Review: The LEGO Batman Movie

Director: Chris McKay
Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Producers: Christopher Miller, Dan Lin, Phil Lord
Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 104 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found at Film Pulse

 


My apprehension toward spin-offs and my love of (nearly) everything Batman proved to be at odds with one another going into the kinetic The Lego Batman Movie, resulting in cautious optimism about an entire film based on the brick version of one of DC’s most popular heroes and one of The Lego Movie’s most humorous characters.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its predecessor, delivering a hilarious deconstruction of the Batman mythos while telling an action-packed and surprisingly heartwarming story. Will Arnett reprises his role voicing the caped crusader whose self-inflicted isolation starts to get the best of him, resulting in The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) rejecting his lack of emotional attachment by hatching a plan to unleash a bevy of pop culture villains on Gotham City in an act of defiance.

This plan is the result of an explosive opening action sequence involving Batman once again foiling The Joker’s plot to take Gotham, ending in a brief exchange wherein Batman professes to The Joker that he doesn’t care about him or anyone else for that matter, and he doesn’t recognize him as a worthy adversary.
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Review: The Wailing

Director: Hong-jin Na
Screenplay: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Do-won Kwak, Jun Kunimura, Jung-min Hwang, Woo-hee Chun, Hwan-hee Kim
Country: South Korea, USA
Running Time: 156 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


I caught Hong-jin Na’s debut feature The Chaser at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2008 and was very impressed. He followed that up with The Yellow Sea in 2010 and although I had a couple of issues with it (my review can be found here: http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2011/10/the-yellow-sea/), I still thought it was exceptionally well made. So when his next film, The Wailing finally emerged, it sat high on my wish list of films to see. Luckily for me a screener link was sent my way to review the film, so I can let you all know whether it met my high expectations.

Before I do that though, let me tell you more about the film. The Wailing sees a rural South Korean village plagued by violent murders committed by villagers who seem to have turned savage. Incompetent local cop Jong-goo (Do-won Kwak) tries to get to the bottom of what’s causing his neighbours to lose their minds. The authorities think it’s a dodgy mushroom tonic being sold, but Jong-goo and several other locals suspect a mysterious Japanese man living in the woods has something to do with it. When Jong-goo’s young daughter (Hwan-hee Kim) becomes inflicted by the psychosis and dark supernatural forces seem to be to blame, he enlists the help of a shaman (Jung-min Hwang) to eradicate the problem. This only makes things worse though as the bodies begin to pile up and nobody knows who’s to blame or who they can trust.

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Blu-Ray Review: John Carpenter’s Vampires & Ghosts of Mars

I love John Carpenter. He makes the sort of quality genre movies I adore and is responsible for a number of my all time favourite films. However, even a fan like me can’t deny his career went off the rails further down the line. The 80’s were a little wobbly with cast-iron classics like The Thing rubbing shoulders with enjoyable but flawed films like Prince of Darkness and Christine. Then in the 90’s things really started to go wrong. In the Mouth of Madness aside, which is very good, his output in the decade was not great and his output slowed down after that. Since the turn of the millennium he’s only directed two features and a couple of episodes of Masters of Horror. He is advancing in years so maybe he’s just too old to put the legwork in to making movies anymore, but you get the feeling he maybe just ran out of creative steam after a while or couldn’t get to make what he wanted anymore.

So, it’s interesting (and brave) that the cool new kids on the UK physical media block, Indicator/Powerhouse Films, have decided to add two late-period Carpenter films to their early slate, Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Neither film has a great reputation, but, being a fan of the director, I was willing to give them a chance and took the plunge. The films are being released separately, but I figured I’d review them together for obvious reasons. My thoughts are below.

