Sunday, 22 May 2022

Review: Popeye

Cert: U / 113 mins*1 / Dir. Robert Altman / Trailer

Roiling clouds conspire to occlude an azure sky, the first and last ray of hope we'll see until the house lights rise at the end of our story. Dread gathers as we skim slowly across a darkening sea, its leaden surface undulating softly under the gathering storm. A lone figure is spotted heaving against the waves in a wooden rowing boat. How he got here, we will never learn.

A low, tinny bell sounds from a wooden church silhouetted on a clifftop as the mariner is about to reach land. It is revealed that everything we have seen so far has been from this out-cropping, and we are the inhabitants of Sweethaven, a decaying fishing port worn to the bone by harsh years on the rocky coastline. We are trapped here. We belong here. We are complicit in all that is about to happen. As the sun rises wanly, villagers begin their day shambling through the near-ruins they call home with a moaning chorus almost Gregorian in its nature; stripped of deific adoration, with existential fear in its place.

Lashing the craft to a crumbling jetty, the helmsman of the rowing boat hoists himself painfully onto the boardwalk, shedding a stained, black coverall to reveal his form to the suspicious, peering crowd as it gathers. Hunched, limping and hideously deformed in a tattered mockery of naval attire, the sailor squints through his single eye at the peasants come to inspect this intrusion into their existence. Although nothing is said, one question is the only clear thing in the fetid air: has he been expected..?

This arresting scene opens Robert Altman's cinematic interpretation of Popeye, and the director is certainly best placed to handle this questing exploration of netherworld vengeance and mythological symbolism after he effortlessly entwined the horrors of warfare on and insanity with 1970's M*A*S*H (later retooled as a televisual comedy series, to poorer effect).

E.C.Segar's character of Popeye debuted in printed-form in 1929 of course, only a year after the publication of H.P. Lovecraft's The Call Of Cthulhu. Perhaps the only surprising thing about the link between Lovecraft and Segar's eldritch dyad is that it would take half a century to combine them on film.

The muttering sailor hates this village, and he is certain the feeling is mutual. The freakish townsfolk seem hell bent on their conflicting aims of refusing to let him integrate and refusing to let him leave. That they are under a spell of fear cast by their unseen patriarch is obvious, but there is something else that he cannot yet put his finger on. The fact that his time here has felt hazy, governed by dream-logic, is not helping. He remembers nothing of his life before Sweethaven. Popeye has already beaten a handful of yobs to a pulp in the tavern, only to find them there the next day as if the fracas had never occurred. Time collapses here.

Perhaps the woman is the key to all this. Shrill, vindictive and more highly strung than even the rest of the villagers - and equally as cursed with the batrachian features of the Deep Ones - Olive is nonetheless different. Popeye doubts she knows why this is, but even if she cannot provide the answers he seeks, she can probably lead him to them...

Altman's direction has aged like a fine wine as his cast shamble about the set hollow-eyed, brimming with unearthly menace. Happy to go for unsettling rather than outright terrifying, watching this in the comparative light of the 21st century assures an audience that his work here often achieves both ambient aims simultaneously. The story's timeless but resolutely vintage setting combines insularity and claustrophobia, like Bugsy Malone meets Nightbreed.

As Popeye becomes embroiled with the denizens of Sweethaven - a copyright-evading cypher for Innsmouth if ever there was one - his spiralling lack of focus becomes our own. The quest for victory becomes all even as the protagonist loses all sight of what the victory will look like. Lost in Popeye's own nightmare, Altman's work truly is the artistic culmination of Greek tragedy, Kubrickian nihilism and visceral Cronenbergian terror.

Having bested the locals, their pathetic prize fighter 'Ox Heart' and even the Commodore's personal attack-dog Bluto, the sailor finally stands in simmering silence, eye-to-eye with the reclusive puppet master himself. The broken, grizzled, mocking and resourcefully spiteful figure he sees does not surprise him. Popeye beholds a vision of himself, of what he could be if he chooses this destiny. Stripped of weakness, of doubt, of cumbersome humanity. Drowning in fire; Dagon incarnate. And then he realises there is no choice.

The gruelling journey so far - every swing, punch, duck and jab - has not been a test to destroy the mariner, but to prove his worth. He was not sent here to save Sweethaven, but to rule it. The Commodore is the sailor's father, just as The Sweet Pea is his son. They always were; they always will be. The circle is complete. Again. Popeye is home and the madness from the sea reclaims the land.

