Saturday 31 December 2022

2022: Another Year In (Another Lack Of) Review

Ugh. 2022.
The apparent knock-on of The Dark Times is that global film production is still in absolute flux, thanks in no small part to online-streaming having knocked distribution into a cocked hat. I'm not saying that all the best stuff's going direct to the small screen, because from my (admittedly undocumented) experience, that's clearly not the case either.

My year began with good intentions of course, as most do. The usual ongoing cinema-reviews were going to be supplemented with catch-up pieces from home, and I'd even pick back up on my list of Can't Believe I Haven't Seen classics. Didn't fucking happen of course, since February's customary despondency fell in lockstep with the frankly 'challenging' standard of newly-released entertainment, with studios veering wildly between 'brainless crowd pleaser for crowds which still aren't there' and 'we're putting this out because even Netflix wasn't interested in throwing money into promoting it as new'.

It's not that all new films are crap.
I'm saying that seem to I care far less about them either way.

That said, my creative energies have been diverted a little (as you are possibly aware from the social-feeds of this site). The retro-TV podcast which I co-host goes from strength to strength, and a short sub-series on movies back in May/June created crossover-posts where I'd write here about them as well. Whereas the audio shows lovingly take the piss out of these celluloid gems, the written versions re-imagine them in a far darker light.

But I digress. This post is is a belated catchup on what I actually watched at the cinema. I only clocked 50 visits this year, the least number of times I've been since 2010. And hand-on-heart, this isn't just down to the choice on offer; I have resolutely refused to spend time sitting in front of movies which did not appeal from their trailers - precisely the kind of movies I'd previously have gone to see as a matter of course. If a trailer doesn't do the job of selling the film to me (the only job it has), I very much doubt I'd be surprised by the final product. Because of this, there's nothing below about Avatar, Uncharted, Three Thousand Years Of Longing, Black Adam, Secrets Of Dumbledore, Rise of Gru, Mrs Harris Going To Paris, Morbius, Strange World, Prey For The Devil and definitely nothing on the cultural fucking atrocity that appeared to be Ticket To Paradise. These might all be marvellous of course, it's my loss in not knowing.

Anyway, here's what I managed to get myself to the pictures for, that I didn't write about here...


Licorice Pizza
Paul Thomas Anderson, 128m
I'm not a scholar of PTA, so the only thing I was impressed with here was his minute attention to detailing the most unlikable characters at the centre of his own film. Technically exquisite, emotionally excruciating...

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo del Toro, 150m
Like a beautifully-filmed episode of Hustle where there's no intricate twist anywhere to be found. Blanchett's femme-fatale character is so overplayed she's basically a cartoon. GDT is better than this.

Death On The Nile
Kenneth Branagh, 121m
Okay this was always going to be a hard-sell with me as I adore both the Ustinov and Suchet versions, but Branagh ditches half the characters, does nothing with the rest and assembles a cast so bland to tell the story that the world would be a better place if he just hadn't bothered. I mean, who hires French & Saunders and then utterly wastes having French & Saunders on-set? And the moustache doesn't need an origins-flashback, you tool.

The Batman
Matt Reeves, 176m
Very decent stuff. Not my sandpit to play in, but I enjoyed this thoroughly. Loved the performances, and only felt let down by the simplistic pay-off to Riddler's character arc and the screenwriting genius of protecting Gotham's city folk from flooding by herding them into a building which is beneath ground-level. This film works best as a one-off, standalone snapshot, so naturally DC are going to make more...

Phantom Of The Open
Craig Roberts, 102m
Sunday afternoon film. Great cast, decent scripting and solid performances, but can't overcome the hurdle of its own tweeness.

The Duke
Roger Michell, 95m
Was on standby for eye-rolling levels of cinematic saccharine, but found this surprisingly enjoyable due to it having a properly crafted storyline.

The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent
Tom Gormican, 107m
If you think the idea of Nicholas Cage playing Nicholas Cage in a movie about Nicholas Cage is exciting, innovative or hilarious, you are going to love this movie. I mean it's basically fine, but the central conceit wears thin pretty quickly, and after that it's just another Ferrell/Wahlberg action comedy with a different label. Consistently entertaining, but far too in love with itself.

Operation Mincemeat
John Madden, 122m
A timely reminder for us here in Blighty that the winning team in the Second World War achieved victory despite having some unlikable arseholes in its ranks, not because of that. Madden's film is too playfully throwaway for Saturday night historical-drama territory and too introverted and acidic for Sunday afternoons. Not a total loss, but the cast are lost with a script still in its second-draft.

The Lost City
Aaron Nee, 112m
An all-star action rom-com, written in caps-lock and painted in neon? Yeah, I was surprised I loved it as well. The cast are committed, this never takes itself seriously and is a better film for that. An unexpected highlight of the year.

The Northman
Robert Eggers, 131m
Takes itself too seriously. Visually dark and tonally linear. Eggers is better than this (The VVitch, The Lighthouse), although I suspect his cast really aren't...

Sonic The Hedgehog 2
Jeff Fowler, 122m
Like a lot of movies, this sequel could never re-capture what made its predecessor a pleasant, lightning-in-a-bottle surprise. It's fine; check-the-boxes, straight-to-video fare which is only intended for an audience who are into spotting Easter-eggs over an actual story...

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
Sam Raimi, 121m
The closest the MCU have/will come to making an outright horror flick. There are pacing, plotting and performance issues and I loved this anyway. Certainly the best it could possibly be without Scott Derrickson at the helm, but a beautiful continuation of his 2016 work.

