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

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

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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

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

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

A sticky situation

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

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

4 out of 5

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.

2022 | Weeks 14–15

Only four reviews this time, taking us up to April 17th. It was going to be five, but then Spider-Man got far too long. So, we’re left with…

  • Withnail & I (1987)
  • Munich: The Edge of War (2021)
  • tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)
  • Move Over, Darling (1963)


    Withnail & I

    (1987)

    Bruce Robinson | 103 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Withnail & I

    This may be a beloved cult comedy in its own right, but I can’t help but make comparison to a certain other British cult property. You see, each of the three primary cast members — Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (‘I’), and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty) have an atypical relationship to the lead role in Doctor Who. That has no bearing on the film itself, not least because their involvement (or non-involvement, in one case) took place years later, but it’s a correlation I can’t shake. I mean, what other work can claim to star the man who was simultaneously the shortest and longest serving Doctor; the man who was definitely, officially the new canonical Doctor, until he wasn’t; and a man who might well have been the Doctor if things had gone to plan? Nothing else that I can think of, that’s for sure.

    Setting all that aside, everything about Withnail & I screams “cult favourite”, and I guess that’s what it is — not a film that started out with a dedicated fanbase before being subsumed into the mainstream, but one that remains beloved of a relatively few devotees. Perhaps that explains why it’s one of those films I thought would’ve wound up on my Blindspot list by now, but never has: because it lacks that crossover appeal. (Maybe I need to factor in some lists of cult and/or British movies when compiling my Blindspot choices.) Coming to it afresh in 2022, aware of that rep it’s built up over the last 35 years, does it no favours. The characters aren’t likeable or interesting enough to truly enjoy hanging out with (even as they’re convincingly brought to life by the talented cast); the “gay panic” stuff that drives several sequences lands differently now than I suspect it did in 1987; and the supposedly never-ending quotable lines didn’t materialise (there are a small handful of memorable ones, at least). That said, there are quite a few lines that would be fun for a game of “did Paul McGann say this in Withnail or in Doctor Who?” (Oops, sorry to bring that up again.)

    The best bits of Withnail have been dulled by repetition out of context (variations on “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake” are a certifiable meme at this point), and I suspect I personally left it too long to see it, allowing it to build up too much of a reputation. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t won over.

    3 out of 5


    Munich: The Edge of War

    (2021)

    Christian Schwochow | 129 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & German | 12 / PG-13

    Munich: The Edge of War

    Robert Harris has been a best-selling author for decades, but his works have had a rockier reception on the screen; perhaps not helped by the fact a couple have been helmed by director non grata Roman Polanski. Harris’s stock in trade is fictionalised tellings of historical events — the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii; the politics behind the invasion of Iraq in The Ghost; and so on. His 2017 novel Munich is set around war-avoiding negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain that took place in the titular city in 1938. This film adaptation gains a subtitle, presumably to differentiate it from Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee, which retold entirely different historical events.

    The big names aren’t the main characters, however. Those would be a pair of low-ranking civil servants from the opposing sides: Brit Hugh Legat (1917‘s George MacKay) and German Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), former university chums who fell out when Hitler came to power. Now, von Hartmann is disillusioned with the Nazi regime and wishes to pass information to the British, but will only make contact with Legat, thus roping the inexperienced diplomat into the world of espionage, untrained. If the storyline is ringing bells, perhaps you too recently watched The Courier with Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not an identical narrative — I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism here — but there are definite parallels. Legat even has a strained relationship with his wife, who he has to leave at home and not tell the truth.

    But where the story in The Courier was true, and thus lent an inherent fascination, the story of Legat and von Hartmann is fictionalised. That’s not necessarily a problem — most thrillers are entirely made-up, of course — but Munich is hampered by feeling kind of muddy. It’s not so bad as to be described as muddled, but does seem like it’s perhaps the victim of being badly truncated from the book, or possibly just in its own edit. It’s not always clear what the point is of what we’re watching, or where certain characters have disappeared off to. That makes the overall experience longer and, occasionally, more plodding than it needs to be.

    That said, though it takes time, it does eventually develop the tension it needs; and it has definite merit for depicting a bit of history that’s normally relegated to footnote status. Indeed, it makes an interesting argument for “what Chamberlain did was good, actually”, which is not the normal point of view on politicians’ pre-WW2 actions.

