American Animals (2018)

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

American Animals

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

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

Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance... possibly

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

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

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

4 out of 5

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

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.

No Time to Die (2021)

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

No Time to Die

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

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

Bond's in the spotlight

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

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

The new 007

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

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

Can anybody find him somebody to love?

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

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

Old school Bond

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

4 out of 5

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

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

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXXI

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

    This week’s selection includes a trio of films I watched back in May 2019

  • Widows (2018)
  • Cosmopolis (2012)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)


    Widows
    (2018)

    2019 #88
    Steve McQueen | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    Widows

    The story of four women with nothing in common, except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.IMDb

    Best known for powerful socially/politically-conscious work like Hunger, 12 Years a Slave, and the Small Axe series, director Steve McQueen here delivers something closer to a genre movie — although, with its storyline of gangsters’ women empowering themselves, and a racially diverse cast, it still feels at least somewhat radical. As a thriller, it’s not exactly taught with tension, but it’s not too slack either — the pace is considered but not slow, allowing enough room for everything (and there’s a lot) without feeling rushed.

    4 out of 5

    Cosmopolis
    (2012)

    2019 #89
    David Cronenberg | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | Canada & France / English | 15 / R

    Cosmopolis

    Riding across Manhattan in a stretch limo in order to get a haircut, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager’s day devolves into an odyssey with a cast of characters that start to tear his world apart.IMDb

    David Cronenberg may be most famous as a horror director, but the only thing horrific about Cosmopolis is having to sit through it. It has the visual, aural, writing, and performance quality of an overambitious semi-pro early-’00s webseries, from the distractingly ugly green-screened limo windows to the “undergrad philosopher”-sounding screenplay and stiff performances. I presume this literally monotonous lack of realism must have been intentional, but doing something deliberately doesn’t inherently make it good. Cronenberg reportedly wrote the screenplay in just six days, apparently by copy-pasting the book into screenplay format and separating the dialogue from narration. That would go some way to explaining why it’s all so unnatural and impenetrable.

    1 out of 5

    Cosmopolis featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2019.

    The Kennel Murder Case
    (1933)

    2019 #91
    Michael Curtiz | 73 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English

    The Kennel Murder Case

    Before he starred in The Thin Man, one of the definitive detective movies, William Powell played private eye Philo Vance in a series of movies — three at Paramount across 1929 and 1930, later returning for this one at Warners. Here, Vance investigates a locked-room mystery: wealthy collector Archer Coe is dead and all signs point to suicide, but Vance had run into him the day before at the Kennel Club, where Coe was looking forward to his dog winning the next day’s competition.

    While the ensuing story unfolds a solid mystery, it lacks the charm and wit of the Thin Man films. Powell’s character is a facilitator of the plot rather than an entertaining main character; a blank slate who wanders around solving things. That lack of verve or individuality (which you do find in, say, the Falcon and Saint films, which this is on a par with in most other respects) is what really holds it back. Mind you, it has its moments: for example, much of Michael Curtiz’s direction is perfunctory studio-programmer stuff, but there’s the occasional striking shot (the discovery of a body though a keyhole) or sequence (the recap of how the murders went down, with a roving first-person view to hide the killer’s identity).

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXX

    Bow-chicka-wow-wow!

    Oh, er, no, sorry — it’s not that kind of XXX. It’s Roman numerals: this is the 30th 100-Week Roundup. (But if it is the other kind of XXX that you’re looking for, check out Roundup XX.)

    Still here? Lovely. So, for the uninitiated, 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.

    That said, as with Roundup XXIX, this week has run into some reviews that I feel would be better suited placed elsewhere; mainly, franchise entries that it would be neater to pair with their sequels. Consequently, sitting out this first roundup of May 2019 viewing are The Secret Life of Pets, Jaws 2, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Zombieland. I’m going to have to get a wriggle on with these series roundups, though, otherwise that subsection of my backlog will get out of control…

    So, actually being reviewed here are…

  • Eyes Wide Shut (199)
  • The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018)
  • Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)


    Eyes Wide Shut
    (1999)

    2019 #72
    Stanley Kubrick | 159 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

    Eyes Wide Shut

    I seem to remember Eyes Wide Shut being received poorly on its release back in 1999, but then I would’ve only been 13 at the time so perhaps I missed something. Either way, it seems to have been accepted as a great movie in the two decades since (as is the case with almost every Kubrick movie — read something into that if you like).