Vampires

Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Don Jakoby
Based on a Novel by: John Steakley
Starring: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith, Maximilian Schell, Tim Guinee
Country: USA, Japan
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 1998
BBFC Certificate: 18

What both of these films have in common is that they seemed to be jumping on a bandwagon when they were released. The film Vampires looks to be cashing in on is From Dusk Till Dawn. Like Robert Rodriguez’ film, it roughs up the vampire myth and sets it in the American desert (New Mexico here instead of Texas and Mexico in the earlier film). Jack Crow (James Woods) heads a team of hard-drinking tough guys, commissioned by the Catholic church to kill vampires who are quietly terrorising the world, little known to the general public. When all but one (Anthony Montoya – played by Daniel Baldwin) of Crow’s crew are massacred by the super-powerful master vampire Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), he sets out to get revenge, as well as to stop Valek retrieving an ancient Catholic relic that’s set to give him the power to be immune to sunlight.

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Review: Gold

Are you old enough to recall Bre-X? If not, Stephen Gaghan’s Gold is a fanciful, fictional retelling of a story about Wall Street greed and hubris that is happy to take the cautionary tale and gild it with Hollywood glitz. Investment bankers taking wild speculative gambles, the roller coaster of unsupervised capitalism; one might ask incredulously, what could possibly go wrong?

In the vein of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short, Gold charts the progress of a mining company that hits the largest gold strike in the 20th century, deep in the jungles of Indonesia. More so, it is an opportunity for Matthew McConaughey to play an oily and charismatic slob, Kenny Wells, complete with snaggle-tooth, bald pate and pot belly.

We see Wells, early on in the picture, crudely romancing his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), unrecognizable with a late 1980s perm and a push-up bra, a la Erin Brockovich, presenting her with expensive baubles and cheap (but earnest) philosophy in his father’s office. He takes the meeting with his dad (Craig T. Nelson) who offers the moral of the film and the modern prospecting business: “I don’t have to do this, I get to do this.”

Some years later, the younger American prospector-dreamer has brought his father’s company to a pretty low point. In a Hail Mary pass, he liquidates his meager assets to team up with sexy geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez) on a jungle prospecting adventure.

Watching Ramírez unconsciously (effortlessly) channel Oliver Reed up against the backdrop of Robert Elswit’s superb 35mm cinematography — albeit, Thailand dubiously subbing in for Indonesia — trumps the Wall Street shenanigans of the film. The bromance is more compelling than the business at hand, but the film doubles down on the conference rooms and Waldorf ballrooms that occupy vast swathes of its two-hour running time.

The local peasantry have been panning the Busang River in Borneo for thousands of years, but it is Wells and Acosta that come in with a modern engineering approach and take a plethora of core-samples in the nearby mountains. When the results indicate that the region contains rich deposits of gold, the madness truly begins. Word in the financial district that the Wells’ company is, quite literally, sitting on a gold mine, prompts everyone from billionaire bankers (such as Bruce Greenwood, stealing his all-too-brief scenes) to Indonesian dictators to the mainstream media to want a piece of the action.

Wells lets his ego and his natural showmanship fan the flames before, well, you might expect that things go a bit off the rails. Wells’ mantra vacillates between the whimsical, ‘a bird without feet sleeps on the wind’ and the far more pragmatic, ‘you land where you are stuck.’

He fights with on-again, off-again Kay, who is fine with being assistant manager at a furniture store, while Kenny rides the rollercoaster. The mythology of the ‘big American vision’ takes a pounding, but we all learn something, a canard favoured by M. Night, Mamet, and of gamblers everywhere: ‘The last card you turn over is the only one that matters.’

If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Review: 20th Century Women

Director: Mike Mills (Thumbsucker, Beginners)
Writer: Mike Mills
Producers: Anne Carey, Megan Ellison, Youree Henley
Starring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Alison Elliott
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 119 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


MMike Mills has really found his groove as a filmmaker by mining his personal life in order to make semi-autobiographical love letters to each of his parents. His previous film, 2011’s Beginners, explored the many emotions that resulted when his father came out of the closet near the end of his life after decades of being married to his mother. The result was a tender, incredibly intimate portrait that is frankly one of my favorite films of all-time. His follow up, 20th Century Women, focuses on a woman very much inspired by his own mother, and on the experience of growing up in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s, and it’s nearly as good. We all bring our own personal experiences into every film we see, or any work of art we explore really, and I have to say there’s something about what Mills has been doing with his two most recent pictures that strikes me on a profound level that no one else has really been able to tap into.

