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 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


  • 2022 | Weeks 4–6

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

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

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

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


    Voyage of Time

    (2016)

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

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

    Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    L’avventura

    (1960)

    aka The Adventure

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

    L'avventura

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    She’s Gotta Have It

    (1986)

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

    She's Gotta Have It

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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


    Don’t Look Up

    (2021)

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

    Don't Look Up

    Oscar statue2022 Academy Awards
    4 nominations

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

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

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

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

    2 out of 5


    Jackass: The Movie

    (2002)

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

    Jackass: The Movie

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

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5


    Jackass Number Two

    (2006)

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

    Jackass Number Two

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


  • Archive 5, Vol.4

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

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

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

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


    Going My Way

    (1944)

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

    Going My Way

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    The Bells of St. Mary’s

    (1945)

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

    The Bells of St. Mary's

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Zero Charisma

    (2013)

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

    Zero Charisma

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    Borat

    (2006)

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

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

    Borat

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


    The Thin Red Line

    (1998)

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

    The Thin Red Line

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

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


  • Psycho Goreman (2020)

    2021 #26
    Steven Kostanski | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.40:1 | Canada / English | *

    Psycho Goreman

    In the recent episode of his Secrets of Cinema devoted to cult movies (which I covered here), Mark Kermode asserted that filmmakers can’t choose to make a cult movie — it’s up to the audience whether a film becomes a cult favourite or not. While this may be true in a sense, it’s also the case that, after several decades of the phenomenon being observed, any filmmaker who is interested in making a cult movie can consciously include the kinds of ingredients that provoke such devotion, thus giving themselves a head start. Psycho Goreman is one of the most recent films that seems custom-made to be a cult hit, and while only time will tell if it’s truly a “cult classic” or just a passing flavour of the month, it’s already attracted plenty of word-of-mouth attention — indeed, that’s precisely what led me to seek it out back in January, long before it had a confirmed UK release date (which, FYI, is today).

    While digging up their back garden for a game, a pair of siblings — obnoxious Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and her pushover older brother Luke (Owen Myre) — unearth a strange gem, which turns out to be a key imprisoning an intergalactic alien mass murderer. The monster now freed, he sets off to dominate and destroy Earth… except whoever possesses the gem can control him, and that’s Mimi. She christens her new pet/toy Psycho Goreman — PG for short — and the cruel, twisted, depraved mastermind sets about using the alien criminal for her own playful ends.

    There’s a distinctly ’80s vibe to this whole setup and how it’s presented on screen, both in storytelling terms and in the use of practical suits, models, gore, and special effects. Once he’s free, PG’s old friends and enemies are all out to find him, which puts a wide array of fantastical creatures on screen. None of them are a slouch. The fact such extensive effects work must’ve been achieved on a tight budget, but by clearly enthusiastic and talented craftspeople, only furthers the throwback feel. Indeed, the creature outfits are so impressively designed and realised that, although I haven’t bought an action figure in many years, it made me really want ones of PG and, in particular, his robotic-ish police-lady nemesis, Pandora. (Funnily enough, they’re making some; but they’re retro-style, which I know is a popular thing nowadays, but I don’t think is as cool as a properly-detailed figure. Of course, those kind tend to be rather pricey; but the ones they’re making are far from cheap, especially with international postage. Oh well.)

    Mimi and friends

    Everything about the filmmaking here has been leveraged to tickle the nostalgia glands of genre fans who grew up with trashy but ambitious sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fare on video, probably when they were officially too young to be watching it. Added to the mix is overt and knowing comedy, because now we’re all in on the joke. I found this aspect a bit hit or miss. When writer-director Steven Kostanski’s work is really on form, it’s frigging hilarious — although do note it can be quite dark comedy at times (which works for me) — but the film doesn’t nail the schtick as consistently as I hoped it would. For every few gags that land or subplots that pay off, there’s something that misses an opportunity or seems to get forgotten. On the other hand, this roughness round the edges is part of the genuine cult movie charm. With geek culture having become mainstream, the high-value neatly-polished version of what used to be direct-to-video schlock is more-or-less what Hollywood serves up at the multiplex every couple of weeks (under normal circumstances). Arguably, a true cult movie has faults that its fans either overlook or embrace because of how much they love the overall result. Psycho Goreman certainly does enough right to inspire that kind of affection.

