Withnail & I Review

These past few weeks, the films I’ve looked at have had a rather ‘cult’ feel to them. First there was Little Shop of Horrors which boasts the kind of camp cult features, A Fish Called Wanda provided us with irreverent cult comedy, and now there’s Withnail & I, which is… a lot more difficult to categorise.

It’s a comedy, but it’s a lot more obscure and hard to pin down. It’s slightly surreal, very difficult to follow at times, and it’s apparent lack of direction and driving plot are defining features of its underground popularity.

What little discernible plot there is follows the exploits of two out-of-work actors; Withnail (Richard E Grant) who exudes public school education, but is a terribly deranged drug and alcohol addict, and, well “I” (his full name is apparently Marwood, but it’s never mentioned in the film, he’s played by Paul McGann) the younger of the two, he’s the one with any hint of work on the horizon. Anyway, these two decide to leave the squalor of their tiny London flat for a week’s holiday in Withnail’s uncles cottage.

It’s pretty evident early on that the films driving force is its characters rather than plot, which can at best be described as ‘meandering’. It’s a vehicle for two interesting (yet not always likeable) characters to act inappropriately in many different situations. Often while smoking and shouting.

Indeed the most memorable moments in the films are less about the story and more about the outrageous characters, who somehow manage to be over-the-top, yet strangely believable.

Our central narrator of the story, through whom we experience the film is Marwood (or “I” but that’s a hell of a lot harder to fit well into sentences without context) yet it’s arguably Withnail is the driving force of the film, always seeming to follow his will, as he has a lot more drunken confidence than the often meek Marwood.

Withnail is a the kind of character that you’d love to observe from a distance, yet would cross the road to avoid if he got too close, like a gorilla in a zoo, you’re more than happy to be in its company when it is contained behind a sturdy bit of glass, but would be so happy if it was climbing all over your wife.

He’s unkempt, aggressive (yet cowardly), extremely unsociable and a terrible influence. He constantly has dark circles around his eyes, belying his abusive relationship with drugs, forgoing sleep for days on end and replacing it with wine and whatever else he can get his hands on, we don’t need to be shown this to know it, it’s merely mentioned fleetingly, and we’re left to fill in the rest by just observing the character.

This is perhaps the best thing about the film for me, presenting the characters looks and surroundings as extensions of their personality. We know more about the characters than we are told by just looking at their surroundings in the first few scenes; a hovel in such a state of decrepitude that Marwood has to drink coffee from a saucer, as there are rats living in the washing up. This impression we’re giving of where the characters live, as well as looking at how they’re dressed, sets the scene perfectly for the films main characters, whose lives almost perfectly reflect the state of their flat.

It isn’t just the two titular characters who are played up to such a point of ridiculousness that they ultimately become believable. Firstly, there’s Danny (Ralph Brown) the pairs drug dealer, who is a combination of all the 60’s stereotypes poured into one man, and Uncle Monty (played by the late Richard Griffiths) a pompous, painfully obvious closed elderly homosexual whose cottage the two spend the bulk of the film trashing.

There should be no need to note how good the acting is, but it really is something well worthy of praise. Long-time readers will recall my fondness for Richard E Grant, a devastatingly underrated actor, who seems especially talented when playing morally-questionable alcoholics (although, as a funny side fact, the actor himself is allergic to alcohol) and as much, simply steals the show here. The intensity of his deranged rants are a wonder to behold, and his straight-faced and serious delivery is what really seals the deal.

Paul McGann and Richard Griffiths also deliver great performances, again, these are two actors who were criminally underutilised in their prime (despite their respective connections to big franchises) McGann is a bright-eyed youthful actor loed astray by the preposterous Withnail, and has the closest thing the story has to a character arc in the whole film.

My main issues with the film however, revolve around its lack of clarity. Now, I’m not the typre that needs every plot point explaining to me, but I do expect at least some plot, and what Withnail & I is isn’t so much a story as a winding anecdote, as if an elderly Marwood is reminiscing in the future, it’s not particularly an outstanding string of events, in fact, I have no doubt that in context, it’s probably a week the characters would hastily forget, given their drug and alcohol intake.

Whether or not you’ll like this film depends on how much you think a film can be carried by just characters, interesting characters, don’t get me wrong; albeit a small cast of characters blundering through the vents of a few days. It has enough memorable lines and scenes peppered in at stages of the film that give it a bit more life, and I enjoyed watching some of their escapades, but at times I also felt that the film was too impenetrable to invest in.