    3 out of 5

    Munich: The Edge of War is the 27th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    tick, tick… BOOM!

    (2021)

    Lin-Manuel Miranda | 120 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    tick, tick… BOOM!

    Rent was one of the definitive Broadway musicals of the ’90s, but its creator didn’t live to see its success: composer, lyricist, and author Jonathan Larson died, with poetic timing, the night before the show’s premiere. It came after years of Larson struggling trying to break into the industry, much of which was documented in his semi-autobiographical (almost-)one-man show, Tick, Tick… Boom! This film adaptation broadens out and adds additional detail to become a more direct biopic of Larson, albeit one with musical numbers.

    Struggling musical theatre people in Manhattan… Yes, some people are going to find this insufferable. Others will look upon it as a dream life, especially as any actual hardship (Larson’s apartment didn’t have heating, for example) is played down or romanticised. Even setting that side, it remains the kind of movie that will speak to anyone who’s dreamt of making art (especially if that art is musical theatre), but might leave others (primarily those without such ambitions) identifying more closely with some of Jonathan’s friends — “there are bigger things to worry about,” they say.

    In the centre of it all is a pitch perfect performance from Andrew Garfield. He throws himself into the role, transformatively so: his Larson seems to be powered by a restless enthusiasm that I don’t think I’ve seen the actor portray in anything else. In the musical numbers, he holds his own against much more experienced singers (Garfield couldn’t even sing before production began — he spent a year learning and practicing).

    This is more than just a ‘one good performance’ film, though. Although based on a stage show, the screen version certainly doesn’t feel stage-bound, coming to cinematic life through Alice Brooks’s photography and Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum’s editing as if it had always been meant for the screen. However, many people have been critical of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction. While I wouldn’t shout it out as anything amazingly special, I also don’t think it’s bad. You routinely see lesser work in Marvel movies, for example.

    4 out of 5


    Move Over, Darling

    (1963)

    Michael Gordon | 99 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U

    Move Over, Darling

    Doris Day and James Garner star in this remake of My Favourite Wife, one of the trio of screwball comedies Irene Dunne and Cary Grant made together, and which I watched back in May 2020. Two years ago?! Time flies. Despite which, I’ve not reviewed it yet.

    Well, Move Over, Darling is an incredibly close re-envisioning. If someone authoritative told me it used the same screenplay with only minor tweaks, I’d believe them. I’m sure it’s not that close, in actual fact, but it’s darn near it. Certainly, one bit is definitely new: a fun sequence that sees Day recount the plot of the earlier film. Very meta. Alongside the screenplay, the remake also carries the original’s primary flaw, which is that they both lack the pace and snap of the very best screwball comedies. Day does her best to enliven the material, being a consistent source of fun and clearly game for a laugh — a sequence where she goes through a car wash in a convertible is a highlight. Garner can’t manage to equal Cary Grant, but who can?

    Nonetheless, on balance, I slightly preferred this version. That might just be due to my lowered expectations — knowing it had the double drawback of being (1) a remake, and (2) of a film I hadn’t particularly loved the first time, it was able to overcome that by simply being not too bad.

    3 out of 5


  • 2022 | Weeks 12–13

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

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

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

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


    Muriel’s Wedding

    (1994)

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

    Muriel's Wedding

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

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

    4 out of 5


    Cobra

    (1986)

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

    Cobra

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Cobra is the 23rd film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Django & Django

    (2021)

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

    Django & Django

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    A Man Escaped

    (1956)

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

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

    A Man Escaped

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    Death on the Nile

    (2022)

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

    Death on the Nile

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

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


  • 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


  • Archive 5, Vol.4

    I have a backlog of 432 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: singing vicars, grumpy gamers, very nice Kazakhs, and deleted actors.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Going My Way (1944)
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
  • Zero Charisma (2013)
  • Borat (2006)
  • The Thin Red Line (1998)


    Going My Way

    (1944)

    Leo McCarey | 126 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    Going My Way

    The Oscars, eh? Every year film fans pay them a load of attention, and every year we seem to be disappointed with the outcome. But this isn’t some new phenomenon: Going My Way hails from the 1940s, but is perhaps the definitive example of a film that managed to sweep the Oscars (it won seven awards from ten nominations) against a bunch of films that have endured to much greater acclaim (films it competed against included Double Indemnity, Laura, Lifeboat, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis. I think we can agree those are all better-remembered on the whole).