Hail to the king, baby...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, everything up there? That's a sort of sarcasm. While there is some dark potential here, Popeye is unequivocally crap.)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which are swearier and with The Drink involved, here's a podcast version you might be interested in:

*1 The regular, BBFC-rated version of this film is 92 minutes. There are two separate versions uploaded to YouTube which bear out this timing, and yet for the Peggy Mount Calamity Hour podcast (the precise and only reason this abomination was watched), we managed to endure the Blu-ray anniversary cut, which was somehow twenty minutes longer. For the love of god...[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Review: The Spaceman and King Arthur

The Spaceman and King Arthur
Cert: U / 93 mins / Dir. Russ Mayberry / Trailer

Although the company has been an entertainment behemoth almost from the point of its creation, there was a long old time when Disney's live-action output was generally less than stellar, and here we take a walk back to its tackling of a much older subject-matter which, somewhat ironically, lends itself more toward animation.

Landing in UK cinemas in the summer of 1979, Russ Mayberry's historical farce King Arthur and The Spaceman (or Unidentified Flying Oddball in some overseas territories and A Spaceman In King Arthur's Court in others) is based on the similarly-monikered 1889 novel by Mark Twain, and stars Dennis Dugan as NASA boffin Tom Trimble. Our hero is instrumental in his employer's attempts to build a machine for faster-than-light travel, and constructs an android facsimile of himself (so also played by Dugan) to pilot the vessel on its thirty year exploratory journey. True to form for this sort of thing, an accident during a lightning storm sees the pair inadvertently jetted out of the earth's atmosphere and back in time.

Landing in England during the reign of King Arthur in 508AD, Trimble has to make sense of his surroundings, repair his spacecraft, avoid being executed as a heretic and try and work out a way to get home...


Long story short, I thoroughly enjoyed this when I was six years old. That I didn't enjoy it quite as much 43 years later should perhaps come as no surprise, although whether that's down the difference in chronological age or the overall standard of the cinematic landscape is a point for some debate. I'd be surprised if The Spaceman made 2022's youngsters want to conduct their own percussion-based metallurgical experimentation, anyway.

From the kooky central plot-conceit to the zeitgeist-capturing methodology of space travel and an A-list comedy cast, there are few things to dislike going into the film. It's just... not all it could (or should) be. The early segments in NASA's headquarters channel Kubrick's 2001 rather than the euphorically popular Star Wars. But that's okay, Disney scratched that itch in the same year with The Black Hole. And if this suggests an altogether more scientific approach, the film's title sequence (featuring the the most mechanical (pun intended) construction of an android ever depicted) quickly assures the audience that Facts™ may be referenced here but certainly won't be relied upon.

The model and effects-work looks deliciously low-tech (especially the crane-wires which are visible suspending Trimble's jet-pack-chair during the final battle), and it's important to remember that even in 1979 this was intended to be slightly crap. The cheesiness is a feature, not a bug. However...


With 'mild-mannered' heroism in full force, Dennis Dugan does well in terms of his dual roles (and he's certainly the cast member putting in the most effort), but this is utilised nowhere near enough. The potential for mistaken identity is a staple of the farce genre, and while his characters' identical looks are a plot device for one sequence, there's no real comedic payoff. The trouble with his low-key (or if you like, 'tempered') performance is that he risks being overshadowed by the rest of the cast.

Because once we get to England (specifically, Alnwick Castle and Pinewood Studios standing in for Camelot), the players are plucked from the British light entertainment royalty of the time. As a result, the film is full of masterfully performed light deadpan, and the whole thing comes across as a Carry On film but without the smut. Unfortunately, it's also a Carry On film but without the jokes. This is more the fault of Don Tait's script than Russ Mayberry's direction, but the pair work hand-in-hand to ensure that comedy can travel through the cosmos but has its traditional difficulty crossing the pond.

Ron Moody and Jim Dale chew the scenery as Merlin and the no-good Sir Mordred, whereas Kenneth More, John Le Mesurier and Rodney Bewes effectively just turn up and engage autopilot as King Arthur, Sir Gawain and Clarence the serf (although it should be pointed out that Bewes is the only one adopting medieval speech patterns. It's for comedic effect rather than any sense of historial accuracy, but fair play to him). And that autopilot is as accomplished as one would hope, but without solid material it counts for little. Sheila White spends the entire film simpering as Alisande the peasant with no forceful performances to bounce-off, and ends up as the most irritating thing about it as a result.