    Numerous lengthy, analytical pieces have been written about its brilliance. This will not be one of them — my notes only include basic, ‘witty’ observations like: one minute you’re watching a “men are from Mars, woman are from Venus” kinda relationship drama, the next Tom Cruise has taken a $74.50 cab ride from Greenwich Village to an estate in the English countryside and you’re in a Hammer horror by way of David Lynch. “A Hammer horror by way of David Lynch” is a nice description, though. That sounds like my kind of film.

    And Eyes Wide Shut almost is. It’s certainly a striking, intriguing, even intoxicating film, but I didn’t find the resolution to the mystery that satisfying — I wanted something more. Perhaps I should have invested more time reading those lengthy analyses — maybe then I would be giving it a full five stars. Definitely one to revisit.

    4 out of 5

    Eyes Wide Shut was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    The Eyes of Orson Welles
    (2018)

    2019 #74
    Mark Cousins | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 12

    The Eyes of Orson Welles

    Mark Cousins, the film writer and documentarian behind the magnificent Story of Film: An Odyssey, here turns his attention to the career of one revered filmmaker: Orson Welles (obv.)

    Narrated by Cousins himself, the voiceover takes the form of a letter written to Welles, which then proceeds to tell him (so it can tell us, of course) about where he went and when; about what he saw and how he interpreted it. A lot of the time it feels like it’s patronising Welles with rhetorical questions; as if Cousins is speaking to a dementia suffer who needs help to recall their own life — “Do you remember this, Orson? This is what you thought of it, isn’t it, Orson?” It makes the film quite an uneasy experience, to me; a mix of awkward and laughable.

    Cousins also regularly makes pronouncements like, “you know where this is going, I’m sure,” which makes it seem like he’s constantly second-guessing himself. Perhaps it’s intended as an acknowledgement of his subject’s — his idol’s — cleverness. But it’s also presumptive: that this analysis is so obvious — so correct — that of course Welles would know where it’s going. His imagined response might be, “of course I knew where you were going, because you clearly have figured me out; you know me at least as well as I know myself.” It leaves little or no room for Welles to respond, “I disagree with that reading,” or, “I have no idea what you’re on about.” Of course, Welles can’t actually respond… but that doesn’t stop the film: near the end, Cousins has the gall to end to imagine a response from Welles, literally putting his own ideas into the man’s mouth in an act of presumptive self-validation.

    I can’t deny that I learnt stuff about Orson Welles and his life from this film, but then I’ve never seen or read another comprehensive biography of the man, so that was somewhat inevitable. It’s why I give this film a passing grade, even though I found almost all of quite uncomfortable to watch.

    3 out of 5

    Everybody Wants Some!!
    (2016)

    2019 #79
    Richard Linklater | 112 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Everybody Wants Some!!

    Everybody Wants Some Exclamation Mark Exclamation Mark (that’s how we should pronounce it, right?) is writer-director Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to his 1993 breakthrough movie, Dazed and Confused. That film has many fans (it’s even in the Criterion Collection), but I didn’t particularly care for it — I once referred to it as High Schoolers Are Dicks: The Movie. So while a lot of people were enthused for this followup’s existence, the comparison led me to put off watching it. A literal sequel might’ve shown some development with the characters ageing, but a “spiritual sequel”? That just sounds like code for “more of the same”.

    And yes, in a way, this is High Schoolers Are Dicks 2: College Guys Are Also Dicks. It’s funny to me when people say movies like this are nostalgic and whatnot, because usually they just make me glad not to have to bother with all that college-age shit anymore. That said, in some respects the worst parts of the film are actually when it tries to get smart — when the characters start trying to psychoanalyse the behaviour of the group. Do I really believe college-age jocks ruminate on their own need for competitiveness, or the underlying motivations for their constant teasing and joking? No, I do not.