    None of which is to say it’s a bad film. It’s a gently-paced series of vignettes, almost like a collection of short stories, springing from young priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arriving to take charge of a struggling New York City parish. His modern ways clash with the old-fashioned values of the incumbent Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), but his worldly knowledge allows him to connect with some of the parish’s disaffected inhabitants. Despite the religious setting, it doesn’t lean too heavily on the wonders of Christianity (you know I’d be the first to rip into it if it did). Overall, it’s perfectly pleasant; an easy afternoon’s viewing.

    Incidentally (and here’s a good bit of trivia that might come in handy for a quiz someday), it was the first Oscar Best Picture winner to have a sequel: The Bells of St. Mary’s, released the very next year… and also the very next review in this roundup…

    3 out of 5

    Going My Way was #93 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The Bells of St. Mary’s

    (1945)

    Leo McCary | 126 mins | TV (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    The Bells of St. Mary's

    This followup to Going My Way was not only the first sequel to an Oscar Best Picture winner, but was also the first sequel to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

    Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley, sent to a new locale, ready to solve another series of subplots at a struggling religious institution, this time butting heads (sort of — it’s never as dramatic as that makes it sound) with Ingrid Bergman’s head nun. Like the first one, it’s really a bundle of subplots for Bing to ‘solve’. The low-stakes problems and amiable tone between the two leads, even when they’re disagreeing, makes for a gentle and relaxing kind of film. I’d give it the edge over its Oscar-winning predecessor, thanks primarily to Bergman’s performance, but neither film is likely to set anyone’s world alight.

    As well as their Oscar success, the films were the highest grossing at the US box office for 1945 and ’46, respectively, another first for a film ‘series’. And yet, with six decades distance, they’re little more than also-rans; nicely obscure trivia answers to “films that won/were nominated for Best Picture”. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for anyone obsessed with the current cultural zeitgeist.

    3 out of 5

    The Bells of St. Mary’s was #187 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Zero Charisma

    (2013)

    Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Zero Charisma

    I’d nickname this Portrait of a Manbaby on Fire. The manbaby in question is Scott (Sam Eidson), a stereotypical alpha-nerd: he has a neckbeard; he wears black T-shirts that feature elaborate depictions of grim reapers and the like; he lives with his grandma; he paints miniature fantasy figurines; he’s the Game Master of a role-playing group, which he rules with an iron fist. But when into-geeky-stuff hipster Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the group and everyone really likes him, Scott finds his position threatened, and he’s not happy about it.

    As much as geek/nerd culture has transitioned into the mainstream over the past couple of decades, there’s still stuff that remains the preserve of the hardcore; the truly nerdy. That culture clash is part of what Zero Charisma is about, of course, with Scott’s true old-fashioned kind of nerdishness clashing with Miles’s new-school cool. But it’s also a character study of the former. Scott may seem a stereotype — like The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy rendered in live-action — but I’d wager anyone who’s moved in nerdish circles has known someone at least a bit like him. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The film exposes and examines those to often amusing effect. Some have said it exaggerates these things, but I don’t think it’s particularly guilty of that. Maybe it generalises them, and lumps all the worst characteristics of the extremely nerdy together into one character, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate, just broad.

    My only real problem was the ending. There’s a scene where everything comes to a head — a climax, if you will — but, in the wake of that, I felt it lacked adequate resolution. Has Scott learnt anything from this experience? Is he a changed man? Maybe a little, but not completely. To be fair, that’s a realistic character arc, because whose personality changes overnight after a single revelation? And yet it also doesn’t feel like the filmmakers quite know how they want to leave things. If they’d been going for a “change takes time and is incremental, but Scott’s started on that road” kinda message, I would have approved. Instead, the film tries to have its cake and eat it by showing Scott as better on the surface, but then secretly GMing a game where he still behaves like an asshole. Maybe it’s trying to say we can never truly change, however much our flaws are highlighted to us, which would be a pretty glum way to end an otherwise likeable comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Zero Charisma was #109 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Borat

    (2006)

    aka Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

    Larry Charles | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Borat

    Ali G’s Sacha Baron Cohen adopts the persona of a Kazakh journalist to ostensibly interview Americans about their culture, but, unbeknownst to them, he’s of course really looking to expose their ludicrous views (you just know that, ten years later, a lot of these people voted for Trump) and take the piss out of them for our entertainment.