I suppose some might say that it is a film that maybe you’re not supposed to be invested in, or that what I’m pointing out as flaws are actually points in its favour in some circles; but films must also be judged as entertainment, and if you’re making entertainment more for your own pleasure than the audiences then you’re in trouble.

That’s not to say that Withnail & I isn’t entertaining, because it is when the dialogue starts to flow, or their thrown into a new situation, but there’s too much downtime with nothing happening, and little focus on plot that might put casual viewers off. You might see it as a surreal classic, or a confusing mess; and I’m not quite sure where I end up. I think I saw enough that I liked to be able to recommend, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for viewers who just fancy a light chuckle to pass the time. Approach with caution and you may end up liking it.

A Look Back at March

Well, this last month seemed to go on forever, didn’t it?

The world has ground to a halt thanks to the spread of a deadly virus, one that isn’t fictional this time, closing pretty much everything, including cinemas.

But still, I have endeavoured to keep the site ticking over with reviews of older films, both beloved classics and the more obscure, something I’ll continue as long as the isolation period lasts, as well as working on some longer-form posts, as the Harry Potter ranking was incredibly popular.

Film of the Month: Dark Waters (directed by Todd Haynes)

Reviewing this film seems like a lifetime ago, but it did occur in the month of March, believe it or not. Somewhat understandably I don’t have a lot of cinema releases to choose from, and I almost mad A Fish Called Wanda my film of the month, but I guess since I did have SOME cinema releases to choose from, I’d better make the most of it, as I’m not likely to get any more for the next few months.

It’s undeniably a strange time for everyone at the moment, and the aim of my site at the moment is to give people something to distract them from the onslaught of bad news and general low public morale, I hope that the pondering whims of a cynical British film critic can at least help kill half an hour.

Over the coming week(s) I’ll be reviewing such films as: Withnail & I, Lady Bird and Leave No Trace; as well as a few others.

Stay safe, and thanks for sticking with me.

Ranking the Harry Potter Films (and the Spin-Offs)

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good

Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and what with me staying in and avoiding human contact (which is what I normally do, but now I have an excuse) I thought i’d take this opportunity to do something a bit more long-form.

I grew up with Harry Potter, my generation were the first to really ‘grow up’ with the books, my dad used to read me the first few books when I was about 4 or 5, and I seem to remember going to watch all the films in the cinemas.

One of the great things about the series is, it’s something that I enjoyed as a child, and my parents enjoyed with me, it was very rare the three of us ever made a cinema trip together when I was young, but we always did for the new HP films, even now, we routinely re-watch them all about once a year, it’s something we share as a family.

So it’s safe to say I’m well in the ‘Potterhead’ camp, I have all the books, watched all the films, even got sorted into a house on Pottermore (Hufflepuffs, represent) but as a critic an an analyser of films, I can watch these without the rose-tinted goggles should I wish, and I do recognise the flaws in the adaptations (where was Peeves? You cast Rik Mayall as a prankster poltergeist and then cut him out? unbelievable)

I should say before we start that there hasn’t yet been a Wizarding World film that I’ve considered bad, there are ones that are worse than others naturally, but I’ve always found something to like about them, despite their flaws, a point no more evident than in the first (or should that be last?) entry:

10: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (2018) – Directed by David Yates

There was trouble with this film before the cameras even started rolling. With the casting of Johnny Depp seeming at the time to be inappropriate, and the further casting of Jude Law as Dumbledore also proving unpopular, the deck was set against Crimes of Grindlewald from the outset.

The resulting film was also deeply flawed, going against series canon in a way that turned fans away, and seemed very perplexing given that JK Rowling herself was behind the script, making the lapses in established canon seem even more incongruous.

It also suffers from feeling like the middle part of a story that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, so therefore it lists without really driving the series ahead.

There are a few positives, Eddie Redmayne is as charming as ever as Newt, and Jude Law managed to win around a few doubters along the way, apart from that, the film is a rather glaring mis-step.

9: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) – Directed by Chris Columbus

The second film in a series can be a stumbling block for any franchise, so flush with the success of the first adaptation, expectations were high for HP’s second big-screen adventure, sadly those expectations were not met.

I think what eventually kneecaps this film is the stunted progress of its child actors. While most, if not all, the children featured in the series would go on to be pretty solid actors, and even showed signs of promise in the first film, they regressed somewhat here.