    Still, while most of the characters are no less unlikeable than those in Dazed and Confused, I found the film itself marginally more enjoyable. These aren’t people I’d actually want to hang out with, and that’s a problem when the movie is just about hanging out with them; but, in spite of that, they are occasionally amusing, and we do occasionally get to laugh at (rather than with) them, so it’s not a total washout.

    3 out of 5

  • Godzilla (1954)

    aka Gojira

    2019 #71
    Ishirô Honda | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

    Godzilla

    Before its current re-fashioning as a major US-produced blockbuster franchise, the rep of the Godzilla movies was more-or-less cheesy B-movie SF with cheap-n-cheerful “man in a suit” special effects. (I expect die-hard fans would disagree, but to outsiders looking in, I feel that’s fairly accurate.) But that certainly wasn’t how things started with the first movie. Indeed, this first movie was nominated for Best Picture at Japan’s answer to the Oscars, only losing to Seven Samurai. There’s no shame for any film in losing to Seven Samurai. It was also a pricey affair: the most expensive Japanese film ever made up to that point, costing almost a million dollars — ten times the average budget for a Japanese feature at the time.

    But, more than just the blockbuster entertainment of its day, Godzilla is a serious-minded work. A giant monster stomping on cities — or, if you prefer, a man in a rubber suit stomping on models — may have soon become fodder for the kind of movie fans who enjoy pulp entertainment, but, in its original incarnation, it’s an analogy for the terror of the nuclear bomb. Released just nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s one of the first films to deal with that scar on the Japanese national psyche. And lest you think this is something pretentious critics have projected onto the film after the fact, the movie itself draws the connection, with one character — a young woman, no less, as if to remind us of the recency of those events — commenting that she only narrowly escaped the bombings. A big part of why Godzilla still works as a film today, almost 70 years later, is because everyone involved is playing it straight, and the clear messages about the folly of mankind interfering with nature, and the futility of weapons, are powerful.

    That’s not to say it’s perfect. Subplots get in the way, like a love triangle that manages to waste screen time while not really having any significant impact on the viewer. (Reportedly, a flashback scene that would have helped explain the connection between two of the participants was deleted because it slowed down the film. The romance is slow enough as it is, but you never know, maybe that extra clarity would have helped.) Conversely, some of the moral conundrums raised by the story are barely touched on. One of the main characters is a scientist who thinks mankind should study Godzilla rather than try to kill it, but other than him stating that fact and consistently looking miserable, the film doesn’t really do anything more to engage with his argument.

    Good God

    As for the stomping monster action, viewed with a modern eye the effects are of course a mixed bag (the miniature vehicles look like something you’d find in a toy shop, for example), but make some allowances and they’re still pretty darn effective. An underwater sequence that mixes footage of real divers with “dry for wet” shots of Godzilla and lead characters remains mostly convincing. Godzilla may have lost Best Picture to Seven Samurai, but it did win the award for special effects, and that’s one thing it does have over Kurosawa’s film, at least. I don’t know if those same awards had one for music, but if so I guess Akira Ifukube’s score wasn’t even nominated. It would’ve deserved it for the main theme alone, though, which has since become iconic for good reason.

    The Godzilla franchise has come a long way and changed a good deal across the seven decades since this film’s release. It’s not a series, nor a genre, that’s to everyone’s taste (just look at the wide spread of reactions to the recent US movies, including the fact even people who broadly like them can’t vaguely agree on which order to rank them in). But this original, at least, stands tall as an example of how a movie that some might seek to dismiss as facile genre fare can actually be about a whole lot more.

    4 out of 5


    For 50 years, you couldn’t actually see Godzilla in the West — not exactly. Instead, you’d watch…

    Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
    (1956)

    2019 #82
    Terry Morse & Ishiro Honda | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan & USA / English | PG

    Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

    In an era where the original cut is king (to the extent that, say, a major studio might hand a director $70 million to complete his cut of a not-particularly-successful movie just so they can release it on a streaming service), it seems wild to remember that, until 2004 — a full five decades after Godzilla‘s premiere release — this re-edited, bastardised version was the only one available to Western audiences.