Everything Everywhere All At Once
Daniels, 139m
Not feeling the love for this. Some moments of audience-baiting genius (subtitled rocks), but spends far too much time being pleased with itself for an arthouse mashup of Brazil and Jet Li's The One...

Alex Garland, 100m
Nice filmmaking, shame about the story. The performances and visual crafting here are outright beautiful, just don't expect the screenplay to have any meaning other than what's ham-fistedly reeled out in its final moments.

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
Sam Raimi, 121m
Back to this one for a second-pass (a rarity this year), revelling in Raimi's revelling in the undead.

The Black Phone
Scott Derrickson, 99m
Very strong performances (this, from someone who usually detests Ethan Hawke) and visual design, and a weirdly flawed narrative where one half of it is compelling and the other is utterly needless other than changing the scenery. Should probably have written about this because I have issues with the aspects which are holding back what should be a great movie. Is this really what Derrickson bailed out of Doctor Strange for..?

Thor: Love & Thunder
Taika Waititi, 114m
Despite the chronic mis-casting of Christian Bale bringing DC energy to a Marvel character and wondering why his performance falls flat on its arse, I absolutely loved this. Okay it hasn't got the flow of Ragnarok, but I don't think anyone realistically expected it to. And yet I didn't go back and see this again during its run, unheard of for Legacy-Marvel. Suspect that has more to do with me in 2022 than the film, though.

Bullet Train
David Leitch, 121m
Film of the year, there I said it. It's messy, it's too long and it's not sure who its main character is supposed to be, but Bullet Train is very bright, very fast and very silly. Like Guy Ritchie directing a Deadpool movie. Full ruddy marks.

Jordan Peele, 125m
Maybe it's a first-world problem to expect a movie from a provenly-brilliant writer/director to have a coherent narrative and structure, but Nope is a mish-mash of interesting ideas which haven't been developed properly, dumped out in this form because no one at the studio had the cojones to tell Peele to go back and fix it. If this film had come from any other director it would have been utterly roasted, and deservedly so.

Bullet Train
David Leitch, 121m
This was still on, so why wouldn't I go and see it again? Joyous.

Fisherman's Friends: One And All
Meg Leonard / Nick Moorcroft, 112m
Better than it has any right to be and nowhere near good enough to have been green-lit in the first place. The soundtrack is still superb, the scenery is still gorgeous, but that's not enough the second time round.

Jordan Peele, 125m
Just to make sure. Yeah, I was sure the first time.

Bodies Bodies Bodies
Halina Reijn, 90m
Okay my comparative-pool is smaller than most this year, but this is hands-down the worst film on the list. 94 minutes of mumbling, shrieking and hand-held cameras in the dark. A couple of interesting shots, but I'm actually slightly impressed with how relentlessly awful it is.

The Invitation
Jessica M. Thompson, 101m
Hammy, overcooked, and features some of the very worst British Person Dialogue Written By Someone Who Is Not British™ you have ever heard. But it's got the fun swagger of a decent mid-90s vampire romp. I've certainly seen far worse.

Top Gun
Tony Scott, 111m
First time I'd seen this since the late 80s, first time ever in a cinema. And I don't care what people say, Top Gun is a demonstrably bad film. Deplorable characters, next to no story, just a series of loud events for the best part of two hours while people who like the sound of engines tell themselves they're fans of cinema now. Seriously, I almost walked out...

Top Gun: Maverick
Joseph Kosinski, 131m
...which is why I was so surprised when I enjoyed this immediately afterward. The characters are still cardboard at best, and the fixation with afterburners and destroying what's left of my low-frequency hearing still remains, and the story (such as it is) is basically the Death Star trench-run, but I had fun with this. I'll never intentionally watch it again, but I had fun.

Scott Mann, 107m
Beautifully shot, well assembled but appallingly written. Fall should have ended after 25 minutes with a Wilhelm Scream. All I'm saying is, this film was better when it was an episode of Bottom.

Bullet Train
David Leitch, 121m
Yes, again.

Hanna Bergholm, 87m
As social, coming-of-age metaphors go it's incredibly on the nose, and structurally far from perfect. But for sheer bloody-minded, pent-up, what-the-fuckery Hatching is very solid.

See How They Run
Tom George, 94m
Wes Anderson-lite, and there's something missing in the 'togetherness' of the film as a whole, but it's satisfying and entertaining enough for casual fans of Agatha Christie.

Steven Spielberg, 124m
Yeah, it's not great. Sure it's iconic an'all, and obviously worked better for a 1975 audience, but I found the characters to be almost entirely one-note in a story which is grindingly linear. I say this because I know for a fact that the novel has layers which just aren't represented here. Yeah, this and Top Gun. It's almost as if 'a shark' and 'a plane' aren't quite enough for me on their own...

Parker Finn, 115m
A few superb performances fail to save this social-horror involving a tag based curse which takes seven terrifying-vision-filled days to kill its victim. Well done guys, you've invented The Ring a mere 24 years, 1 reboot and 8 sequels after it already existed.

The Lost King
Stephen Frears
Sunday afternoon. It's fine. Nothing to disappoint, nothing to shock, exactly what you expect. If anything, it's Sally Hawkins I feel sorry for, this is all on her CV...

Halloween Ends
David Gordon Green, 111m
Solid cinematography and a few nice set-pieces, but this is a tonal car-crash of a movie. Narratively and emotionally incoherent, this feels like it's been directed by three people, none of whom have met one another.