They seem less at ease with being in front of the camera, looking more like rabbits caught in headlights, even Kenneth Branagh isn’t immune, seeming overly hammy and insufferable as the already pretty irritating Gilderoy Lockhart.

there are bright moments, the confrontation with the Basilisk in the titular chamber delivers sufficient action, and Harry’s hand (or should I say foot?) in freeing Dobby towards the end, to name just two, but the film ultimately suffered with weak performances, and a bit of a stale atmosphere, a worrying sign for just the second film.

8:Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) – Directed by David Yates

Up until recently, this film sat at the bottom of my HP rankings; only edging its way up after another series re-watch.

The main underlying problem with Order of the Phoenix should really be obvious to anyone, it’s the longest book in the series, yet one of the shortest films, it’s clear that not enough time was given for the narrative to breath.

The decision to split the seventh book was, I feel, a shrewd one, and could have been a good call for this adaptation too, of course this leads to the inevitable problem of the rapidly ageing main players, who would have been even older come the final film had more films been two-parters.

But with the truncated run-time comes a rushed final product, missing a lot of details from the book; while I’m not too hung up on getting EVERYTHING from the book in the films, it does feel like a strange decision to turn an 870 page epic into a film that barely stretches over two hours.

Elsewhere, the murkier backdrops are at their murkiest, the palates of the film haven’t yet found a comfortable balance, but there is some nice acting here, Radcliffe in particular goes from strength-to-strength in each film, even if Harry isn’t particularly the most interesting character, even in a story bearing his name.

The final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore is what ultimately takes this film above Chamber of Secrets but it had to work hard to achieve even that.

7: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) – Directed by David Yates

Spinning-off from the main Harry Potter series isn’t in itself a bad idea. There are many conceivable possibilities within the Wizarding World for new and exciting stories.

I’m not saying Fantastic Beasts doesn’t meet this criteria in some ways because it’s a fun little story within itself, but only really becomes consequential to an overlying narrative in the closing stages; it could have quite easily been a stand-alone adventure without the need to start a new series of films.

Sure, standing on its own, it might not have the same stakes as the main series, but not everything does, you’re unlikely to match the stakes of the final two Harry Potter films, and it would have been a misstep to even try, the story of Newt travelling America looking for magical creatures would have made a nice palate-cleanser between the main series and the overarching Grindlewald arc that it bends over backwards to include

I think the best praise I can give the film is that it’s ‘charming’. Eddie Redmayne has a very lovable energy to him in the first place that translates well to Newt, Dan Fogler has the similar effect as Jacob Kowalski, as do Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as Tina and Queenie Goldstein, respectively.

My main issue is that these characters charms are pushed to the limit by tying them into a larger narrative. Jacob has a nice end to his story by the end of this film, so his inclusion alone is jarring, leave alone Tina and Queenie, whose quirks are quick to irritate with repeat visits.

As I say, subtract the films links to the Grindlewald story and it’s a cute little stand-alone adventure, with that aspect it’s stretching its seams, yet still has enough life and fun to appeal to HP-loving audiences.

6: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) – Directed by Chris Columbus

There was a lot riding on this film as the first of the franchise; everything it did was under scrutiny from the lovers of the books, and JK Rowling herself, who insisted on the series having an all British cast.

While she got her wish for a British cast, an American took charge behind the camera. Chris Columbus (no, not THAT Chris Columbus) had experience with crowd-pleasing blockbusters; he was after all, the man behind Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire, so it was a good fit for this series.

The first film has inevitable teething problems, having a cast so heavily featuring child actors will always face an uphill battle, especially with the calibre of the actors they were opposite, it also feels like the most tonally incongruous film in the series when compared with later instalments.

That being said, however, the child actors are nowhere near as bad as they could have been, there is a lot of promise on show, foreshadowing the very capable actors they would become (maybe having the man who directed Macaulay Culkin helped in this regard) and Columbus’ usual imagination is on show in bringing Hogwarts to life.

In many ways,m the first film is the measuring stick to which all the subsequent films were to be compared to, it would of course be surpassed when the stakes of the story were raised, but it’s a solid first step for the series to make, setting out its stall for the future.

5: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) – Directed by David Yates

This was a tough one to rank, probably one of the hardest on the list, in fact. On one hand, it might be the film with the most glaring differences from the book on which it is based, but on the other, it shows David Yates’ growing comfort with the franchise and its darker tones, with some franchise-best performances thrown in for good measure.

