Review Roundup

Even though my film viewing has slowed to barely a trickle recently (more about that on Thursday), my review backlog is still humongnormous (so I big I had to invent that new world to describe it).

So, here’s another exceptionally random selection of quick reviews to help clear out a tiny fraction of it. They’re connected merely by being films I watched over a year ago. Three of them score 3 stars, one of them scores 4, and I suspect you won’t guess which that is…

In today’s roundup:

  • American Assassin (2017)
  • Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
  • Wild Strawberries (1957)
  • Yes Man (2008)

    American Assassin

    2018 #79
    Michael Cuesta | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Turkish & Persian | 18 / R

    American Assassin

    Based on the Mitch Rapp series of novels by Vince Flynn (and, since Flynn’s death, Kyle Mills), American Assassin is an action-thriller about a CIA operative that’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a film starring Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, or anything else along those lines. Indeed, it particularly reminded me of the last-but-one Jack Ryan reboot, crossed with something altogether murderier — you’ll notice this has an uncommonly high 18 certificate. I guess that was for some torture that goes on; although it also features a very intense opening scene, depicting an attack by terrorist gunmen on tourists at a beach resort. Considering this is no more than a dumb action-thriller, one might consider it a bit much to include such a viscerally-real-feeling sequence, inspired by relatively recent real-life attack(s), just to kickstart the hero’s journey…

    The film was made for just $33 million, which is chump change in modern Hollywood, and they’ve not done badly off it. The shooting locations do seem a little limited (the main sequence in Istanbul looks more like it was shot in a London shopping precinct (which, as I found out when I checked after, it was), and the bit in Poland is moderately familiar as London too (it’s Somerset House, recognisable to UK cinephiles as where Film4 host their outdoor summer screenings); but I’ve seen worse CGI in bigger-budgeted films, and the fisticuffs are decently staged.

    Altogether, it makes for quite an entertaining action thriller, with some decent scenes, but the story is wholly familiar — Mitch Rapp: Sum of All Shadow Recruits, if you will. Fans of the genre will likely get a kick out of it, especially if they’ve not seen some of the other films it feels so similar to (though if you’re a fan of the genre I don’t see how you wouldn’t’ve), but others need not apply.

    3 out of 5

    Captain Underpants:
    The First Epic Movie


    2018 #91
    David Soren | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada, France, UK & India / English | U / PG

    Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

    Somehow I was vaguely aware of the existence of a series of books called Captain Underpants, but I’d paid them no heed because they’re for young kids, and also because they looked stupid. I thought the same thing of this movie adaptation, but then I started hearing good things about it and, well, here we are.

    It’s about two young boys who love nothing more than pranking teachers and creating superheroes. When their headteacher separates them because of the former, they manage to hypnotise him and convince him he’s the latter — the eponymous Captain Underpants. Initially that just makes their school life more fun, but then a supervillain turns up, so he’s handy for that too.

    Obviously it’s all thoroughly daft and primarily aimed at younger children — there are Messages without it being preachy, and it’s suitably irreverent and base at times. It’s the movie equivalent of mixing veg into, like, a burger, or something (I dunno, I’m not a parent. What food do you hide veg in?) But it also contains some good gags for the adults (satire!) and some clever bits of animation and stuff as well — it’s more inventive than you might expect in that regard.

    Indeed, I feel like it’s all-round better than you’d expect, given the title and overall style (the kiddie design and tone; the toilet humour)… but not so much better that it warrants 4 stars, so…

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries

    aka Smultronstället

    2018 #90
    Ingmar Bergman | 87 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Sweden / Swedish | PG

    Wild Strawberries

    “Wondrously warm, one of Bergman’s very finest achievements, and a landmark in the history of cinema,” says Geoff Andrew in the notes that accompany the UK DVD release of Wild Strawberries, one of Ingmar Bergman’s most acclaimed movies from a career filled with them. However, speaking for myself, I’m still struggle to get a handle on the director’s output.

    It’s about a grumpy old professor (Victor Sjöström) who sets out on a road trip to collect an honorary doctorate. Along the way he has various encounters with other travellers, which prompt daydreams and memories that cause him to reassess his life and its worth.

    Put like that, what it’s “about” seems obvious, though in my notes I wrote “I’m not sure I have any idea what it was about. Something to do with old age and looking back and maybe death,” so how effectively its themes come across on a first viewing is, perhaps, debatable. That said, I’m fully prepared to accept I was looking in all the wrong places, maybe focusing too much on the literal road-trip storyline and not the figurative exploration-of-self the trip was provoking.

    On the bright side, there’s some effective imagery in the dream sequences, and I found it less crushingly dull or obtuse than Persona, which is something. Maybe Bergman’s just not for me? Or not for me yet? Well, I didn’t dislike it, but at the same time I didn’t get much out of it. Maybe some day I will.