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Review: Split

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender)
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, M. Night Shyamalan, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 117 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


As someone who has always considered themselves a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, it’s been a hard time this past decade struggling to defend him as he pushed out one abominable piece of nonsense after another. Once a compelling and exciting director who merged twisty plotting and interesting characters with really dynamic and effective work behind the camera, the filmmaker had drunk his Kool-Aid to such an extent that he became a self-parody and it looked like there was no way he could crawl back out of the hole that he had dug himself. Even when his last picture, 2015’s found-footage The Visit, garnered some serious acclaim and plenty of boasts of a “return to form” for the director, I found myself as put off by his work as ever, so when the buzz was coming up positive for his latest, Split, I wasn’t holding my breath. Thankfully, I can finally say that I genuinely liked an M. Night Shyamalan movie again, even if Split doesn’t quite measure up to his finer earlier works. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining little piece of camp that isn’t afraid to lean into the inherent silliness of its premise, something which the horror/thriller genre could use some more of.

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Blu-Ray Review: El Sur

Director: Víctor Erice
Screenplay: Víctor Erice
Based on a Short Story by: Adelaida García Morales
Starring: Omero Antonutti, Sonsoles Aranguren, Icíar Bollaín
Country: Spain, France
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1983
BBFC Certificate: PG


I can remember seeing Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive crop up in a couple of ‘greatest films of all time’ lists back when I was first getting into films, so it was something I’ve long wanted to see. It never appeared on TV though and although it was released on DVD it was always very expensive so I never got around to buying it. The disc has since gone out of print so has become even more expensive and difficult to find. My desire to see the film hasn’t diminished and it’s remained high on my wish list, but no one seems to want to pick it up. Some sort of consolation has appeared though now as the BFI have decided to re-release Erice’s follow up, El Sur, on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK and offered me a screener to review. I must admit I hadn’t heard of it before receiving the press release, but I felt it was as close to watching Beehive as I could get without forking out a small fortune, so figured I’d give it a shot.

El Sur has the voice of Estrella (María Massip) tell us the story of her childhood, in particular her relationship with her father Agustín (Omero Antonutti) who disappeared from her life when she was 15. We spend most of the film in the late 1950’s when Estrella is 8 though (and played by Sonsoles Aranguren). At this time she adores her father. He’s an unusual man who practises divination, but, having grown up with this strange behaviour all her life, Estrella sees him as completely normal. As the flashbacks move forward we see Agustín grow more distant and haunted by the love of a former partner, but Estrella doesn’t understand what’s happening to him or how much he needs help. Only when she becomes a teenager (and played by Icíar Bollaín) does she seem to guess what went wrong and realise that even though he showed great love to her, he was never open or honest, so she never got to actually know him as a person or help him with his problems, to create a true bond between them.

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Review: The Founder

The evolving nature of the film biopic has recently become quite interesting to me. Insofar as Pablo Larraín’s Jackie is as much about Theodore H. White’s Life magazine article as it is about the iconic First Lady, so John Lee Hancock’s The Founder is as much about the process of business franchising across the United States in the 1950s as it is about the man who made McDonald’s the corporate empire it is today.

That is not to say that Michael Keaton’s performance as Ray Kroc, nor the delightful duo of John Caroll Lynch and Nick Offerman, who portray the McDonald brothers Mac and Dick (respectively), are not important or excellent. Of course they are. Kroc innovated the franchise model and was the driving force behind nationalizing fast food; for a while he was the richest man in America. The McDonald brothers innovated the process whereby cooking and serving burgers and fries was approached more like an industrial assembly-line than a kitchen; efficiency and repeatabilty are king.

By focusing on the minutiae of moving from a single, fresh-thinking restaurant to a nationwide, and eventually international, chain, Robert D. Seigel’s script elevates The Founder to a story about America as an idea and how that idea is expressed at a certain point in the nation’s history, akin to the way Easy Rider or Ace In The Hole or American Honey are fascinating inquiries into what, exactly is America in the late 1960s, the late 1940s or in the mid 2010s.