This is an issue for many a book-to-film adaptation, no matter how close you get to the book, the die-hard fans will find something you’ve missed, it’s unreasonable to expect a perfect adaptation of any book, or non-visual media, into a film, there often simply isn’t the time, or something might not work on screen.

Whatever your view on adaptations, and what they miss out, it’s hard to deny that the stakes are unmistakably raised with each installment, with the crucial involvement of Horcruxes being introduced in this story, and the all-important plot developments at the films conclusion that all come together more clearly in the two-part finale.

The performances are also of the highest quality in this film, Michael Gambon has well and truly established himself as Dumbledore by this point, having taken the reins three films earlier, and the great wizards increasing vulnerability.

Not only Gambon stands out here, however, Alan Rickman continues to build the complexity of Severus Snape, as he continues to grow into the series most complex and interesting characters.

Also, from a film-making standpoint, the cinematography is also a triumph, after a stagger in the atmosphere and tone in its predecessor, this installment feels more comfortable in its own skin, and like the director has come to grips with the material.

So, despite being a bit of a mixed bag, the film still ticks enough boxes to lift it above the worst in the series.

4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) – Directed by David Yates

I must be honest, I love both parts of the two-part finale to the series. All of the series developments in character, atmosphere and narrative come home to roost in a fittingly massive conclusion, so massive in fact, that one film alone couldn’t contain it.

Now, while I still think the film is amongst the top tier of the HP series, it does suffer with the obvious problems of being the first part of a story, so its conclusion can’t help but feel anticlimactic, and more an advert for the next film than an actual ending, but in the circumstances, that can’t really be helped.

One thing i love about the films as they develop is how they build the Wizarding world, and how much it has changed come the final two films; there’s a feeling of desperation to everyone’s actions, they’re all afraid, and acting out of character in the hope of self-preservation, it all makes sense, and builds a sense of dread around all of the films events, there’s only one way for this story to end, and our nerves are shredded with the anticipation.

The performances continue to show how the cast have grown as actors over the course of a decade, I could understand if Radcliffe, Grint and Watson might have mixed feelings towards the series that made their names, but they really do grow through the experience of being Harry, Ron and Hermoine, respectively.

At this point, the character have endured a lot and their performances reflect this, giving the impression of growing tired as their journey takes them around the country, aggression bubbles up, and gets the better of them at time, but the strength of their relationship and chemistry still shine through. While the three main characters might not be amongst the most interesting in the series, their relationship is part of what makes them work.

Inevitable anticlimactic ending aside, this is a great show of escalation in a franchise which has been raising the intensity since the beginning, and we’re getting close to boiling point here.

3: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – Directed by David Yates

For this film, take everything good I said in the previous entry, and add a satisfying conclusion to it.

I do feel like both parts are actually better viewed as one whole film, that way you get the best of all sides, but we play the hand we’re dealt, and as it stands, because this film actually has an ending, as well as everything that made Part 1 good, it has to be judged as the better of the two films.

There’s not much I can really say about this film that I haven’t already said in the last entry, suffice to say it all looks very nice, is acted very well, and its atmosphere has gone past boiling point and is now practically volcanic.

All the loose ends are left tied up, and the journey is at an end, the battle-weary Harry we see at this films conclusion is a million miles away from the wide-eyed little boy we met all the way back at the beginning, the same could be said for all the characters, for the most part, they’ve all undergone their own arcs, friends and loved ones have been lost, but the film’s finale still holds hope for all those who survived the final battle.

I suppose the only thing I can talk about now, that I haven’t already said, is where all the characters end up, there seems to be a plan that Rowling has for every character years after the films have finished.

I happen to be amongst the minority who likes the fact that Hermoine marries Ron, and not Harry. I don’t think their relationship needed to be romantic, it showed that a platonic relationship between a male and female hero can be just as strong as any other, plus, they say opposites attract, right? You can’t get more opposite than Ron and Hermoine. I also felt more more romantic chemistry between Harry and Ginny, so that made more sense, so there.

2: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) – Directed by Mike Newell

It was only when I re-watched this a few weeks ago when I realised how good it actually is. It’s probably the most underrated Potter story in the franchise, outshone by other instalments, it’s forgotten among the discussion of the best adaptations, I think unfairly.

This is probably the best film visually in the whole series, maybe second at the worst, it’s very much a turning point story-wise in the series arc, marking Voldemort’s return to full-form, it’s very much the middle point of the whole saga, and the films atmosphere and direction exemplify this excellently.