    3 out of 5

    Wild Strawberries was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

    Yes Man

    2018 #86
    Peyton Reed | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English & Korean | 12 / PG-13

    Yes Man

    Loosely based on Danny Wallace’s memoir of the same name, Yes Man stars Jim Carrey as a negative chap who attends a motivational seminar that encourages him to start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes his way.

    On the first night, he says yes to a homeless guy who wants a lift across town, then yes to letting the guy use his phone, then yes to giving him all his cash. But it turns out the drive used all his fuel, the call used all his battery, so he can’t phone for help, and he has to trek miles in the dark to buy fuel… not that he has any cash. So much for saying “yes” to everything. But at the petrol station he meets Zooey Deschanel and they hit it off. So, yeah, point made with perhaps the most outsized karmic reward ever.

    I suppose everything about Yes Man is broadly familiar — the romcom story arc; the kooky supporting characters; Jim Carrey’s schtick (it feels very much in same vein as the high-concept ’90s comedies that made his name; although there’s no fantastic element this time, and the worst excesses of his ‘act’ are thankfully limited to one or two scenes) — but it carries it off with reasonable charm. I mean, if you have no time for Carrey’s comedies, and aren’t attracted to Deschanel being a MPDG again, then there’s nothing here that’s going to win you round. For fans of such shenanigans, however, this is a perfectly enjoyable experience. It’s a 3.5-out-of-5-er, but I had a nice time with it, so my score leans on the side of generosity.

    4 out of 5

  • A Christmas Carol (2009)

    aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

    2016 #188
    Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Disney's A Christmas Carol

    You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

    Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

    The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

    I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

    In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

    I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

    2 out of 5

    Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #50

    Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

    Title Commonly Abridged To: Lemony Snicket
    Title on IMDb: A Series of Unfortunate Events

    Country: USA & Germany
    Language: English
    Runtime: 108 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG

    Original Release: 16th December 2004 (Australia & New Zealand)
    UK Release: 17th December 2004
    US Release: 17th December 2004
    First Seen: cinema, c.2004

    Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
    Liam Aiken (Stepmom, How to Be a Man)
    Emily Browning (Sucker Punch, Pompeii)
    Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow)
    Billy Connolly (Mrs Brown, Quartet)
    Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, Mamma Mia!)

    Brad Silberling (Casper, Land of the Lost)

    Robert Gordon (Galaxy Quest, Men in Black II)

    Based on
    A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series of novels by Daniel Handler Lemony Snicket. In particular, the first three: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window.

    The Story
    After their parents are killed, the three Baudelaire siblings are placed into the care of a series of kooky relatives, while the scheming Count Olaf attempts to track them down and murder them for their money.

    Our Heroes
    This is the story of the three Baudelaire children: resourceful, inventive eldest sister Violet; bookish Klaus; and baby Sunny, who is very perceptive and can also bite things. No one knows the precise cause of the Baudelaire fire, but just like that, the Baudelaire children became the Baudelaire orphans, and were put into the care of…

    Our Villain
    Count Olaf, the kind and friendly guardian who wants to kill the orphans for their inheritance. A master of disguise… sort of.

    Best Supporting Character
    The film is wittily narrated in the erudite English tones of Lemony Snicket himself, who gets all the best insights.

    Memorable Quote
    “This would be an excellent time to walk out of the theatre, living room, or airplane where this film is being shown.” — Lemony Snicket

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted!” — Count Olaf

    Memorable Scene
    The end title sequence re-tells the film in a pop-up book / shadow puppet show kind of style, which is awesome.

    Memorable Music
    The film has a great, fun score by Thomas Newman. The downside to it is you can hear the style bleed in to other, less appropriate work, like Skyfall.

    Technical Wizardry
    The entire film was shot on soundstages, including exterior scenes, utilising forced perspective and matte paintings, as well as greenscreen. No doubt that helped create its surreal, fantastical, timeless style. Indeed, the whole thing looks great, with superb gothic/steampunk-inspired design work across the board (and all of it Oscar nominated). If you want to be critical I suppose you could call it “Burtonesque”, but if it works… Plus, it was shot by Emmanuel “three time Oscar winner” Lubezki, so you know that’s good.

    Truly Special Effect
    Baby Sunny was largely played by a pair of twins, but certain sequences that were either dangerous or required specific actions necessitated the use of various effects techniques. Several scenes were created with an entirely CGI Sunny (motion captured from the animation supervisor’s own baby daughter); some shots of her talking have the lower part of her face replaced with a virtual version; and they built an animatronic baby, too.

    Making of
    Olaf: “I must say, you are a gloomy looking bunch. Why so glum?”
    Klaus: “Our parents just died.”
    Olaf: “Ah yes, of course. How very, very awful. Wait! Let me do that one more time. Give me the line again! Quickly, while it’s fresh in my mind!”
    That’s Carrey genuinely asking for the line again, in character. Director Brad Silberling liked the moment so much he kept it in the film.