Sure, it is simple enough just to lob out a few ‘great cinema’ titles and call it a day, but it also becomes obvious that (particularly because I am Canadian) the very titles I choose from thousands of excellent movies about America, is more a reflection of what I think of the complex toffee-swirl of regions, ideals and flavours that is the United States.

The Founder is told from the perspective of Ray Kroc, the travelling salesman who took the idea of fast food, and brought essentially one restaurant in America to one (or more) restaurant in every town in America. At the outset of the film, in the early 1950s, Kroc is pitching high efficiency milk-shake machines to owners of drive-in restaurants, you know, the kind where the waitresses on roller-skates serve fries, ribs and shakes through the car windows of teenagers.

His smooth sales pitch, road-warrior attitude and collection of disturbingly garish neckties set the stage for the age-old rags to riches story, the one where elbow grease, gumption and a wee bit of luck realize the untapped potential of the individual. The rosy rural cinematography by John Schwartzman, who shot Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, and will soon be shooting Star Wars Episode IX, and the generic yet oddly satisfying soundtrack, courtesy Carter Burwell, both underscore the familiar nature of this story. Surprisingly, the execution is 180 degrees from any semblance of the direction of the movie.

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Blu-Ray Review: His Girl Friday & The Front Page: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection add the Hollywood comedy classic His Girl Friday to their UK catalogue. Not content with merely upgrading this old favourite for Blu-Ray, they’ve included the first film version of the play on which it was based, The Front Page, which was produced by Howard Hughes. I’ve included reviews of both films below.

I’m going to review the films in reverse chronological order as this is the order in which I watched them and, let’s be honest, His Girl Friday is the film most people will be buying the Blu-Ray for. The Front Page is even classed as a special feature on the box, which is quite surprising – it could have easily been marketed as a box-set as the older film deserves your full attention.

His Girl Friday

Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Charles Lederer
Based on a Play by: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Country: USA
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1940
BBFC Certificate: U (although the disc is rated 12)


We like to moan about remakes these days amidst nostalgia-tinted exclamations that “they don’t make them like they used to”, but the Hollywood system was even more rigid and dominating back in the ‘good old days’ than it is now. There were plenty of remakes, sequels, knock-offs and cash-ins in the golden age (roughly 1930-59). It’s just that we only remember the good (or at least most popular) films several decades on. That’s not to say none of the remakes or sequels were any good though. A number of films now regarded as classics were remakes. Ben Hur had already been made in the 20’s before the hugely successful 1959 version came out for instance. Alfred Hitchock even remade one of his own films when he chose to update The Man Who Knew Too Much in Hollywood in 1956, using his British 1934 film of the same name as a template (which is the better version is up for debate on this though). One classic I didn’t realise was a remake until recently is His Girl Friday. Long considered one of the greatest Hollywood comedies of the era, it was based on a popular Broadway play that had already been produced by Howard Hughes almost 10 years previously as The Front Page (which was also the title of the play). The original story and most of the dialogue was kept in tact, but the most notable difference was that Howard Hawks’ 1940 version swapped the gender of the film’s protagonist.

So the male lead Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson from The Front Page became the female Hildegaard ‘Hildy’ Johnson (Rosalind Russell) in His Girl Friday. The film sees her come back to the newspaper office where she used to work as a reporter to tell her boss and former husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant) that’s she’s leaving town to get married to her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – the gender of this role was reversed too of course – the early 30’s weren’t ready for same-sex marriage stories yet) and won’t be returning. Burns wants her back professionally and personally though, so schemes to give her a taste of a hot story breaking in town. Initially refusing, Hildy can’t resist after a while and gets drawn deeper into the political mess surrounding the proposed hanging of a supposed ‘commie’ who shot a police officer. She desperately tries to get the story tied up before her train is due to take her, her fiancée and mother-in-law to a new life, but juicy nuggets keep dropping in her lap and Burns tries every trick in the book to keep her hooked.

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