We cover another hodge-podge of arbitrarily selected films for this month’s Intermission podcast, namely Death Note, Hotel Salvation, American Made. The Anthem of the Heart, Pawn Sacrifice, and Mindhorn. Find out what these flicks’ major malfunctions are in this exhilarating episode! You will be exhilarated.
I suppose I’ve been aware that Death Note is a thing for a while now, specifically an anime thing that’s on the list of Things I’ll Keep Saying I’m Going To Catch Up On, But Plainly Never Will, Given Current Experience. That list needs a snappier title. At any rate, it seemed this Westernised Netflix adaptation would be a foot in the door, but for aforementioned reasons if you’re looking for a review to tell you how accurate a translation it is, I am not your boy. In this sense. In all other senses, I of course remain your boy.
Infeasibly named high school student Light Turner, played by infeasibly named 22 year old Nat Wolff, because of course he is, heaven forfend a teenager play a teenager, makes an ill-advised stand against the school bully that doesn’t go all that well for him. Opportunity for vengeance arises when demonic death god Ryuk, voiced and mocapped by Willem Dafoe, drops the titular notebook into Light’s lap. As long as Light knows the real name and face of a target, simply write their name, and if so desired the dispatch method, into this book, and lo, they are forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil.
After taking the opportunity to kill the man who killed his mother in a hit and run accident, he reveals this exciting addition to his library to fellow youngling and soon to be girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley, also 22, oi vey). Spurred on by her, the two resolve to use the Death Note for good, by murdering hundreds or thousands of alleged criminals without due process, using the book’s limited method of victim mind control to create the diversionary fiction of this happening under the aegis of a divine Lord Kira.
This does raise the question that if, in this Westernised adaptation, the Japanese name Lord Kira is chosen to throw investigators off the scent, in the original work, do they similarly arrive at a cover name of Lord Baxonby Fotherington-Smythe?
Speaking of investigators, there’s some immediate family tension caused when Light’s detective father James (Shea Whigham) announces he’s joining a team of investigators into these Kira killings – an investigation not sitting well with a public who rather approve of criminals scattering in fear of their lives. Not, it turns out, that James does much of the investigating, that being left to the enigmatic, possibly insane L (Lakeith Stanfield), with his mysterious past becoming a plot point later. L is essentially handled as a souped-up Sherlock Homes, and he makes inroads into this case at some rate.
This spooks Light and Mia, with Mia pushing for the murder of the investigation team as a precaution, but clearly patricide isn’t on the table for Light. All of these tensions push towards an unremarkable climax on a Ferris wheel, which I believe was the title of Morrissey’s third solo album.
Death Note is resolutely alright, but no more, and frankly there’s not all much to say about it. I suspect this is why almost as many column inches are devoted to allegations of whitewashing rather than the film itself, because it’s more interesting to talk about. I’ll largely refrain from than here, apart from suggesting that people review what the word “adaptation” means, and also point them at much more egregious and obvious examples such as Ghost in the Shell.
As for this film, our protagonists and antagonists put in adequate, but unspectacular turns, which is enough to drive the plot forward, but without ever making it feel like anyone cares all that much about the events that unfold. The premise is interesting, but there’s no real tension around anything that happens apart perhaps from the end sequence that engineers some, but only through some ludicrous contortions that almost makes me wish they hadn’t bothered.
There are positives, mostly from Ryuk, who is one creepy looking character, and Dafoe, who is also one creepy looking character, but more importantly for this film, a creepy sounding character, which lends him an air of quiet menace that’s a high point of the film. It’s tempting to wish for him to be featured more heavily, but it’s probably the more sparing appearances that keep it special.
As for the rest of it, it feels like a bit of a squandered opportunity. For example, for my money the most interesting part of this is the following that this seeming new divine entity Lord Kira gathers, with quickly-blown by new footage showing cathedrals being torn down by worshippers of this new God. It’d be interesting to dive into that, where here it seems as though it’s only mentioned to set up an assist from a member of the public when he’s being chased by L.
I suppose that’s best suited for an episodic format, which circles back to the central question of “why make this film?” It’s had some terrible reviews which I think are a trifle harsh, but I’m not going to pretend that my predominant feeling towards this film isn’t mild disinterest. I’m happy to take it as read that the original Japanese works are much better, but perhaps the most critical flaw I can find in this film is that it’s very much dampened my enthusiasm to watch any of them. I’ve a few niggles with the nitty gritty details of how this film’s rules work, and are related to us, but to be honest when the bigger picture is off there’s no point slandering the minutiae.
As a standalone experience, I’ll give it this – it takes more than a few risks with its content, themes, morals and characters, and that’s more than most mainstream Hollywood output can say, and with an admittedly sizeable but not insane budget, it looks about as good as any other live action comic book adaptation. I’m sure that will endear it to many, and in a lot of ways I wish I liked it more – I can at least appreciate what they were aiming for – but in the end I can’t recommend it to general audiences.
Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) is the debut feature from 25 year old Indian writer and director Shubhashish Bhutiani, who, before this, had made a name for himself with a couple of award-winning live action short films.
77 year old former teacher Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with his son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), his daughter-in-law Lata (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and granddaughter Sunita (Palomi Ghosh). After being plagued with a recurring dream for several weeks, Daya comes to the conclusion that the dreams means that his time has come, and that he is about to die. He declares to his family that he wants to go to the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, so that he can die there.