Paul Beeson's cinematography is functional in the interior shots but manages to make an actual eleventh-century castle feel like a hastily constructed film set. And it seems that the only person having more fun here than Jim Dale is composer Ron Goodwin, his score grandiose and earnest in all the right places, clearly enjoying the medieval pageantry rather than any futuristic soundscape.

The end result is that The Spaceman spends most of its run-time feeling like it's about to really get going, and then you notice there's only ten minutes left on the clock and this is it. Considering how outlandish the general premise is and the bold approach to just getting the setup done in the first five minutes, The Spaceman and King Arthur is remarkably boring.

Screen-fantasy has made huge leaps over the last forty years, and if any story idea is ripe for a smart, odd-couple / fish-out-of-water time-travel comedy, then it's A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It would be good to see this re-done well. Although much like Sir Mordred's self-absorbed idea of incinerating an astronaut in an asbestos spacesuit, the problem with this film was never in the idea but the execution...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which are swearier and with The Drink involved, here's a podcast version you might be interested in:

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Review: Belfast

Cert: 12A / 98 mins / Dir. Kenneth Branagh / Trailer

A quasi-memoir from writer-director Kenneth Branagh, Belfast centres around 9yr old Buddy (Jude Hill), a young resident of the eponymous city at the start of the troubles in the summer of 1969*1. Living with his family, Jude has to juggle the domestic strains of urban prepubescence with a rising tide of political violence on the streets, as communities are literally torn apart in an escalating series of clashes.

Presented in high-contrast monochrome (with the exception of a largely needless present day fraction of a framing device which looks like it's gone through Instagram*2), Belfast is a fine-looking film, initially at least. While cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos captures some striking and moody imagery, it soon becomes apparent that the black-and-white filter is doing all the heavy lifting in assuring the audience that this took place In The Past. Because as meticulous as the wardrobe and set-dressing departments have been, the look of the film feels slightly exaggerated in its period detail, like an overdone cosplay or episode of Life On Mars. Not helping this is the music. Van Morrison's incidental work is fine, but there are needle-drops in every second scene, like Kenneth's got his eye on three soundtrack albums before the film even hits Netflix. A bizarre Commitments-lite moment in the third act blurs the lines of age-distorted reality.


What's more of a problem however, is the director not quite knowing what type of film he wants to make. Belfast is an uneven mix of a bittersweet, slightly mawkish childhood tale of crumbling innocence in the days before coming of age, and a socially-charged drama where there are no right answers but plenty of wrong choices. To be blunt, Branagh's not quite the filmmaker to bridge the two, and the end result is depressing without being especially gritty; heartfelt without being particularly uplifting. While he doesn't hold back on getting up-close to the era's atrocities, the 12A certificate can't quite do justice (if that's the word) to the outrage and panic the audience feel in watching the scenes of violence. They're done well but feel like they're from another film altogether, and presented as as a recurring irritant rather than a rising tide.

In terms of performance, the central figure is of course Jude Hill. While he certainly shows a lot of promise, the young actor is not yet strong enough to pull together the whole film, and although Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe put in great turns as his parents, they seem to do this around Jude rather than with him. He does get a handful of great scenes with Ciarán Hinds as his grandfather though, and you suspect this is where the real heart of the film lies (certainly the wisdom), but there isn't enough of the interplay to make it a defining feature. Judi Dench is also in the film*3.

Too fluffy to be a real hand-wringing awards-nudger*5, not quirky enough to go full Yellow Poster™, Belfast is an odd and unsatisfyingly unsatisfying experience. The film's clearly been made with a lot of love, but that's not enough. The message gets lost in the confusion.