    With a runtime 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese cut, you might think King of the Monsters was just an abridgement. But they went at it more thoroughly than that back in the ’50s; in fact, almost 40 minutes of footage was cut, and the disparity is covered by newly-filmed scenes starring Raymond Burr as Steve, an American journalist. These new scenes don’t just place Burr’s character around the existing action, but work to make him the (human) star of the movie.

    The end result is actually fairly close to the original story-wise, just now there’s an American journalist hanging around the fringes. At first he’s often to be found at the back of a crowd or the edge of a room, observing events, but they get bolder as the film goes on, integrating him with some of the main characters, either by repurposing and rearranging original footage or shooting Burr with doubles whose faces we never see. It’s not a perfect match, but for a quickly-produced low-budget effort in the 1950s, it’s surprisingly well achieved. This is partly thanks to the choice of director for the new scenes. Terry Morse had 30 years of experience as an editor and director of low-budget films, and it was felt someone with that kind of background would be well-placed to maintain the continuity needed to make it seem like Burr was part of the original production.

    Raymond Burr, sir

    Morse also makes some interesting decisions about how to adapt the existing footage. Although all of the ‘Japanese’ characters speak perfect English with American accents in the new bits, a lot of the Japanese dialogue in Ishiro Honda’s scenes is left undubbed, and it’s never subtitled either. Instead, the film trusts us to infer what’s happening, or informs us via someone translating for Steve, or his voiceover narration. It feels like quite a mature way to handle a multi-lingual production. Unfortunately, any such maturity doesn’t extend across the board: when abridging the original, they removed or neutered much of its commentary about mankind’s destructive nature, thereby turning a powerful allegory into a simple monster movie.

    To my surprise, Godzilla, King of the Monsters is not a complete disaster. There’s a fair bit of the original movie left, and the American inserts aren’t unremittingly terrible, which they certainly could have been. If this was the only version of the film available, I’d probably give it a solid 3 stars. But it isn’t the only version anymore, so the question becomes: why watch it nowadays? It neuters some of what was great about the Japanese cut, and it’s inherently a bastardisation — so, other than curiosity value (or, for older fans, nostalgia), there’s no reason to bother with this. Stick to the real one.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Reviewed Some Films

    There are a lot of films about a man who did something — already on this blog I’ve written about men who invented Christmas, sued God, and, um, laughed. But I noticed I have many other reviews pending about such apparently-noteworthy fellas, so I’ve rounded most of them up into this one handy location.

    Some of these men knew stuff; some shot somebody; one just had a nap… but they’re all men who had a movie named after them. They are:

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • The Man Who Sleeps (1974)


    The Man Who Knew Infinity
    (2015)

    2019 #65
    Matthew Brown | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Man Who Knew Infinity

    Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a man of boundless intelligence that even the poverty of his home in India cannot crush. His skill for mathematics attracts the attention of noted British professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to develop his computations at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan finds that his largely-intuitive mathematical theories clash with stringent academic requirements, just as his cultural values are challenged by the prejudices of 1910s Britain. With Ramanujan’s health in decline, the two men join in a mutual struggle that would define him as one of India’s greatest scholars. — adapted from IMDb

    Writer-director Matthew Brown takes this interesting true story and turns it into an ironically by-the-numbers biopic. Even with reliable actors like Patel and Irons headlining, there are some surprisingly stuff performances, and the film struggles to truly convey the genius or importance of the maths involved. Instead, it’s just lots of characters saying “OMG look at this stuff he thought up” and other characters saying “nah mate, it’s wrong” (except in the vernacular of 1910s Cambridge, of course). Alongside that, it doesn’t have many places to go with the story or characters, so it comes to feel repetitive as it goes round and round over the same points. Even the start of World War I has no genuine impact on events, factoring into the film only because that’s when these events actually happened, so Brown seems to feel it must be mentioned. Indeed, a lot of the film feels beholden to fact in this way, though I’m sure it must be doing the usual biopic thing of bending the truth.