It takes cues from its immediate predecessor in its darker tones, but paces itself too, knowing that it can’t descend fully into darkness too quickly, it needs to leave some room for future stories, so it feels very controlled, with just the right amount of darkness mixed into the series’ familiar fantasy overtures.

I like the story in this film too, how it shows us that there’s more to the world than just Hogwarts, its introduction of the other two magical schools, with the Triwizard Tournament as a framing device, allows the series scope to expand organically, and introduce a few lingering minor plot points that will stick with the series right until the end, and beyond, into the spin-offs.

I really enjoy the characters introduced too, and feel like there’s more that could have been done with a few, especially Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) who pops up in later films, but never enough for my taste, he’s a wonderfully entertaining presence, and the later character twist is very intelligent.

It also has some of the series’ best set-pieces, the dragon sequence and the maze towards the end are stand-outs, in fact, the final third in general is some of the franchises best, action-wise, and acting-wise.

Speaking of acting, this and the film before it show a lot of development of the three leads as actors, Radcliffe and Watson in particular (to be honest, Grint as Ron kind of rounded off at this point and stayed the same right until the end, his mood swings in Deathly Hallows notwithstanding) grow into great performers right before our eyes.

A great adaptation that would be the very best in the series, if it weren’t for…

1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)_ – Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Here we go, the very best of the series.

When I broached this topic on my Facebook page, a few people seemed to think that this is the only acceptable answer to the question of ‘Which adaptation is the best?’ While I agree that Prisoner of Azkaban is not only the best adaptation, but the best as a film in general, I will concede that most of the films have their arguable merits, and I won’t disagree if you prefer another film (unless it’s Chamber of Secrets).

To be fair, this film has a lot going for it; arguably Azkaban is one of the best books in the series too, and it also has the most talented filmmaker the series ever had behind the camera. I remind you that Alfonso Cuaron is the director behind Gravity and Roma even though these films are still in his future at this point, it’s still one hell of a coup for such a studio franchise to pull to bring in such an auteur.

The series improves itself by taking a break from established franchise lines. It takes a different path than the usual ‘Harry vs Voldemort’ path (although that is tangentially involved) and in the process builds one of the franchises most intriguing plots, one that explores Harry’s parents closely, and the relationships they had when they were at Hogwarts.

The introduction of Lupin, and more pressingly Sirius Black (David Thewlis and Gary Oldman, respectively) lays more groundwork for the series’ future, and introduces two of the series more interesting secondary protagonists to boot.

When I was a kid, Sirius Black scared me in this film, such was the way he was portrayed, and the way we were being led to judge him, to throw us off the scent of the real villain is masterful storytelling, and making the real villain someone who has always been in plain sight all along, without any of us expecting it is a further masterstroke.

I always felt that Rowling killed off Sirius too soon, I know this is a tangent, but indulge me. I understand that his death was part of Harry’s character development, and that by taking away a little more of Harry’s possible happy future we sympathise with him further, but I always thought a duel between Sirius and Voldemort would have been incredible, maybe he could have met his end that way, and he could have at least spent a few summers with Harry, but then, Harry was never meant to have happy summers was he?

Anyway, it’s an absolute diamond of a film, not just as a part of a franchise but as a film itself, it’s the series first flirtation with a dark atmosphere, and it produces the best possible results, the way Cuaron used the Dementors, even in very brief snaps, just added to their danger, the fear factor, and helped make this the most atmospheric film in the series.

It’s also the only film I feel competes with Goblet of Fire for ‘Best Looking’ film in the series, as previously said, Cuaron is a master of cinema, and he uses all the positives of the franchise to add to his then-growing reputation, almost as if he’d resolved himself that if he had to make a studio franchise film, he’d make the best studio franchise film he possibly could.

Well, that’s pretty much that, my quite exhaustive look at the Harry Potter franchise so far, it is worth bearing in mind that there are currently three further Fantastic Beasts films planned, so we’ll see in the future where they fit in.

Thanks for reading, and sticking around with my site during this strange time, I hope it took you mind off what’s going on in the world, even for ten minutes, and if you’re a new reader, feel free to make yourself comfortable and read a few more of my posts, it’s not as if there’s anything else to do right now

Mischief managed.

 

A Fish Called Wanda Review

This past weekend, in one of my Monty Python reviews, I offhandedly mentioned the Pythons’ film careers after their work in the troupe, and it may surprise you to know that I haven’t actually seen much post-Python work from most of them.

