits comparison with early Tim Burton, without ever being as genuinely out-there as his best work — but it’s more so than the average. It’s so much madder than it needed to be, and that’s why it’s fun and not the usual Disney live-action cookie-cutter money-spinner.

    To my mind, its only sins are an over-reliance on obvious needle drops and cheap green screen. The latter has been brought up online as a damning example of how poorly crafted big-budget movies are these days. They’re not wrong about the examples used: two key scenes that take place at a cliffside have clearly been shot day-for-night in a studio and lit very flatly. The nighttime (i.e. ultra-dark) colour grade helps to hide some of the sin by covering it in darkness, but whack up the brightness and it’s all too apparent how awful it looks. But I would counter that these are fairly isolated examples. Cruella is hardly a go-to example of the wonders of cinematography (and there are other weak shots, too), but most of the film looks pretty good.

    4 out of 5


  • High and Low (1963)

    aka Tengoku to jigoku

    Akira Kurosawa | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    High and Low

    Akira Kurosawa has a good many classic films to his name, but, according to users of both IMDb and Letterboxd, this is the second best of them all — and, on the latter’s list. the 12th greatest film ever made, to boot. No pressure.

    Adapted from the American crime novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as a business executive who we first meet being wooed to join a potential coup of the company. (The film rattles through a few twists early on to set up its initial dilemma, which I’m now going to spoil, so if you want to go in completely cold, jump to the next paragraph.) In fact, Mifune is plotting his own takeover, paid for by leveraging everything he has. But then, his young son is abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a huge ransom — if he pays, his carefully-laid plans will be impossible to execute; but it’s his son! But then, it turns out it isn’t his son — the crooks took the wrong boy, instead kidnapping the son of Mifune’s lowly chauffeur. But they don’t know that, and there’s no way in hell the poor chauffeur could pay a ransom. What’s a man to do?

    Some might power a whole film on that storyline and dilemma, but it’s only the beginning of High and Low. Its original Japanese title (天国と地獄) literally translates as Heaven and Hell, and, as both monikers indicate, this is a film of two halves; of opposing forces; of extreme choices. Without wishing to spoil any more of what goes down, I’ll say that almost the first hour of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room. It feels like the whole thing might unfurl there, a la Hitchcock’s Rope — almost a formal exercise in telling a story from a single setting. But then it moves to an immediately more dynamic locale — a train — for a properly thrilling sequence, around which the story and structure pivots. The rest of the film goes ultra-procedural. A lengthy scene early in this half depicts a police debriefing in a manner that feels almost documentarian, as if we’re witnessing a genuine meeting filmed and presented in real-time, as various detective duos update senior officers and their colleagues on the specific aspect of the case they’ve been working.

    Hanging on the telephone

    This eye for detail, presented with a degree of mundanity, makes the film feel extra realistic. That extends to the final details. No spoilers, but, although you may call this a Thriller due to the type of story being told, it doesn’t climax with a big twist or revelation; no reveal of some super-clever grand plan that, with implausible foresight, anticipated and accounted for everything that’s happened. Rather, the film seems to proceed methodically and logically through every thread of investigation and consequence for its primary characters, until it simply has no more left to tell.

    It’s certainly a fine piece of work — although, on first watch, I’d say I’ve seen several better examples of the genre and several better films by Kurosawa. But that isn’t truly a criticism of the film, rather of its high placing on the lists mentioned at the start. Awareness of such accolades has a tendency to overshadow any first viewing of a film that warrants them (just witness how many people are underwhelmed by Citizen Kane), so I look forward to returning to High and Low sometime under less pressure.

    5 out of 5

    High and Low is the 30th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 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

    West Side Story (2021)

    Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

    West Side Story

    I remember when I first heard about this remake, I couldn’t quite understand what they were going to add by redoing it. The original is a widely-acclaimed classic — why remake it? I should’ve remembered one of the golden rules of cinema: always trust Spielberg.

    If you’re somehow unfamiliar with West Side Story, it’s a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with the two warring families replaced by two warring street gangs. Although the teenage love story is still present, obv., the strength here is more in its depiction of cultural clashes between different groups of immigrants — essentially, the heart of the American experience. Like most musicals, it started out on the stage before being filmed in 1961. I’m not going to dispute the classic status of that film, but it has dated — most problematically in the use of brown face to depict Puerto Rican characters, but also in its overall style, which, though shot in part on the real streets of New York, is quite stagey. Plus it made various changes to the original work, primarily in the order and therefore context of multiple musical numbers; something that Spielberg, as a fan of the stage production, sort to restore.

    In short, it worked. Well, I’ve never seen the stage production, so I don’t know if this film is more faithful to it, but it feels like a superior execution of the constituent elements. Primarily, it deepens some of the characters and their motives, most especially Tony (the Romeo figure) and Chino (his ostensible love rival, though you’d be forgiven for missing that entirely in the ’61 film). In the original film, I almost felt like Tony and Maria were a subplot, only being regarded as the leads because they’re Romeo and Juliet in what we know is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Here, they get more screen time, both together and apart, and more shades to their characters, so it actually feels like they’re the leads. That doesn’t suddenly make them the most interesting characters, but you can’t have everything.

    Dance in the streets in America

    This added depth comes from the screenplay as much as the performances, which were great in the original but are fantastic here too. The Oscar-winning turn by Ariana DeBose as Anita is indeed the standout, but Rachel Zegler is perfectly sweet as Maria, and Rita Moreno thankfully has more to offer than just a tribute cameo in the Doc role. There was a lot of talk that Mike Faist was snubbed by awards for his Riff. He’s good, but doesn’t quite equal Russ Tambyln for me. The weak link is clearly Ansel Elgort as Tony. I had wondered if people were just saying that because of the allegations against him, but he’s not ideal for the role. That said, I do think he’s adequate, and the only reason to find his presence actively distasteful is if you can’t set aside the real-life stories.

    All these comparisons are inevitable, and it’s mostly in the eye of the beholder which individual aspect is better in which version; but I think it’s undeniable that Spielberg’s film looks more cinematic. It’s not just superior to the ’61 film, but a masterclass in itself: the lighting, the shot composition, the camera moves, the blocking; several songs are more excitingly staged than in the original, not least arguably the most famous, America. DoP Janusz Kaminski has been doing sterling work with Spielberg for decades now, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook just how talented they both are. In an era when mega-budgeted films increasingly look like TV shows that lean on green screen to scrape by, this is Cinema at its purest.

    Perhaps that’s why, overall, I prefer this version. Sure, the original is a classic, but Spielberg’s film is ultimately more cinematic (less stage-minded), less campy (though it doesn’t entirely ditch that aspect), and more modern, but appropriately so (with race-appropriate casting instead of awkward brownface). It’s perhaps proof that any remake can be worthwhile if done for the right reasons by the right people.

    5 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


  • Knives Out (2019)

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

    Knives Out

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

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

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

    The name's Blanc, Benoit Blanc

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

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

    Archive 5, Vol.2

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

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

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

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


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

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

    Royal Wedding

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

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

    A Study in Scarlet

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

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

    Chicken Run

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

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

    The Last of Sheila

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

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


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

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

    Road to Zanzibar

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


  • American Animals (2018)

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

    American Animals

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

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

    Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance... possibly

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    I Care a Lot (2020)

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

    I Care a Lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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

    The 100-Week Roundup XXXII

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

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

  • The Saint (2017)
  • Hairspray (1988)


    The Saint
    (2017)

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

    The Saint

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

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

    Hairspray
    (1988)

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

    Hairspray

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

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

    4 out of 5