    One complaint I’ve read fairly often, even from those who fall within the film’s target audience, is that Mimi is an annoying brat. Well, it’s pretty clear that’s intentional (as opposed to, say, the result of poor casting). I wouldn’t say the film celebrates her for it, but it doesn’t really punish or develop her either, so perhaps there’s some kind of tacit acceptance there. But then, she’s a preteen girl, so I don’t know how harsh you’d expect it to be on her. Anyway, your mileage will vary as to whether she’s annoying but still amusing, or just plain irritating. I err towards the former.

    Gory man

    Having outlined the film’s supposed intended audience earlier, I must say it doesn’t technically include me. I was much too mainstream in my childhood viewing, so it’s only in later years that I’ve come to appreciate more of the bizarre deviances in cinematic history. Those who grew up on that stuff may get the biggest kick out of the film, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t delight in its gonzo joys. I won’t be surprised if Psycho Goreman has a bright future ahead as a new cult staple.

    4 out of 5

    Psycho Goreman is available on Shudder from today.

    * To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been rated by either the BBFC or the MPAA, the two classifications I normally cite. If you’re interested, for reference, classifications in the rest of the world are all in the 15–18 range. It is very gory, but it’s obviously fake and often comical. ^

    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 100-Week Roundup XXVIII

    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 few more films from April 2019

  • Early Man (2018)
  • Amour (2012)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


    Early Man
    (2018)

    2019 #56
    Nick Park | 89 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, France & USA / English | PG / PG

    Early Man

    Only the third feature film directed by Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park, Early Man is about a prehistoric tribe who invented football (aka soccer) and must defend their home from a more advanced civilisation by playing a winner-takes-all footie match.

    So, despite the Stone/Bronze Age setting, this is a sports movie — and with that in mind, the plot is as rote as they come. And, if you hadn’t guessed yet, the period setting is less historically accurate than Game of Thrones (at least Thrones is inspired by things that really happened). Plus, there are plenty of bizarre choices — like, if the story’s set in Britain, why is Tom Hiddleston doing a weird Generic European accent? But, for all that, this is an Aardman production, and so there’s tonnes of pleasure to be found in incidental details; the asides and background jokes and grace notes that frequently raise a full-blown laugh, or at the very least a warm smile.

    There’s also something to be said for the film being quite delightfully Brit-centric. When so many productions aim to be bland enough to appeal to a global audience, Park and co haven’t shied away from including an array of gags that are like to only be caught by Brits and/or footie fans. For example, there’s a reveal of the backstory of the tribe and their relationship to the sport that’s an obvious riff on England’s relationship to international football, and I don’t know how apparent that would be to overseas viewers; or characters with names like Goona and Asbo. Not that such things should turn off the uninitiated, however. For pun lovers alone there’s plenty of material, not to mention general quirkiness. I could try to explain what goes on with the duck, but it’s better I leave it for you to discover.

    Early Man isn’t Aardman’s strongest production, but their productions have a base-level charm that’s high enough to keep it ticking over, with the occasional inspired flourish to boot.

    3 out of 5

    Amour
    (2012)

    2019 #59
    Michael Haneke | 127 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Austria, France & Germany / French & English | 12 / PG-13

    Amour

    German director Michaell Haneke may be much acclaimed by the arthouse crowd, but I’m not a huge fan of his previous works that I’ve seen (1997’s Funny Games and 2005’s Hidden — it seems I gave the latter four stars, which is not how I remember it). Palme d’Or, Oscar, and BAFTA winner Amour is the exception, however, even while some of its more arty asides hold it back somewhat.

    It’s the story of an ageing couple, Georges and Anne. When Anne has a stroke, Georges is left caring for her as her health continues to decline. In its depiction of this relationship — the strains placed on it and how it survives them — Amour is a truthful, affecting, and deeply moving character drama. Most of the major events (diagnoses, tests, a second stroke) happen off screen, with the film more concerned with day-to-day realities, but that’s part of where its power lies. It’s not so much about the big drama, more the reality of coping.