Aside from Fawlty Towers, there isn’t any Python-heavy property I’ve seen a lot of, apart from a few of Terry Gilliam’s films and Cleese’s appearances in big franchises, I thought it might be time that I indulged some of their later work, and as I have this film sat on my shelf, and I’ve never heard anything but praise for it, so I was hoping it wouldn’t compromise the image of those involved that I’d built up.

I’m very pleased to say that it didn’t, in fact, it might have enhanced my perception of them.

A comedy really only has to be one thing to be successful: funny. It can have a terrible plot and characters, but with enough laughs it can work; A Fish Called Wanda is not only incredibly funny, but also extremely well thought-out; using a classic bank robbery run-around to wrong-foot us at every turn, leaving its characters in the most awkward, and hilarious, of situations.

There are not many films that can make me laugh until I feel faint, A Fish Called Wanda is one such film. I laughed until my sides hurt, then just when I thought I knew what was going on and I was safe, it made me laugh some more.

It makes for an incredibly engaging film all around, making the most of what it has at its disposal, mainly its characters, there’s a few memorable turns here, John Cleese as the buttoned-up English barrister, a role he was seemingly born to play, Kevin Kline as a murderous psychopath, who also happens to be a complete oddball, and the stuttering animal lover Ken, played by Michael Palin, who I feel should be singled out as a special mention for his incredibly believable stutter. As a stutterer myself, I had resigned myself to people overplaying it over the years, but Palin delivers a performance that utilises the afflictions comedic values, without ever feeling exploitive.

As can be expected from Cleese, the timing of everything is perfect, as is the often rapier-sharp script. It serves up a new hilarious turn at just the right time, when we’re least expecting it, but at the time when something needs to happen, it’s all spaced out and paced so well that there’s a new showpiece scene with almost clockwork regularity, which helps the film from slowing to a crawl.

Between these showpieces there’s a fairly involved plot going on too, a classic crime caper that keeps you on your toes as to who to really believe, there’s a planned double cross in there, a seduction of a barrister, and a few dogs get killed, all the classic stuff really.

Everyone within the film seem to be perfectly suited to the role they’re playing, and look like they’re having tremendous fun at the same time. Cleese probably gives his best performance here, as does Kline, who remarkably picked up an Oscar for his part in this film, a rare feat indeed for a comedy film. Jamie Lee Curtis is charming, yet devious, and Michael Palin plays the put-upon accomplice with great aplomb.

It’s a film with a tremendous amount of perfectly working parts, like a pristine grandfather clock, each component serves to help the next one work as much as it does itself; everything complements each other, there are wonderful parallels drawn between Archie’s (Cleese) life with his wife, and Otto’s (Kline) with Wanda (Curtis). One that sets in motion a course of events that trickle right down to the films conclusion, a satisfying cherry on top of this wonderful trifle of a film.

Was it what I was expecting? No, I can’t say it was, although in retrospect, I don’t know why. I should have known that any comedy written by Cleese would have more than a touch of the madcap, and Wanda is very madcap, but with a grounding in gritty reality that makes the film that more believable, and the characters that more likeable.

Since a comedy can only really be judged on how much it makes you laugh, I guess I better judge this as being great, because it made me laugh so much that at one point I thought I might actually pass out, I was so light-headed. A delightful romp that is excellently paced, and expertly acted. A true comedy classic.

John Wick Chapter 2 Review

In my last book, I reviewed the first John Wick, and earlier in this book, I reviewed the third chapter, so here I am closing the circle.

The John Wick series is a classic example of a franchise growing in scale with each instalment. The first film was one man looking for revenge after his dog was killed, by the time of the third instalment, that same man is travelling the world, fending off would-be assassins everywhere he goes.

But we get ahead of ourselves; the first film could well have been a self-contained singular story, but after its surprising success, it is no surprise a sequel was commissioned, so how does it up the stake, and does it match the same lofty heights?

Story

John Wick’s re-emergence hasn’t gone unnoticed by the criminal underworld, he’s soon accosted by someone to whom he owes a debt and must take up arms once more.

Verdict

Not only have the films stake naturally escalated between films, but the films visuals and stunt work has too.

Bathed in neon for most of the film, John Wick 2 has a dazzling noir style, not afraid to make itself more colourful than its predecessor, as well as more amorphous.

During the globe-trotting adventure, John Wick will partake in some incredible action sequences, including a scene in a hall of mirrors that might genuinely be an all-time great action scene, surrounded by squishy mortals to be used merely for target practise, Wick floats effortlessly through these scenes looking more and more invincible with each passing scene.