    3 out of 5

    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (1956)

    2019 #84
    Alfred Hitchcock | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Knew Too Much

    Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day), and their eight-year-old son Hank are on vacation in Morocco when they witness the public murder of a mysterious man who, before he dies, manages to reveal to Ben details of an assassination about to take place in London. The plotters kidnap Hank to keep the McKennas silent, so Ben and Jo return to London to take matters into their own hands. — adapted from IMDb

    Famously, this is the time Hitchcock remade himself: he’d previously filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 while he was still working in Britain. Later, he’d compare the two by calling the original “the work of a talented amateur” while the remake “was made by a professional”, although he reportedly preferred the earlier version precisely because it wasn’t so polished.

    Undoubtedly, the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is not top-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean it’s without joys. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are perfectly cast as an ‘everyman’ American couple who accidentally get embroiled in international espionage, and Hitch could make such thrills work with his eyes closed. He’s also on top form during a sequence in the Albert Hall, a stunning set piece that lasts 12 minutes without a single word of dialogue, in which Hitch has the balls to just keep going through an entire piece of music, allowing the tension to almost build itself as he cuts around the room; even when Stewart finally turns up, we still don’t need exposition — we know exactly what’s happening.

    Although a key part of the film’s conclusion, it’s not the actual finale, which is a shame because the following plan to rescue Hank is a bit daft. And, when you think about it, the villains’ plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s stuff like that which gets in the way of The Man Who Knew Too Much being among Hitch’s very best work, but it remains a fine suspense thriller.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (1962)

    2020 #66
    John Ford | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    When US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a young reporter persuades him to tell the story of why he’s there. Flashback to a quarter-century-or-so earlier, when Ransom, a newly-qualified lawyer (still played, unconvincingly, by 53-year-old Stewart), arrived in Shinbone with a plan to bring law to the West. After Ransom receives a beating from local heavy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he recuperates at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he takes a job in their kitchen to repay their kindness. He develops an affection for their daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles), who’s also being wooed by young rancher Doniphon (still Wayne, also in his early 50s — it seems there was a good deal of movie star vanity in this casting). With local law enforcement refusing to do anything about Valance’s violent oppressive tactics, Ransom eventually takes it upon himself to face the villain down…

    Despite the violent promise of the title, Liberty Valance is very much a dramatic western rather than an action-packed one. Just shooting Valance isn’t the characters’ first recourse; indeed, the film on the whole is interested in the clash between the moral values of the old West and incoming modernity, and how the old ways can persist even as new ones come into force. That older Ransom is a senator is not incidental: a major part of the plot concerns Shinbone (or, rather, wherever it is) applying for statehood, and Ransom and Valance both standing to be a representative.

    All of which is fine, but unfortunately the dramatic focus seems to have resulted in the film being rather slow-going at times. The main plot is fine, but the telling could’ve been tighter — there’s a lot of stuff about Ransom washing dishes and teaching everyone to read and write. It establishes his place in town, sure, but it takes forever getting there. At the other end, Valance is actually shot a full 25 minutes before the end. There’s story to wrap up and twists to reveal, but it takes its sweet time doing it. None of which is distracting as the age-related issue I already referred to. I was genuinely puzzled why everyone kept talking about how young Ransom was, when Stewart patently isn’t, until I realised it was an example of good ol’ Hollywood vanity, where someone thought a star in his 50s could get away with playing a guy in his 20s.

    Despite that, however, Stewart and Wayne remain powerful screen presences, and the commentary on the changing face of the West — indeed, of the country as a whole — is indicative of a direction the genre continues to explore to this day (it’s what the whole of Deadwood is about, at its core).

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps
    (1974)

    aka Un homme qui dort

    2020 #203
    Bernard Queysanne | 78 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | France & Tunisia / French

    The Man Who Sleeps

    When I watched this, it was ranked as one of the greatest films of all time by Letterboxd users. I did not feel the same — rather than Un homme qui dort, I found it more like Un homme qui t’endort. (That’s a joke I’m so pleased with, I’ve now used it four times.)