The Banshees Of Inishirin
Martin McDonagh, 109m
Intriguing and bleak in equal measure. At one point I was literally crying with laughter, and by the end I was expecting the cinema staff to be handing out leaflets for Dignitas. Wouldn't go so far as to say I enjoyed this, but I certainly appreciated the fuck out of it.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Ryan Coogler, 161m
Torn between acting as an industry-tribute to Chadwick Boseman (which it does very well, when it remembers), and dragging out a b-list story with badly chosen characters and GCSE moralising (I think you can tell how that goes). To be fair, this entertained me all the time it was on and as soon as I stepped out into the foyer I knew I didn't need to watch it again. Also, no post-credits scene: what the fuck, Marvel? Don't get all 'sombre and respectful actually' after a movie where you had the gall to bring the atrocious Sub-Mariner on to the stage...

Confess, Fletch
Greg Mottola, 95m
By no means perfect (more a series of sketches than an actual narrative), but very entertaining in an old-school, disposable, 1980s action-farce kind of a way.

The Menu
Mark Mylod, 107m
Plays like a Shyamalan movie at every single turn, until the crescendo when you realise the twist is that the film is going to do exactly what it said it would. For this reason: decent.

She Said
Maria Schrader, 128m
The template for this 'January Oscar-Bait movies for people who love current affairs but apparently don't watch the news' outing is tried and tested now, but I'll happily admit I was surprised by how fucking good this is. Always justly furious, never preaching or condescending. A masterclass in social filmmaking.

Oliver Hermanus, 102m
Yes it's twee, yes it's meandering, yes it plays like a cinematic mood-board rather than a story, but Bill Nighy raises his game above autopilot and just about saves this.

Bones And All
Luca Guadagnino, 125m
Weirdly decent considering how much the director and the cast seem determined to not let the audience enjoy the story or any of its players. Too drab for a horror, too visceral for a YA drama, but its compelling characters make this worth a watch.

Violent Night
Tommy Wirkola, 112m
Sure, it's an r-rated Home Alone and the storyline is average at best, but Wirkola and his cast embrace the live-action slapstick in a way that's impossible not to enjoy. And the absolute, nailed-on stroke of genius that makes this really work is that the film remains committed to Santa being real throughout (which of course, he is).

The Muppet Christmas Carol
Brian Henson, 89m
Fully restored version, remastered and with When Love Is Gone back in there. This very well may be the single greatest film of all time, and bear in mind I say that as someone with three Star Wars tattoos and none of The Muppets...

The Silent Twins
Agnieszka Smoczynska, 113m
It's not every true-story that's got the balls to haphazardly show its unintelligibly dialogued protagonists as inherently unlikable. Awful. Then because there's no story, there's no ending - the film just finishes as things stop happening. Absolute scenes, although it's still nowhere near as bad as Bodies Bodies Bodies.

Lorcan Finnegan, 97m
Solid performances from the central cast crumble as soon as the film cack-handedly telegraphs that it's going to half-inch the sweatshop subplot from that shit Steve Coogan film. Everything afterward is precisely what it deserves to be.

The Pale Blue Eye
Scott Cooper, 128m
Languorously pacing proves to be this film's greatest ally, as a story that's just on the right side of batshit-crazy builds the atmosphere of paranoid hyper-reality required to make it work. A lovely mood-piece for the cold winter months, this will be largely (and wrongly) overlooked.


Whatever. 2022 has felt - overall - grindingly average, and my heart goes out to the cinema industry when this is all they've got to attract customers to spend money. I haven't cancelled my Unlimited card, but this is the first year I've thought very seriously about it on more than one occasion. Other than Indiana Jones, there are currently no 2023 movies which I'm actually excited about seeing. And I'm not ready to bin this blog off completely yet (if I was, it'd all just disappear), but I need to formulate a quicker way of writing about movies. This is the one aspect of blogging which I've got worse at over the years, with my obsession over formatting outweighing spontaneous efficiency.

I'd like to say reviews are going to pick back up, but that's precisely the sort of thing I always come out with at the end of December. Let's see. No promises, no regrets.

Let's all just agree to never do 2022 again...

• ^^^ 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 12 June 2022

Review: The Return Of Captain Invincible

The Return Of Captain Invincible
Cert: PG / 91 mins / Dir. Phillippe Mora / Trailer

Fuck them.
Fuck them all.

Our hero sits in a cold debriefing-room, an open prison cell in all but name. Appearing before a congressional committee has not gone well, although he never thought it would. The usual lines about communism and un-American activities were spun out, but everyone gets that treatment. What made this different was the sheer ingratitude of it all. Captain Invincible essentially won the war for these fucks, basically saved the damned world. And now, less than a decade later, to be hauled across the coals as if everything he'd done - every gesture, every sacrifice, every borderline war-crime - hadn't been flat-out encouraged by the self-same people. Ridiculous. When you've outlived your usefulness, they treat you like trash. Plus ça change. You always knew this day would come, you could see them becoming their own enemy even then.

No, fuck them. Time to make a break, anyway. Time to get the hell out of this city, this country. Sometimes it's better than distance yourself and love the memory of a thing than stick around and watch it burn from within. You can always come back when things are better. That's an option. Besides, a rest will do you good. And if your hunch is right, you're going to need it.

Time to go.

It's a downbeat opening, but fits the tone of Phillippe Mora's 1983 exploration of the superhero perfectly. Bleakly introspective at every corner, The Return Of Captain Invincible proved, somewhat paradoxically, to be box-office Kryptonite, setting back the cinematic careers of its stars Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee by some measure, and relegating its only notable female performer Kate Fitzpatrick to a life of daytime soaps form that point onward. What's more ironic, however, is that the film is so much more than it was given credit for at the time. Appearing to be little more than a wry knock-off of Richard Donner's burgeoning Superman franchise, screenwriters Andrew Gaty and Steven E de Souza instead managed to distill the essences of Watchmen, The First Avenger and Logan before any of those existed, soak the whole thing in gin and serve it up with a bleary eye and a crooked smile. Rarely has a film felt so before its time.