    But in between this powerful material, there’s random art house shenanigans, like a pigeon wandering into the apartment before Georges shoos it out, or a montage of impressionist paintings. Why do we see these things? I’ve not the foggiest. I guess Haneke had a purpose in mind, but goodness knows what it was — although, as he said in one interview, “consider the pigeon just a pigeon. You can interpret it any way you want. I wouldn’t describe it as a symbol. I have problems with symbols, because they always mean something specific. I don’t know what the pigeon means,” so maybe not. When combined with an overall slow pace, this resulted in the film becoming a bit of a slog for me, which was a real shame. The bits that are good — that are insightful and impactful and emotional — are so good, but, for me, those longueurs get in the way.

    4 out of 5

    Ralph Breaks the Internet
    (2018)

    2019 #62
    Rich Moore & Phil Johnston | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Ralph Breaks the Internet

    The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph is indeed called Ralph Breaks the Internet, when Ralph Wrecks the Internet was right there. Although, if they wanted to be truly accurate, a better titled would’ve been Corporate Synergy: The Movie.

    The plot sees Ralph and his chum Vanellope heading out into the internet to fix the arcade game they live in. That includes an extended sequence set ‘inside’ the Oh My Disney website — originally the Disney Infinity game, but that got cancelled during production so had to be changed. I think that rather indicates the mindset and motives behind this movie: $ advertising $ . Most famously, it includes a sequence where Vanellope encounters the Disney princesses. It’s quite a funny sequence, somewhat undermined by the “no one can understand Merida (because she speaks Scottish)” gag. Imagine if they’d tried that with Tiana or Pocahontas or Moana and their accent/dialect…

    When it’s not being a big advert for its production company, Ralph Breaks the Internet seems to think it’s a clever satire of the online world. It does references and stuff, but doesn’t develop them enough to be genuine commentary — for example, Ralph finds ‘the comment section’ and it’s depressing, and then someone tells him “the first rule of the internet is never read the comments”, and… that’s it. It’s stating a widely-accepted truism as if it’s some kind of revelation or point unto itself. This extends right to the climax, which sees our heroes fighting with a giant virus born of toxic masculinity, an idea that’s somewhere between timely and fucking ridiculous (how does toxic masculinity inherently create a computer virus?)

    Other problems include a pile of plot holes and inconsistencies (such as when Vanellope does or doesn’t use her glitching ability, among others); that it’s a structural mess (the plot bounces from place to place just so it can even get started, then major motivating goals are dismissed and moved on from), which leads to it being needlessly long (surely kids’ animations are best around the 90-minute mark). Also, frankly, I don’t particularly like the characters or the style of humour they create. That’s only worsened when you shoehorn in blatant advertising, half-witted satire, and muddled messages.

    The best Disney canon movies are timeless. Heck, some of the worst ones are, too. But Ralph 2 is so about the ‘right now’ of when it was made, it’s probably already dated today, just a couple of years later, never mind how it’ll hold up in a couple of decades.

    2 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup XXVI

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

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

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


    Paperman
    (2012)

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

    Paperman

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Waltz with Bashir
    (2008)

    aka Vals Im Bashir

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

    Waltz with Bashir

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

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

  • Zatoichi in Desperation (1972)

    aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari: Oreta tsue

    2020 #95
    Shintarô Katsu | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi in Desperation

    The 24th and penultimate film in the original Zatoichi series is also the first to be directed by star Shintarô Katsu. (He previously wrote the 21st film, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and would later direct 22 episodes of the TV series and write & direct the 1989 revival movie.) Despite such fundamental creative control by the man who arguably knew the character best, Zatoichi in Desperation is widely regarded as one of the series’ worst instalments, and yet you’ll find some people full of praise for it. It’s one of the series’ darkest entries, and I suspect it’s unpopular overall because it’s so grim; but for those who do like it, they love it.