    At first it plays like a stereotype of French art house cinema: shot in black & white, it’s about a disaffected student, told with introspective voiceover narration, which philosophises at the level of a pretentious undergraduate, and nothing actually happens. But then I began to feel that, actually, it does a pretty good job of capturing how I’ve felt often in my life; especially back when I too was a pretentious undergraduate. But that feeling didn’t last much more than quarter-of-an-hour — and as the film is an hour and a quarter, that became a problem. As I slogged on through it, the interminable narration became repetitive; the musings less relatable. Just because warped minds exist doesn’t mean it’s worth our while to spend 78 minutes in their thoughts.

    The Man Who Sleeps is the kind of film that thinks it’s profound, but is actually pretentious. That may gel with the worldview of its undergrad subject, but, just as you wouldn’t want to listen to a real-life undergrad’s philosophising for over an hour, I don’t want to endure the same from a fictional one either. I guess it’s apt that a film titled “the man who sleeps” would be a good cure for insomnia.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

  • The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

    2019 #57
    James DeMonaco | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

    The Purge: Anarchy

    For those unfamiliar with the Purge franchise, they’re set in a near-future America where the law is suspended for one night a year — Purge Night — allowing the citizens to ‘purge’ their criminal impulses by committing any crime they like. Because this is America, said crimes invariably involve violence and murder. As a premise, it used to seem a little ridiculous and implausible — the kind of thing you might dream up only to think through and realise it would never work — but we live in a world where Donald Trump can be elected president, get nothing done while constantly and obviously lying about things, escape charges for crimes he blatantly committed, and still be worshipped by his followers as the only thing that can make America “great” again. So, yeah, maybe the Purge could come to pass nowadays, why the fuck not?

    The first film was a contained horror/thriller about one well-to-do family whose home comes under assault from a gang of Purge participants on the night in question. This first sequel ditches most of the Horror genre trappings to instead emulate ’70s B-actioners, in the vein of stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 or The Warriors, and it’s all the better for it.

    This time, the narrative opens up to a wider world. We’re introduced to a trio of storylines, spread around a city, which quite quickly stumble into each other and result in their protagonists teaming up, fighting their way across a hostile city (like The Warriors), trying to survive the night (like Precinct 13 — see, my comparisons aren’t just random). It reminded me a little of the early episodes of a season of 24, when it cuts around multiple disconnected characters who inevitably come into contact. (It strikes me that the best way to do a Purge TV show would be to nick 24’s real-time conceit to cover the entirety of Purge Night. I’ve no idea if the actual Purge TV show attempted anything like that.)

    Gonna get purged

    It can’t be understated how good it is that Anarchy does something different with the franchise’s basic premise. Sure, it has the same problem with the underlying concept as the first film (all crime is legal, but for some reason the only crime anyone commits is murder), but the story it tells, the environs it’s in, are completely different. Even the satirical, allegorical, political stuff (hardly the films’ forte) is more potent this time. It’s still only tangentially touched upon, but more effectively and meaningfully handled than in the first film.

    There’s also the sense that they’re trying to build a franchise now. In the first film, the whole Purge backstory was really just a backdrop/excuse for the low-budget home invasion action of the plot, but here there are more hints at what’s going on in the wider world politically. That includes the introduction of an anti-Purge movement, although it’s factored in as barely even a subplot, to the extent you feel it had to be intended as setup for future movies. In this respect it reminds me of what the Saw films used to do: tell a standalone story, but always provide a little piece of the puzzle to an ongoing narrative that was designed to run and run. When it works, as it does in Anarchy, you leave the film satisfied that you’ve had a whole story, but also ready for the next jigsaw piece (Saw-related pun very much intended). It’s quite a TV-esque way of building an ongoing narrative, the way they used to do it before everything became “an eight-hour movie”, but, hey, the media boundaries are thoroughly blurred in both directions now; and it’s better than a blatant cliffhanger that leaves the story unresolved if a sequel never happens.