    Next time…
    Although plans for a sequel and/or sequels were mooted, the kids long ago aged out of such things. Instead, the books are being re-adapted as a Netflix series, starring the legen- (wait for it) -dary Neil Patrick Harris as Olaf and with Patrick Warburton narrating. It’s being produced/directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who Handler Snicket had originally developed this film adaptation for. An eight-episode first season is due later this year. Personally, I’m quite excited for it.

    1 Oscar (Makeup)
    3 Oscar nominations (Score, Art Direction, Costume Design)
    2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Make-Up)
    1 Teen Choice Award (Choice Movie Bad Guy)
    2 Teen Choice nominations (including Choice Movie Liar)

    What the Critics Said
    “As the title suggests, Unfortunate Events belongs to the grim but vital strain of children’s literature in which children suffer terribly, parents and kindly adults have the same life expectancy as villains in action movies, and courage and ingenuity are all that keep kids alive. […] At its best, A Series Of Unfortunate Events is the stuff nightmares are made of, a sick joke of a film that realizes the best children’s entertainment doesn’t hide from the bleaker side of life, but plunges into the void and respects kids enough to assume they can handle it.” — Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club

    Score: 72%

    What the Public Say
    “While there are certainly dark currents under the surface of this fantasy, the director Brad Silberling doesn’t let them overtake the film. Yes, bad things happen—people die and children are in jeopardy. But there’s a dry wit that balances out and also a sense of fun in how the kids use their abilities to discover a new way to survive whatever comes next. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a strange, dark film, and I recommend it for being just that.” — Tanner Smith, Smith’s Verdict


    I’ve never read A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I get the impression some of its fans aren’t too enamoured with this film adaptation and its changes. As a movie in its own right, however, it’s a clever, witty, gothic adventure… for kids! Jim Carrey is on fine form as the evil Count Olaf, there’s quality support from some recognisable thesps in guest-star-level roles, the kids are a likeable bunch, and baby Sunny’s subtitled observations are frequently the highlight. Some reviews describe it as “superficial” or a “pantomime”, but even if it is, it’s devilishly entertaining.

    #51 will be… professional.

    The Cable Guy (1996)

    2008 #79
    Ben Stiller | 88 mins | download | 12 / PG-13

    The Cable GuyThe best thing I have to say about The Cable Guy is that the opening titles were very well done.

    The second-best thing I have to say is that a subplot featuring director Ben Stiller as a faded-child-star twin-killer is very neatly integrated into the film, seeming utterly pointless until it has a near-vital role in the climax. That’s a pleasing piece of writing/editing right there. Unfortunately, the point this seems to be aiming at — that TV rules our life too much, that we’re too addicted to it, etc etc — is not only old hat, but also rendered meaningless in this instance by the lack of impact: TV goes off for the night, and one guy picks up a book. Oh, wow. And to top it off, thanks to an unnecessary final beat, it seems Jim Carrey’s titular character hasn’t actually learnt the lesson we thought he had.

    Incidentally, The Cable Guy is a comedy, though at times it seems to wish you’d forget that so it could be a psychological stalker thriller. Perhaps that’s what it had wanted to be — for one thing, there are surprisingly accurate predictions for the future of telecommunications, although their coming true may simply have killed another joke (“play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam!”) — until someone realised the idea was too silly to be taken completely seriously. How funny you find the end product will depend on whether you like the style of comedy Carrey employed in the early & mid-’90s, and whether you can stomach pointless asides that don’t do anything for the plot (final act freaky nightmare, step forward). There’s little else to engage interest — Matthew Broderick’s pseudo-protagonist is, perhaps, too nice and too eager to please, and the go-nowhere romantic subplot — his main action aside from being Carrey’s straight man — has all the depth and shape of something from a cookie cutter.

    More fun than the jokes, actually, is playing Spot The Pre-Fame Comedy Star. Eyes open for young-looking turns from (in ease-of-identification order) Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Janeane Garofalo, and Kyle Gass. And Eric Roberts randomly shows his face too, not that that’s relevant to anything.

    The Cable Guy is rated 12, or PG-13 in the US, which may also be the last ages you’d enjoy it at.

    2 out of 5

    In case anyone’s wondering what’s happened to #77 & #78… Despite spending 23 months carefully posting reviews in order (well, the first two months are actually a bit of a muddle), it’s now December and I’m a few behind, so I’ve decided to throw numerical sequence to the wind and just post reviews as & when I get round to completing them. The main reason for this is to help drive things forward so that I can actually end 2008’s posting by December 31st, rather than having it drag on into 2009 and overlap with Year 3. I’m sure no one will really mind. Or care.