The first act is relatively linear, working through a series of flashbacks as our troubled eponymous hero (Arkin) recalls being selected by the US government for use in the Second World War both as a propaganda machine and an actual weapon. It's shown at this point (although never clearly explained), that Captain Invincible does actually have superhuman powers, and that he was deeply instrumental in the war effort. Society loves and hates celebrity in equal measure of course, and undiagnosed PTSD leads to Cap having a chemically-induced breakdown in the years following Allied victory. A show-trial was held by the notorious Senator McCarthy accusing Cap of being a communist, but the real reason for him being 'dropped' by the authorities was a series of psychiatric reports (carried out too late, naturally) and his continued substance abuse.

Part of Cap's delerium is his continued belief that 'Mr Midnight' - wartime nemesis and second-in-command of Hitler in the supernatural sciences division, played in flashbacks by Christopher Lee - managed to escape death and is carrying out a series of grisly urban murders in the early 1980s, targeting those he deems 'undesirable'...

In the oppressive heat of a decaying city, sirens wail their distress in the distance. The alleyway is filthy, the stained tarpaulin doubly so. Pulled half to one side by the investigating officer and then quickly dropped as he regurgitated his lunch elsewhere, the remains of a body lie exposed to the fetid, stifling air. Flies already attendant as devotees to a shrine, the eyes stare glassily to the heavens - one of the few very features still identifying the mass as being formerly human. A blackened 'M' is branded into what appears to be an exposed organ, although which one - and through which part of the torso it is currently showing - is unclear.

And this, muses Captain Invincible, is the irony. This is end-point calling card which negates the very the point that 'Mister Midnight' thinks he's making. The war-time supervillain has returned like the proverbial bad penny and begun an openly racist killing-spree, knowing full well this is on The Captain's home-turf, baiting him back into active service while continuing the hopelessly misguided aims of the Third Reich. That Midnight was never German never stopped him or caused any impediment to his rise to deputational power. And now, now that his dreams of 'mass extermination' have dwindled down to the evisceration of individual citizens in conurbated squalor... the fact that Midnight's inhuman deeds leave their victims in a state so utterly horrific that their ethnicity cannot even be determined - emphasising the point that humans share far more common traits than those which superficially separate them... well, that irony is lost on him.

A buildup of gases is currently finding a vent from some fold or tear in the... in the meat in front of them, and another officer feigns discretion as she leaves to vomit. 'Okay', thinks Captain Invincible, 'maybe I am back after all...'

So far, so comic-book; a rollicking adventure with admittedly sharp edges. But things take a far darker turn in the present day as we learn that 'Mr Midnight' never existed, being himself a propaganda effort by the Axis powers to mock the Western obsession with comic book culture. However, Captain Invincible has spent so many years - during the war and after it - absorbing nazi and neo-nazi operational literature that an unexplored level of his psyche has embraced it. Cap's patriorism has intensified and turned instead to psychotic fascism, becoming the very thing he's sworn to destroy. The murders of immigrant and ethnic minority citizens have been happening, but they've been carried out by Captain Invincible's alter-alter ego, "Mister Midnight" during a series of blackouts previously attributed to his drug and alcohol dependency.

Again this turn of events feels uncannily prescient, as it not only inspired much of the work of Alan Moore but more soberly presaged real-world politics of the last decade. The Return Of Captain Invincible is a blistering and acerbic exploration of the boundaries of sanity through geo-political war and social unrest. It's a shame therefore that the film jumps the shark in no style at all, cack-handedly underlining its villain's mania by having Arkin's character commit the crimes of his nemesis wide-eyed and in full blackface (hence the name 'Mr Midnight'). This is not acceptable now of course, but it wasn't then either. Such an embedded mis-step couldn't be removed in the editing suite, and so the film was doomed to critical and commercial failure. In fact, its legacy is so toxic that even in our current age of superhero-obsession, no studio will go near it for rebooting. This is, deservedly, Song Of The South for the MCU age...

His head feels like it's weighed down by the soul of every dead body he's seen since this all began, and perhaps it is. Midnight is loving this, his sickening leer splitting his face like a rotting melon full of hate. Captain Invincible tries to straighten, to hold himself proudly, but he knows he's almost spent. This is it. Everything which has happened before has led to this point. This time, there will be no last-minute miraculous escape for either of them, these are the final seconds. But still he has to fight, still he has to try, for where is the dignity in coming this far and giving up?

Mister Midnight observes all this knowingly, wordlessly, understanding the very same with every frantic pulse in Captain Invincible's temple as his world dissolves around him. The wait has been worth it. Come what may, this will be a fitting end for one with such a glorious legacy.

Knowing this action will be the most crucial of his entire life, The Captain summons the last primal reserves of energy from the core of his superhuman being. Most would have died long before this point, he almost did himself, but his eyes snap open in a culmination of will as his hearts pump super-heated blood into his limbs to deliver justice - pure and bloody justice - to the world. His calves, thighs and abdomen tense and unfurl in unison, propelling the hero upward and toward this immortal foe, while his right arm arcs forward the object of his burning enmity; to strike, grab or crush as the moment sees fit.

And in an instant reality crashes down, as Captain Invincible's fist meets a sheet of polished glass...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the review above is mostly sarcasm. The actual film is intriguingly crap)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All 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.