Unless that is the message..?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 This film could have been a Bryan Adams jukebox musical instead, I'll leave you to think about that. [ BACK ]

*2 And I say this as someone who's a fan of Instagram, but still. [ BACK ]

*3 Look I love Dench as much as anybody, the very definition of A National Treasure™, but her scenes seem to have been filmed during pre-production when Judi was still trying to decide if her accent should be Belfast, Byker or Bombay*4... [ BACK ]

*4 Yes I know it's Mumbai now, but the film's set in 1969 and it was Bombay then. Plus alliteration, y'know? [ BACK ]

*5 Although I'm sure it'll pick something up. It'll probably land Best Flick at the BAFTAs now, if only to make my review look even more redundant. That's precisely the kind of thing they do over there... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

Review: Parallel Mothers / Madres Paralelas

Parallel Mothers / Madres Paralelas
Cert: 15 / 123 mins / Dir. Pedro Almodóvar / Trailer

Always something to look forward to, Parallel Mothers is the new film from writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, produced in his native Spanish. It follows successful photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz), who is trying to uncover the disappearance (ie murder) of her grandfather during the Francoist dictatorship. When she meets clinical pathologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who says he'd be delighted to help, the two hit it off very well and before long Janis is pregnant. In hospital she meets fellow mother-to-be Ana (Milena Smit). After the women give birth on the same day, the lives of the three remain intertwined in ways that they could not have foreseen.

Although nowhere near as Worthy™ as much of the fare pushed toward cinemas right before awards-season, it has to be said that Parallel Mothers is very much A January Film; that unusual breed of acutely interesting cinema which distributors have no real idea how to market to a mass audience. That said, the ideas it plays with are also not as tightly wound as Almodóvar's other recent work, and therein lies the quandary...


The plot surrounding Janis's grandfather and Spain's Association For The Recovery Of National Memory is where the real social bite of the film lies, as anger and grief carry on nationwide over entire generations. It's a storyline which is larger than any one character here, and is indeed shown to be so. As someone bimbling along in the UK I had little idea of the issues raised in the film and none at all that it's such a cultural raw nerve. Pedro Almodóvar's ability in raising awareness of this in such a human way is where his skills lie as a storyteller.

The other strand, the one which covers the idea of parallel mothers in a more literal sense, is also involving on an intellectual level; happy to raise ethical conundrums and show how the characters react to them, while largely refraining from judgement. Without going too far into spoiler territory, this involves infants being inadvertently swapped at birth (it goes far deeper, but that's for the film itself to unravel). And without wanting to be too immediately damning, this half of the film feels a bit like a daytime soap opera*1, a farce without any jokes. It's probably the best looking soap I've ever seen, but still. This (lengthy) section is a great character study looking for somewhere to actually go. When the tension finally breaks, it does so with restraint and no definite sense of closure, which might be the director's best touch for it.


The film is, as noted, beautifully photographed by José Luis Alcaine, with vibrant colours throughout and an array of small interior scenes which only feel claustrophobic when they're intended to. Alberto Iglesias' score is well crafted but comes off as slightly intrusive, gliding with Hitchcockian menace over even the most incidental conversations, to the point where it loses some impact in scenes of genuine intrigue. And of course under this director's eye the performances are flawless, with Cruz and Smit carrying the film effortlessly, but supported by a cast who add depth without overcrowding the screenplay.

The problem is that the two narrative halves aren't parallel. They're barely even mixed. And me calling them halves implies they're around the same size. Janis' family history is introduced in the first act (since it's how she meets Arturo, this is necessary), and is then barely mentioned until the last 25 minutes of the movie. At which point, the preceding hour-and-a-half is essentially forgotten about (despite involving the same three characters still coming down from what should be one of the most emotionally turbulent times of their lives) as all hands go toward hoisting the other set of sails. For a film which does both things relatively well in isolation, this feels infuriatingly sloppy, like two separate paintings joined with gaffer tape.

Almodóvar's films, with their upfront examination of distinctly Spanish topics, can initially feel a little alienating for viewers in other countries, but his work in bringing these to international audiences in such a crystallised way is to be admired. It's just a shame that this film hadn't been wholly based on the broader topic, which is clearly so important. It certainly seems that the dominant, more domestic storyline could have been covered more completely (if probably more mawkishly) by many other directors.

After the boldly introspective Pain & Glory, perhaps I'd expected a film with a stronger central focus. But then, who can focus properly in 2022? But hey, Pedro is the writer and the director here, this is definitely the film he wanted to make and I respect that.

Madres Paralelas is never less than inherently watchable, I just wish I'd enjoyed it more...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Exacerbating this further is the combination of melodramatic stare-offs throughout the drama, combined with the rapid-fire Spanish dialogue which punctuates them. We don't even get Spanish telenovellas in this country (and this is set in actual-Spain, not Mexico), but that's what it began to seem like. Admittedly this says more about my own perceptions than it does the film, but the feeling remains. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.