    In this instance, a sequel did happen; several of them, in fact, with a final instalment due later this year. I quite liked the original Purge (not to be confused with The First Purge, which is the fourth film), but I enjoyed Anarchy a lot, so they’ve got me on the hook now, even if (based on what I’ve seen online) the quality of future sequels tails off.

    4 out of 5

    The series’ third film, The Purge: Election Year, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:10am.

    Rope (1948)

    2019 #24
    Alfred Hitchcock | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Rope

    Nowadays fake single takes are all over the place — some of them even last whole movies. But, as with so much cinematic trickery, it’s not actually a new idea. I don’t know if Alfred Hitchcock was the first director to attempt to trick the viewer into thinking they were watching one long take, when in fact it’s several shots stitched together via hidden cuts, but his effort is certainly one of the most famous. As an exercise in style, it’s a mixed success. Hitch is presumably inventing techniques that other filmmakers would polish and perfect in later attempts at the same stunt, but these first attempts don’t always come off perfectly. For example, every ‘hidden’ cut comes via an unmotivated camera move into the back of someone’s jacket — it may hide the cut in a literal sense, but there’s no doubting what’s going on. The entire movie is staged in actual long takes — just ten in total, most of them running seven to ten minutes. That means there are just nine cuts in the entire film, but several times (four, to be precise) Hitch just gives in and resorts to a regular cut. Sometimes you have to put the needs of the story before your showing off, I guess.

    But, in other ways, the film is a great technical success. The camera moves elegantly around the apartment, employing moveable walls and stagehands shifting props while out of shot to get the moves Hitch was after. A large window at the back of the set shows a cityscape, which in other films would’ve just been a photo blowup, but here is made more convincing and alive with smoke and lights. Similarly, the passing of time is subtly emphasised because, through that window, we can see the sunlight gradually transition from daytime to evening. All of this helps sell the fact that the film takes place in real-time… sort of. Although it only runs 80 minutes, scientific analysis (yes, some scientists analyse this kind of thing) has shown the events cover about 100 minutes. Certain action is sped-up to close that gap — for example, the sun sets too quickly. Apparently this is so effective that the analysis concluded audience members feel like they’ve watched a 100-minute movie, even though it’s only 80… which, er, I don’t think was meant to sound like a criticism…

    Look, a rope!

    Ostensibly based on Patrick Hamilton’s play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case (also the inspiration for Compulsion, amongst various other works of fiction), this adaptation changes the setting, almost all of the character names, and some of their personality traits too. Wherever they come from, the film offers an interesting array of characters. The most obvious are the two murderers — smug, cocky Brandon and worrisome Phillip — along with James Stewart, who portrays a gradual realisation that something is amis, culminating in devastation at what was really a silly thought exercise being writ into reality. Apparently Stewart thought he was miscast, but I think he’s very good, conveying much with just looks and expressions, and making you believe his moral about-turn at the end.

    Other parts have, perhaps, dated: the film attracted some controversy for its homosexual overtones, but to modern eyes there’s very little to emphasise such an interpretation. Perhaps some social cues that once indicated homosexuality have fallen by the wayside in the past seven decades; or perhaps, because there’s no need to bury such things anymore, what was once ‘weird’ is now just normal behaviour. Nonetheless, much of the screenplay remains quite fun, including various nods and winks to the situation, and one slightly meta scene where two female characters talk about male movie stars they adore in front of Jimmy Stewart. But there are also sequences of familiarly Hitchcockian suspense, one great bit coming when all the characters are distracted chatting but we’re watching the maid who, while she slowly clears stuff away, is on course to discover the hidden body…

    As the end credits roll, the actor who plays David — the victim, who dies in the first shot of the movie; really, no more than a prop — Is listed first, and then every other character is defined in relation to him. It’s almost like they film’s very credits are underlining the message of the film: that no one’s inferior, including David; like they’re giving him some kind of dignity in death by making him the focus of the final element of the film. It’s another neat little trick in a film that’s full of them.

    5 out of 5

    Rope was viewed as part of Blindspot 2019.