The story does suffer natural with being a ‘middle story’ situated in the midst of the flourishing franchise, it cannot help but feel anticlimactic in its build up to its sequel, this becomes more obvious as the film wears on and it becomes obvious that this film isn’t going to be the end for John Wick.

Keanu Reeves is a strange enigma of a man. Someone who possesses truly little natural acting talent yet continues to be both popular and watchable. Even if he doesn’t have the greatest range, he knows how to utilise his strengths, that’s why The Matrix worked so well for him, and why this franchise fits him like a glove too. He knows that the less he’s called upon to actually act, the better, and John Wick mainly grimaces, so we’re onto a winner.

I’d say that the franchise truly found its feet with its second film, sure the first established the character, but the second expanded, added to the mythos and made this world he inhabits so shrouded in mystery. The world of John Wick is one that seems familiar, but the more you look, the more alien it becomes.

All in all then, an excellent ramping up of the stakes from the first film, filling the gap between first and third and setting the course for the series as a whole. Keanu is at his best here and he’s surrounded by more capable, dynamic actors that flesh out the world. It would take a braver man than I to tarnish the name of John Wick.

John Wick Review

This is one of those films that gets more interesting the more you learn about it. I was reading an article on the upcoming third instalment of this franchise recently, and it detailed the origins of John Wick as a film, and it made for very interesting reading.

The apparent aim was to make a film where ‘Keanu Reeves kills 84 people’ why this figure is so precise I don’t know, and it wasn’t always written with Keanu in mind, as backwards as that seems, but eventually it was pitched as Keanu’s big action comeback, after a recent career slump, and it gave his career the shot in the arm it sorely needed.

Shot on a small budget, and only just managing to get a distributor, it’s a miracle it was such as success that it spawned further sequels, and a proposed spin-off. But is it as good as people remember?

Story

Retired mob hitman John Wick is in mourning after losing his wife, when he receives a package from his late wife that instantly turns his life around: a puppy. After a confrontation with a mob boss’ son, John finds himself the victim of a robbery, and his dog is murdered, setting him on a bloody revenge mission.

Verdict

Every once in a while, an action film comes along and takes everyone by surprise, a decade ago it was Taken, but Taken was never this cathartic or stylish.

Keanu Reeves has never been blessed with mastery of dramatic acting, what he can do is cold anti-hero’s, the directors of this saw this and made advantage of what they had, and made Keanu into a stone-cold killer with a sharp suit, and even sharper fighting style, with a swift pace and classic revenge tale, John Wick is a winner on almost every conceivable level.

What it adds to the time-tested archetypes it makes frequent use of is an undercurrent of noir stylishness, bathing scenes in bright neon, as if they were in Blade Runner, as opposed to a relatively low-budget action flick. It adds a crease of originality that spices up an otherwise run-of-the-mill action film.

It also stands out by making use of a wide range of fight scene, from frantic and claustrophobic hand-to-hand duels to fast and frantic gun battles, John Wick mixes its styles and tips its hat to many films that came before it, in a way that doesn’t pander to any particular style.

As mentioned earlier, Keanu Reeves is hardly going to be in Oscars contention any time soon, but he flourishes in the kind of environment that plays to his strengths, and I believe John Wick to be the best character for demonstrating Reeves’ skills. Neo in The Matrix was a bit of a blank slate, onto which Keanu’s limited charisma was projected, here he seems motivated and focused on bringing this character to life.

He is helped by the writing of the character, not only his characters, but those that surround him; Alfie Allen plays the perfect over-confident, easily hateable antagonist, he makes him so easily detestable that you can’t wait to see him meet his fate. Also, honourable mentions must go to experienced hands Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, whose characters gives us a glimpse into the wider world this film created, and one that was elaborated upon in the sequel.

In conclusion, John Wick is not just an enjoyable time, it’s stylish and vibrant enough to make it a worthwhile artistic statement, rather than just another popcorn film. It sets out its stall and leaves ample opportunity for the world to be expanded, which it duly was in Chapter Two, but that’s another review, for another time.

Little Shop of Horrors Review

There might not be a more highly-regarded composer and songwriter in modern Hollywood than Alan Menken. For many people my age, his songs in Disney films were the soundtrack to our childhoods, and the late-80’s revival of Disney’s fortunes owes a lot of its success to Menken’s songwriting.