Sunday 5 June 2022

Review: The Boys In Blue

(An un-ironic warning: the following piece is part of a series of joke-reviews, but this one gets particularly dark. Readers of an even slightly squeamish disposition are advised to just not...)

The Boys In Blue
Cert: PG / 87 mins / Dir. Val Guest / Trailer

Fade from black. We open at dawn. Just. A warehouse in a quiet, anonymous British industrial estate is the site of the only activity we see as night begins to recede.

A dishevelled Luton van sits backed up to a loading bay while six burly men in tracksuits briskly fill it with long metal ammunition trunks from a wet floor. A seventh sits in the driver's seat, clearly anxious to leave but restraining his impatience.

Each case is around eighteen inches square by six feet long, with scattered holes the size of snooker balls roughly bored into the sides. The men work in teams of two, and the ease with which they handle each crate suggests this is for expediency rather than the weight of its contents. Nonetheless, they are not chipper in their work. No one speaks. The only sounds to be heard are grunts of exertion and the scraping of the trunks as the they are stacked five-high.

As the last crates are loaded and strapped into place, three of the men congregate outside the warehouse and begin jogging on the spot, getting into character for the decoy pastime they are about to assume. A fourth taps loudly three times on the side of the van. The ignition is started. The four men leave the yard, just an early morning group of fitness enthusiasts. The other two will catch up in no time at all.

Before the van doors are closed, locked and security-sealed, the last thing we see of the interior is one of the trunks closest to the back. Where blackness should be visible through one of the holes, a frantic, terrified and very human eye peers out, red-rimmed, darting around and trying to make sense of its situation.

The door slams. Cut to titles.

Famously unsatisfied with his critically acclaimed work on 1939's Ask A Policeman, writer/director Val Guest waited four decades to finally give his story of insular police corruption a makeover at the tail-end of the first age of cynicism. Taking stylistic nods from the likes of The WIcker Man, Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver, Guest's dark retooling of the British Bobby caper fed off the social unrest and mistrust of authority in Britain as Thatcher rose to power and go-getter capitalism began to properly bear its fangs.

Ed Welsh's pounding score lifts and thrills with its lightly orchestral adrenaline, while Jack Atcheler's cinematography routinely hauls the viewer between the brightly lit Dorset and Bedfordshire location shoots and the near-blackness of furtive night scenes. This is an uncompromising, if blatant, visual metaphor for the mood of our protagonists, a pair of small-town police officers catapulted through a succession of crimes which makes, and then breaks, them.

"Ooh, you really 'ate me, don't ya Tommeh?". Bobby's eyes burn with persecuted indignation as he glares at his partner, his superior and his best friend.

"No, I don't hate yer, I'm just sayin' this is all your fault!". Tommy plays the moment lightly, knowing that a mis-step at this crucial stage of their investigation could have larger ramifications than just a demotion.

"Didn't ah say that it were weird 'ow Mr Lloyd always 'as kidneys fer breakfast? That's weird that, an' ah said it!"

"Yes it's weird, but that on its own doesn't warrant an investigation! Anyway, you've been proved right. The number of staff he's goin' through from the recruitment agency bears that out, even if the missing persons register doesn't."

"So 'ow's this mah fault??". Bobby's voice reaches a crescendo of guilt.

"Because you let the ambulance in crew to take away the body of that girl who died in custody! And I hadn't phoned them!"

"Well I didn't know that!!" blusters Bobby, "...d'you think they're onto us?"

"After Mr Lloyd told them about your little scene in his freezer-room, yes ah do!!"

A knock sounds at the door. The pair visibly start, and after a silent pause which seems to last forever, Bobby crosses the room and gingerly opens it. Framed in the doorway stands the hulking form of the coastguard, his dour, weathered face uplit by the flaming lamp he carries. A smile breaks slowly across the coastguard's face. He has come to ask a favour...

Guest's bizarre master-stroke here is casting Tompkins Canniole Roberto & Ball, at the time three years into helming their own prime-time comedy and light entertainment show. After chatting to the duo backstage one evening in the mid 1970s on the Lancashire club-circuit, the director had learned that both were RADA-trained and had taken to comedy after feeling theatrically typecast in Shakespeare's bloodier tragedies. Happy to take the money that the laughs were bringing in the meanwhile, Cannon & Ball nevertheless yearned to return their hands to something with more heft.

Beginning as a twisted comedy to lull the viewer into a sense of false security, our heroes' tenure at a quiet rural village police station is thrown into turmoil when they uncover a people-trafficking operation feeding into the international modern slavery markets and black-market organ harvesting. That they make this discovery when arranging to illicitly shoot an adult movie at their police station (the "blue" of the film's title), only adds to the thematic confusion that the final product faced on release. Without straying into spoilers, what starts dark soon descends into absolute aesthetic and moral bleakness, and Guest's promo-trail defence of using the film to highlight very real contemporary issues to a mainstream audience feels risible given how much gusto he put into embracing the ethos of giallo-cinema.

Comedically fronting an exploitation conspiracy thriller with every reason to be paranoid, The Boys In Blue are nonetheless a brutal tour de force.

Fade from black.

In a dank, grotty, breathless room with no windows, Sergeant Cannon and Constable Ball lie handcuffed to two rickety old hospital beds, although as the single unbroken shot continues, we see that they are in no real position to move anyway. Lying naked, lesions and poorly-sewn scars cover both, their broken bodies abandoned here, the floor still wet with congealing blood. The camera roves slowly to Ball as he regains consciousness and begins to squirm.

"Tommeh! Tommeh? Are ya there? What's goin' on??". Fear and confusion fight for supremacy in his croaking voice.