    As with most sketch-based comedy, the end result is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very funny; other times, it’s just being gross for the sake of it, like in a naked fight between Borat and his portly producer. A few bits don’t quite land — sometimes you can feel Baron Cohen’s not getting the response he wanted out of his target — and, even though he’s taking the piss out of people who deserve it, it sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable (though that might just be my English reserve/politeness kicking in and making me cringe). Most of the sketches are quite short, which is nice — they generally don’t outstay their welcome, and, if one isn’t working, you can be assured another will be along shortly.

    3 out of 5

    Borat was #220 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Thin Red Line

    (1998)

    Terrence Malick | 171 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Thin Red Line

    An extensive cast of famous actors and recognisable faces star as a battalion of soldiers who spend 2 hours and 51 minutes taking one (1) hill in Terrence Malick’s very Terrence-Malick-y World War 2 movie. I mean, this is a movie about a battle in which the first shots aren’t fired until past the 45 minute mark, but there are plenty of shots showing the minutiae of nature. And there’s a lot of discussion about how there isn’t enough water.

    None of which is necessarily a problem — indeed, there are plenty of people who think this is a great movie, and I’m glad for them. But for everyone who loves it, there’s someone who’d call it “pretentious and self-indulgent, despite gun battles and lush cinematography.” I find myself somewhat stuck in the middle. I mean, if you were expecting a normal combat movie from Terrence Malick, more fool you. And it’s unquestionably beautifully shot — so many gorgeous visuals, but also effective camerawork and editing to convey, say, the chaos of battle. But I also found it to be bitty and episodic. Well, calling them “episodes” might be kind — they’re scenes; sometimes less than scenes; just moments, or even shots. It’s like a really long deleted scenes package pretending to be a movie.

    Of course, the behind-the-scenes stories sort of support that reading. The first cut clocked in at five hours. It took two editors and thirteen months of post-production to get it to a manageable size. Hans Zimmer composed over four hours of music, but only for a few bits of his work made it into the final cut. Billy Bob Thornton recorded narration for the entire film; the released cut has eight different narrators, but none of Thornton’s work is in there. Many actors thought they had significant roles, but found their performances reduced to little more than cameos. Most famously, Adrien Brody thought he was playing the lead role, only to discover at the premiere that he’s in just a couple of shots, and doesn’t even speak until over halfway through (and then it’s just a brief voiceover). And then there are the actors whose work was left on the cutting room floor: Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke… This movie has more great actors whose performances were deleted entirely than most movies have in their entire cast!

    All of which suggests a movie that should be universally recognised as a disaster. That it isn’t — quite the opposite — is testament to something. Maybe someday I’ll rewatch it and find out what.

    3 out of 5

    The Thin Red Line was #77 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It was viewed as an additional film for Blindspot 2020 after I failed to watch it for WDYMYHS 2019.


  • Archive 5, Vol.3

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

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

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

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


    Guinevere

    (1994)

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

    Guinevere

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5

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


    The Kid

    (1921/1972)

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

    The Kid

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    Defending Your Life

    (1991)

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

    Defending Your Life

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    The LEGO Movie 2:
    The Second Part

    (2019)

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

    The LEGO Movie 2

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Sherlock Jr.

    (1924)

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

    Sherlock Jr

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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


  • 2022 | Weeks 1–3

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

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

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


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

    These weeks’ films are…

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


    Carry On Spying

    (1964)

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

    Carry On Spying

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Penny Serenade

    (1941)

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

    Penny Serenade

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    The Navigator

    (1924)

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

    The Navigator

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    In the Line of Fire

    (1993)

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

    In the Line of Fire

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    Barbie as
    The Princess and the Pauper

    (2004)

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

    Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Free Guy

    (2021)

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

    Free Guy

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


  • 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.