    The plot starts with Ichi accidentally causing a polite old woman to fall from a bridge and die — as I said, cheery. The woman was on her way to visit her daughter, Nishikigi (Kiwako Taichi), so Ichi seeks her out. She’s a prostitute, so, as recompense, Ichi sets about raising the funds to free her from prostitution. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Kaede (Kyoko Yoshizawa) is also employed at Nishikigi’s brothel, to earn money to care for her younger brother Shinkichi (Yasuhiro Koume); so when some out-of-town bigwig starts letching over her, well, you can guess what route she’s set to head down. Said bigwig is funding a move by gangsters to crush the local fishermen and set up some kind of modern fishing empire. Just the kind of ordinary folk vs yakuza fight that Ichi would normally find himself embroiled in…

    Except he’s busy with Nishikigi, and that doesn’t really change. This is the cornerstone of the film’s moral thesis, which seems to be that the world is a brutal and unjust place. While kind-hearted Ichi is busy helping Nikigiki out of a perhaps-misplaced sense of duty (she doesn’t seem fussed about her mum’s demise, nor with escaping the brothel), he’s missing the people who could really use his help, i.e. Kaede and Shinkichi, or the village’s oppressed fishermen.

    Kaede and Shinkichi

    And they really could use a hand, because it’s against them that the film’s brutality is fully manifested. The gangsters burn all the villagers’ boats, then murder them for complaining about it; and while Kaede’s busy preparing to have to sell her body at 14, Shinkichi provokes the gangsters and consequently gets brutally beaten to death; and when Kaede finds his body, she commits suicide — and all of that occurs without Ichi even being aware Kaede and Shinkichi exist. Makes you wonder: were events like that playing out just offscreen in every other Ichi movie? Well, not consciously, obviously, but perhaps Katsu is provoking us to wonder about all the people Ichi has failed down the years while he was distracted elsewhere. Maybe our hero is blind in more ways than one.

    Aside from the violence, this is also an uncommonly filthy film for the series. First Ichi overhears a whore talking about how taking ten men makes her wet; then he’s hiding in a room while a couple have sex; then later a bunch of yakuza round up a mentally ill kid and start wanking him off until he ejaculates on one of them, for which they give him a beating. Yep, that all happens on screen. (Nearly every review I’ve come across comments on that last scene. Well, no surprise, really — it’s rather striking.)

    Hopefully you’re beginning to understand why this movie is so divisive. But if the content wasn’t enough, Katsu seems determined to show off with form, too. His bold directorial style is evident from the off, when the old woman’s fall from the bridge is represented via an impressionistic barrage of flash-cut images. This is followed through the rest of the film by weirdly-framed close-ups and various odd angles. It doesn’t always pay off: the requisite gambling scene is a rehash of a trick from an earlier film, shot with a certain kind of dark tension (Ichi feels in genuine peril from those he swindled) that’s in-keeping with the film’s tone, but the trick itself is less entertainingly performed, the scene not as well paced and constructed. There’s also an atypical score by Kunihiko Murai, which some praise as being ’70s funk, but I thought sounded just like cheesy electronic nastiness. Sometimes his unusual choices emphasise the film’s glum tone, as in the opening credits, which play out in silence over black — not the usual mode for a Zatoichi film, and so it somewhat suggests the goal is to present this as a Serious Movie.

    Blind in more ways than one

    Certainly, many describe this as a more realistic version of Zatoichi than we’ve seen before. It’s removed from the superheroics of the other movies, instead offering a brutal portrait of real violence and how it scars, with innocents suffering unnoticed and even our hero failing to emerge unscathed. Whether that’s realist or just depressive might depend on your view of the world; although, considering the time and place these films are set, I imagine its closer to reality than all of the “Ichi saves everyone” narratives. That either/or extends to the film’s reception: everyone agrees that it’s nastier, darker, and closer to reality than the other Zatoichi films, but whether that’s merited — an interesting diversion — or a case of taking things too far — a low point for the series — is a matter of personal taste.

    Personally, then, I appreciate what it was going for, but I wonder if Katsu left it too long to go there. Coming so late in the series means we’re very familiar with the tropes it’s subverting, which is necessary — it works best as a counterpoint to what we’ve already seen rather than as a standalone piece — but it almost feels too late to go about such subversion — it’s a departure from the groove these films have worn for themselves. Maybe Katsu should’ve entrusted such a departure to a more sure-handed director; maybe it’s the roughness of his directorial voice that makes the film what it is.

    3 out of 5