"It's alright Bobbeh, ah'm 'ere. It's alright...". Cannon has been awake for some time, and has quietly assessed the situation.

"Ah can't see Tommeh! Ah can't open mah eyes!". Panic has entered and is winning the fight. Bobby's eyelids are sewn shut, but they do not roundly bulge as they should, his eyeballs having been removed for the corneas to benefit someone else. Tommy can just about make this out through his own one remaining eye. He also knows the sickly yellow tinge to both his and Bobby's skin is not due to the single glowing nightlight in the corner, but their kidneys having been removed for the same ends. The uncountable stinging wounds around his torso tell him he is now considerably lighter than he was, Bobby probably moreso. They're only lucky the gang haven't also removed their hearts.

Actually no, not lucky. Tommy knows that was intentional. They were supposed to re-awake here.

"You need to conserve your strength Bobbeh, help will be 'ere soon! Just rest, eh mate?"

"Tommeh? Tommeh! What's goin' on? Ah'm... Ah'm scared Tommeh!". His partner tries one last time to console him.

"It's alright Bobbeh, ah'm 'ere. Ah'll look after ya. 'Aven't I always?"

"Aye... aye, right enough. Rock on, Tommeh...". Fatigue overcomes Bobby as he slumps back against the filthy mattress. He is not unconscious, and his shallow breathing suggests he is far from relaxed. But with his friend's permission, he'll try and grab what sleep he can.

Tommy is still awake, though. He knows the gang won't be back. He know that this is the basement of the now-condemned police station, cordoned off as hazardous and due for demolition. But no one will be here for at least a month. All Cannon and Ball can do now is wait. But not for help. The last shot is of Tommy's lone eye as it darts around the room, and then directly, lingeringly into camera.

Cut to credits.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the review above is wishful sarcasm. The film itself is more than a bit crap, albeit in interesting ways)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All 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.

Sunday 29 May 2022

Review: Condorman

Cert: U / 86 mins / Dir. Charles Jarrott / Trailer

Standing astride a cross-beam on one of the world's most prominent landmarks, Woodridge Wilkins fumbles for the activator button on his suit. Photographers wait below, disbelievingly eager for this new breed of hero to prove himself. Distant, mumbled shouts of... encouragement?... crowd his head and threaten to derail the absolute concentration needed. No. Shut them out. Silence. The time is now. Time to prove to the world that The Condor Man is indeed its saviour. That mistakes may have been made, but all in the name of progress. Of success. Of freedom.

Daring to look down for a fraction of a second, the concourse is full of gawping tourists not yet realising the importance of this moment in their lives. Activity is frantic, but Wilkins cannot discern it clearly because of the cumbersome nature of this iteration of his flight suit. He is certain it will fly this time, though. It has to fly. If Woody can't convince them of The Condor Man's significance, then his friend Harry will, he knows it. Good old Harry.

Everything which has happened has led to this point. Woody firmly thumbs the activator and leaps forward, wings unfolding into the arms of destiny.

The story begins...

One rather suspects that when Disney commissioned screenwriter Marc Stirdivant to adapt Robert Sheckley's The Game of X into a feature film, they'd expected the end-product to tap into the post-Superman zeitgeist and the ongoing Bond/Palmer/U.N.C.L.E. ethos simultaneously, giving a family-friendly entry point into action cinema. By the time director Charles Jarrot had joined the team, what they received instead was indeed this, but also one of the most brutally efficient examples of high-concept physical and psychological revenge-horror (and at several points, actual snuff-movie) of its era.

That the film owes no small amount to the likes of Scorcese's The King Of Comedy is a given (in development at the same time, writer Paul D Zimmerman was a close friend of Stirdivant) but it goes much further, surpassing subtext and suggestion, straying into territory only previously covered by Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre seven years earlier. An unlikely yet perfect casting choice, Michael Crawford channels pride, anger and ultimately fear into his performance as proto-incel Woody Wilkins, a socially introverted comic writer who escapes into his own fantasy as reality repeatedly stifles his dreams and crushes opportunities at every turn. Condorman is a blunt parable, showing us what happens when those two worlds collide. It presents its hero without judgement, but also without apology.

Damn Harry. Where was he? The man was supposed to be Woody's friend - his best friend - and now look what he'd gotten him into. A simple desk clerk at the CIA probably shouldn't have access to the information which Harry kept unearthing, but Wilkins was glad that he did. Or he had been glad at any rate. No one had been more surprised than Woody when a favour in delivering a package to a locally-based undercover cop had resulted in one of the city's largest drug busts. Woody's part in this had been hushed up of course, he was an undercover agent himself now.

And how. The hoodlum's neck hung limply in Woody's hands, snapped like a crusty baguette as his heart pumped out the last of its blood through a serrated hole in his sternum. That stain wasn't going to come out in a hurry. Four more similarly attired henchmen lay around the outside of the farmhouse. Convincing disguises - indeed, Morovich had even gone so far as recruiting a pair of old women for this gang - but the heavy villager's peasant clothes had impeded their ability to fight and The Condor Man had succeeded in this strand of his mission. "Send more, I'll kill more" he muttered. To himself.

Backup should have arrived by now, and it was a point of growing concern that there was no sign of the special ops team which Harry had assured him would be there to ease escape from a tight situation. Then again, Woody suspected that Natalia was playing her 'double agent' card a little too wildly, hedging her bets as to which side of the iron curtain to finally fall. If the 'former' spy had interfered in Harry's plans, that would put everyone in danger. This wasn't an insurmountable problem though, Woody could kill her easily enough if needs be...