Of course, he didn’t do this alone, for the early period of his career he worked with lyricist Howard Ashman, and the duos second project together was the off-off-Broadway production from which this film takes its name: Little Shop of Horrors.

A musical adaptation of the 1960 film of the same name, the show was such a success that it caught the attention of puppet-master, and the man behind Yoda, Frank Oz, who took the show, and put it back on the big-screen for this adaptation.

This turned out to be the best possible choice to direct, as Oz’s experience with puppets lent itself excellently to the creation of Audrey II, the on-screen man-eating plant, in doing so creating an iconic screen villain, still as impressive in its practical implantation as it ever was.

The film is a loving spoof of many things, chief among them B-movies, especially creature features; but it achieves that most rare thing of not only being a successful parody, but also a successful adaptation of what it is parodying. It works as both a B-movie creature feature, and a parody of the very same, it all depends on how the viewer interprets it in their own mind.

For the record, the version I watched for this review was the Director’s Cut, which I believe to be the most faithful adaptation of the source material, and the intended original experience, that doesn’t mean the theatrical cut isn’t good, just that this particular ending makes more sense with the rest of the film.

Menken and Ashman’s knack for a catchy tune can definitely be heard here, you can really hear the genesis of their later style in their Disney work, based around the kind of tunes that stick in your head, and lyrics that are perfect complements to the tune, by being memorable, and at times emotional.

It seems that their two main strengths are sweeping ballads (songs such as ‘Suddenly Seymour’ or ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ here, and later examples including ‘A Whole New World’ to just name a few) and triumphant upbeat tunes, like the titular song here or ‘Be Our Guest’. They’re also very skilled in conveying character through song, just look at the song ‘Dentist’ for a rather on-the-nose example; but all of these combined skills come together to make a memorable score, for nothing can kill a musical like an underwhelming score.

The most perfect marriage that this film finds is one I’ve already mentioned, it’s that of the film and its director, Frank Oz, who pools all his resources from his years of puppeteering experiences (as well as a few friends to help puppeteer) in bringing Audrey II to life.

this was the first time in many years that I’d watched this film, and I was astounded at how well Audrey II still works to modern eyes. It falls just on that side of practicality that doesn’t seem to age, some puppet use can age a film very badly in hindsight, but used well, it’s a timeless look and by using a practical puppet that can seemingly react to the actors around it, it helps foster a much more intimidating atmosphere around the creature, making itself frighteningly feasible by just being present, rather than if it were a special effect.

It’s put to even better use in the films finale (just to reiterate, that’s the Director’s Cut finale) when multiple plants seemingly wreak havoc around the world, again it’s all a tremendous example of practical effects in film-making, made to look lifelike and intimidating, while still retaining that comical cartoonish energy of seeing a killer plant take over the world.

The film is well-aware of its camp appeal, leaning into its future status as a ‘cult film’ with great gusto, its use of a Greek chorus in costumes that wildly differ from their surroundings is one such way that the film uses its appeal to stand out (as if the giant plant puppet weren’t enough).

The films parody energy is best felt amongst its supporting cast, a revolving door of weird characters surrounding the main characters, who seem so much more like archetypes because of it. This is most egregious when it comes to Audrey (the female lead, not the plant) whose nasally voice wears out its welcome pretty fast.

To balance that out though is a very likeable turn from the endlessly lovable Rick Moranis, who retains his title as Hollywood’s favourite nerd, as well as a delightfully sadistic Steve Martin playing a gleefully cruel dentist, and a one-scene show-stealer from one Bill Murray. All of the wackier characters are brought into sharper focus alongside the more straight-laced Seymour character, almost like he’s playing the ‘straight man’ for the rest of the world, and it works because Moranis radiates this energy of likeability, the same charm that made his character in Ghostbusters more palatable, he has an every-man earnestness that really works for this character, and his image as a whole.

As I say, I hadn’t seen this film in quite some time prior to a re-watch, and hadn’t seen the extended version at all, so it was quite refreshing to see a film that could be so dark, yet so much fun. Its soundtrack is packed with winners, which shouldn’t be a surprise given who wrote it, and the characters and settings all come together to produce a film that actively seems to laugh at its own subject matter, but does it with such gusto and vigour that it becomes endearing. It gives us a man-eating plant with the voice of The Four Tops, and we beg for more. A wonderful slice of campy B-movie cult cinema, that I think deserves more plaudits than it gets.

It’s definitely silly, but it’s also definitely a lot of fun.