Set within the extended flashback of The Condor Man's flight into the Paris skyline, Jarrott's film darts around a kaleidoscopic vision of Woody's domestic life - constantly demeaned and put-upon by an ageing but acerbic mother whom we hear but never see, causing us to wonder if she's just another figment of his imagination - and an unfolding backstory of the protagonist coming to believe he's a deep cover black-ops agent for the CIA. The reality that we're watching a man suffer a chemically-exacerbated breakdown and subsequent murder-spree is not fully clear until we see 'Harry' pleading that he barely even knows Wilkins for a third time in police custody.

But rather than use this darkly farcical setup as a prop for any sort of biting commentary (the film predates James Gunn's Super and Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, both structurally and thematically similar, by almost three decades), Jarrott chooses to bring his creative vision closer to that of outright exploitation cinema, a genre which was in its death throes by the early 1980s. This was a definitively bold artistic choice at the time, and one which has ensured his film has only barely survived in terms of its notoriety alone. The fact that three stunt performers died during the intense fight-scenes ensured that there was a four year delay in Condorman coming to VHS. The fact that those scenes were somehow left in the edit ensured that it was instantly banned for another ten. Much like De Palma's Scarface, there are few characters to actually like here - even the most vulnerable are shown to be riven with moral weakness - and the key to salvaging any aesthetic satisfaction from this really lies in enjoying the majesty of a terrible thing done well.

Morovich dead. His goons dead. That lying, brazen, teasing, lying temptress... dead? Almost certainly, she couldn't have survived the blood loss. Good. And where were his thanks? Where were the parades and laudatory press columns and interview requests and Congressional Medals and just general fucking gratitude for all that he - that The Condor Man - had done? For the sacrifices he'd made in the name of freedom? Nowhere to be seen. He'd been sold out by those he'd sworn to protect. Well, so be it. It should hardly come as a surprise, yet the disappointment was no less tangible. It had been worth it, though. Those others, they needed to be stopped. Perhaps one last show of prowess was required. Perhaps the people need a super-hero, not a spy. Well okay, one last punt then.

Back midway up the Eiffel Tower we cut to a wide shot as Wilkins fumbles with his suit-activator button. We now see the reason he has been having trouble with it. 'Harry' - a man who works at the methadone clinic where Woody has been a service-user - is gagged and bound, his limbs crudely amputated, in a device which appears to be half-sack/half-harness on Woody's front. Screaming and wide-eyed, the counter assistant's constant terrified squirming has been threatening to pull Woody out of his reverie and off the steel beam. But even now that The Condor is ready to take flight, everyone knows the glider-suit cannot possibly take the weight and imbalance of two men, let alone one. Only death awaits; glory is an illusion just out of Woody's grasp. But ever the optimist, he has to try. The mechanism engages with a satisfying *clunk*.

The Condor Man takes flight.

Cut to black.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the vast majority of the above is a sort of sarcasm, but Condorman is surprisingly good nonetheless.)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All 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.

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

So many stars. Incredible. Since his earliest memories began, Tommy had always been fascinated by those myriad points of light. At first they were magical, a way to hold his fear of the dark at bay. Then came reason, school and the sciences, and he learned that they were gigantic balls of gas burning away in the galaxy, just like our own sun. By the time Tommy graduated astrophysics at Harvard, they were magical again. No amount of explanation or analysis could dull their power. Quite the opposite.

And he'd never in his life seen this many before. The constellations were familiar and all in place, but there were just... more, somehow. Stars where spaces should be as the familiar ones shone more brightly than ever. When Tommy had started work at NASA this had been his dream of course, but as a calibration technician it had seemed unlikely he'd ever get any closer to the stars than prepping the topmost levels of the launch towers.

But if his mom could see him now. Actually, it would have been faintly reassuring if he'd thought that anyone could see him now. He'd always been happy in his own company, and god knows that's a boon for any astronaut, but nothing could have prepared him for... this. Because there was now precisely no idea of how long this mission was going to take - relative-time or actual - and the experimental shuttle Stardust hadn't been build with claustrophobes in mind. The ceilings were low, the cockpit was tight and the windows were small. But so many stars.

Tommy wasn't looking out of the window. He was lying on top of the shuttle, helmet off, hands behind his head and staring up at the clearest sky he'd ever seen. Zero light-pollution, he imagined. Next to no chemical-pollution, too. If the readouts on the console were correct (and he'd drank enough beer with three of the guys who worked on the tech to know that was certainly questionable), the light-drive had worked and he'd travelled back in time. Precisely how far back remained to be seen, but the lack of light-pollution (after Tommy had put out the fires from his crash landing) would suggest 'significantly'.

The technician-turned-astronaut-turned-technician-again could begin the rest of his repairs at daybreak. For now, he could at least enjoy the view. Because every wondrous point of light was a welcome distraction from the one question which wouldn't go to sleep: how the fuck was Tommy Trimble going to get back home?

Released in 1979 under Disney's Buena Vista label for more adult-fare, The Spaceman And King Arthur is a textbook example of the frenzied genre-mashing that occurred as Hollywood transitioned its modus operandi from Historical Fantasy Farce (Robin Hood, The Sword In The Stone, Zorro - all high on action and cheap to produce) to the science-fiction craved by audiences in the era of the moon landings, Star Trek and Kubrick's 2001.

Pressure was on the studios to maximise profit margins with the imagination of the latter for the price of the former. Together, director Russ Mayberry and writer Don Tait quickly found that the best way to achieve this was literally combining the two. And so a re-tooling of Mark Twain's 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was brought into being, albeit with one more key thematic ingredient which was kept out of the marketing.

This was, in fact, closer to Weird Tales alumni Robert Bloch's own twisted take on the story from 1934, Dead On Time, which received praise in the pages of that pulp journal but ruffled few feathers elsewhere. Nevertheless, Mayberry had Disney's studio staff scour second-hand bookshops and public libraries to buy, barter and often steal as many remaining copies as possible, so that the reveal occurring precisely half way through the film's 93-minute runtime would come as a surprise to audiences...

The language barrier was maddening. At times it was close to non-existent and at others - now, specifically - it was like being in a different country. Then Tommy remembered, he was in a different country. But they'd invented English for crying out loud, why did some of them have so much trouble speaking it?

"And trulie thy hae no kinge in thy lande?" Gawain looked genuinely uncomprehending, like a dog cornered with a geometry problem.

"That's right, no king. I thought we'd been through this? We've got a president, okay? Although I assure you it doesn't always feel like a better solution..."

"But how dost thy peoples pertain to lawes? Who ist to keepe charge in ye--"

"Look, it's a long story okay? Not always pleasant, but nowhere near as messy as France!"

"Sire, didst thou-- Ist thon visitor from France? A spy perchance?"

King Arhur waved his deputy down. "Fear not, Sir Gawain, there will be time for this later." He turned to Tommy. "In the meantime traveller, perhaps you would be so kind as to furnish us with an explanation of how exactly you appeared in my kingdom, on the day after the firestorm, approaching my castle unbidden in such strange tunic and bearing the severed head... of a dead-ite?"

Tommy sighed, hung his head and looked up under his brow. "Well, I was kinda hoping you could fill me in on that last part, yourself." He eyed the sack at Gawain's feet, and the seepage still oozing from it. "Looks like you need a pest-controller, and your magic-man in the dress over there doesn't seem to want to get his hands dirty. Now are you going to let me help, or are you going to let me go?"

Merlin and Gawain bristled, although King Arthur was more sanguine having already seen to the heart of the problem. Alisande stifled a smile; this stranger's insolence was breathtaking. Tommy, however, was rapidly running out of patience, not least because he knew there were hundreds more of those things shuffling their way toward the castle. And they didn't care about monarchical hierarchy either...

And surprise, it did. The opening week saw hundreds of thousands of parents take their young charges to the cinema for a wholesome romp through Arthurian legend in the company of a beloved cast of British Comedy Royalty. So when the Army Of The Dead broke their way into Camelot, beheading, disembowelling and just eating anything in their path, queues quickly formed at the box office again - this time for refunds. But the damage had been done. This next generation of filmgoers had witnessed the most visceral, adrenaline fuelled trolley-dash through historical terror that Disney would ever put their stamp on...

Recalled and banned by the MPAA and the BBFC alike, it would be another twenty years before The Spaceman And King Arthur saw a domestic release; and even this was as a region-free unofficial transfer of a recovered print on an independent Italian DVD label. By this time critical culture had hardened itself to horror-crossover fare, and Disney responded by releasing a sanitised cut of the film, claiming this had always been the director's intention.

A 2003 interview in the Radio Times with supporting actor Rodney Bewes belied this however, as he recalled "We had the best fucking time on that set! Getting paid for sliding around in pigs' innards every day, lashing it at the banquet table every night, and knowing there was no way it'd get too far out of the gate to damage our careers? I don't give a shit about Merlin, that's real magic..."

The figure limped down the stone-walled corridor, its rasps of effort fizzing in the air like a hundred bats' wings. The eyes seemed to glow as its stare fixed Tommy, although he knew this was an illusion created by the flaming sconces which lit the wall between strategic arrowslits. The remains of its jaw grated and sprayed rotting flesh, as the creature hissed air it no longer needed to breathe. Dear god, it was trying to speak...

"Trri-i-i-innn... Tri-i-innnd..." It lifted an accusing finger at the spaceman as its broadsword trailed from the other hand.

"This is what you wanted Mordred, you dumb shit!" Tommy crowed, with a swagger he didn't feel. He just knew that even now, the best way to defeat this darkest of knights was to use its own anger against it. "This is your prize! You command the Army of the Dead now! But did you seriously think they were going to let you do that while you were still alive??" Tommy almost felt sorry for Mordred. The transformation process had taken six days, and reports had come in of his screams for all of those. Merlin was the army's necromancer - in some ways its creator - but he didn't control them. Mordred, on the other hand, had been hamstrung by his own ambition. Again. Well, if he was too stupid to learn a lesson, that was hardly Tommy's fault. The least this boy could do was help out everybody by trying to teach him again.

Suddenly a sharp inhalation - again unnecessary, the last vestiges of human reflex echoing through Mordred's reanimated remains - as the former-knight and perennial-asshole snapped into a ninety degree fighting stance, sword raised in front of him in a two-handed grip. This sudden jerk had opened the rotting gash in Mordred's stomach - a wound from the last time they fought which would now never heal - and a clump of shrivelled innards flopped its way noisily onto the flagstones with a comet's trail of maggots in its wake. Mordred didn't even notice.

Shit. Merlin was controlling him now. With the wizard's guile, the warrior's reflexes and no capacity to feel pain, this was going to be trickier than before. Hand-to-hand combat was out of the question. Tommy reached around to the rear of the harness made for him by Alisande's father the saddler, retrieved his newly tar-powered flame thrower, and flipped the ignition.

Barbecue twice in one week?

Fuck it, Tommy was on holiday after all...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
(Yes, the review above is mostly sarcasm. The actual film is staggeringly unfocused.)

...and if you want to listen to some words about this film which take it far less seriously, are far more sweary and have All 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.
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