Rajiv tries to dissuade his father from this notion, but he’s a willful and stubborn guy, and manages to push the buttons of his stressed, workaholic, but dutiful son by telling him that he doesn’t need to worry about him, and that he can make his own way there and, by inference, die alone. So Rajiv arranges time away from work, and travels with his father to Varanasi. There, they check-in to the rodent and cockroach-infested Salvation Homestead, where the curmudgeonly owner Mishraji (Anil K. Rastogi) informs them that guests can stay for two weeks. And if they don’t die within those two weeks? Well, they simply re-register under a new name, and carry on waiting. One resident, Vimla (Navnindra Behl, Lalat Behl’s real-life wife), has been waiting to die for 18 years. That’s a lot of names.
The hotel is something of a hospice, but a hospice for the soul, rather than the body, where people come to find what they seek, on the banks of the holy river. And what do they seek? Peace, perhaps? Understanding? In Daya’s case, though he perhaps didn’t realise it, it’s a rapprochement with his son. He rebukes his son for giving up on the poetry that he used to write as a child, but Rajiv tells him that Daya beat that poetry out of him. Both Rajiv and Daya will find what they seek, and many things they either didn’t look for, or didn’t expect to find.
For a film about death, Hotel Salvation is surprisingly funny (one scene sees Daya stir from his fever long enough to tell the monks who have come into his room to sing and prepare his soul for its departure to bloody well sing in tune, if you please), though in a way that feels true to the characters, and largely avoiding gallows humour. It’s also touching, without being maudlin or mawkish.
The acting from all concerned is low key and undemonstrative, and all the more affecting for it – without any histrionics or bombast, but with warmth, the cast portray a believable, relatable, family dynamic. Lalit Behl brings dignity and gravitas to his role as Daya, but does so with a twinkle in his eye and more than a hint of mischief. But it is Adil Hussain who deserves the lion’s share of the praise. He transmits well the various stresses and duties that his character carries on his shoulders; the competing desires for his father not to die, but for this whole thing to be over so he can return to work (he is regularly on the phone with his boss during his time in Varanasi). But in his time in that city so associated with death, he learns something about life.
Thanks to David Huwiler and Michael McSweeney’s cinematography, much of the film has an appealingly relaxed, languorous, almost hazy aesthetic, with the warm sun energising, rather than enervating, the peeling paintwork and rundown buildings of the ancient city, and the night-time scenes are full of colour.
There is something of a surprise to be found in Tajdar Junaid’s (at times prescriptive) score, also, in that it eschews the very obvious choice of a sitar in favour of the Western guitar and orchestra, which, being no fan of the sitar, I welcome.
I’d like a little more substance, the film feeling a little slight for me on occasion, but at 100 minutes it’s efficient and affecting and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it’s a fine debut from Bhutiani, whose future work I look forward to.
Based, ever so loosely, on the zany life story of one Barry Seal, this Tom Cruise vehicle was going to come out in January but was pushed back to September, apparently to avoid competition with Amityville: The Awakening and Underworld: Blood Wars. I’d like to reassure you up front that this film is significantly more enjoyable than you’d expect from a film that execs were reportedly doubting would struggle against two utter turds, two unflushable, steaming toleys in cinema’s toilet.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a young hotshot pilot finding himself bored with the day-to-day routine of his job as a TWA pilot. We’ll choose to believe him when he tells us that he’s approached by CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an offer he can’t refuse. Seal is set up with his own aviation firm, and a flash new airplane, with an aftermarket modification of a surveillance camera on the undercarriage.
He’s tasked with running routes that take him over central American flashpoints, taking photos of the various rebel groups and so forth that are of interest to Uncle Sam, and soon acting as a go-between for the CIA and Noreaga. Word of this zany Yank’s exploits reaches the Medellin Cartel, as Pablo Escobar makes his way into yet more media. Escobar is so hot right now.
He’s given another offer he can’t refuse, and supplements his meagre CIA stipend with a spot of the ol’ drug smuggling. This proves insanely lucrative, and even more so after the CIA ask him to run guns down to the Contras, who I believe were a popular Konami franchise at the time. And so it goes, with Seal expanding his team to keep all of these groups happy. Well, for a while, at least.
Whilst all this is going on, Barry must also keep his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their kids in the dark about this, well, at least until the amount of cash they’re hiding in every available nook and cranny renders any cover story suspect. His home life, and reliability of the cover story takes a hit when Lucy’s brother and serial screw-up JB (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives and through multiple indiscretions attracts the notice of pretty much every crime investigation agency in the USA, although they’d already started to notice what’s going on, and a net closes around Barry, with the CIA quick to slap a burn notice on Barry and disavow all knowledge.
There’s further twists to the tale before Barry’s story comes to a sudden end, but you’ve probably got the gist of the film. The movie is framed around Barry recording a series of video diaries detailing his exploits, so he can be used as a narrator to jump between timeframes, a device which works well enough, particularly in a film that’s not taking itself entirely seriously.
This film is centred almost entirely on Cruise’s turn, and I’m sure there are some people tired of the couch-jumping fool, but he’s for me he’s still charismatic enough to enhance a middling script and story such as we see here to really be rather enjoyable. It’s aided by its pacey delivery, and a few very effective aerial action scenes.
Doug Liman’s film is wearing its influences on its sleeve, and if you are going to draw from a film, Goodfellas isn’t a terrible template to follow. Cruise’s manic energy pulls us thought Barry’s madcap adventures, although I’m sure it goes without saying that this isn’t a patch on Goodfellas. What is? In particular, imagine if Goodfellas didn’t have De Niro or Pesci to counterbalance Liotta’s turn – it’d probably still be very enjoyable, I’d wager, but nowhere near a classic. Which is exactly where American Made winds up, and that’s no bad thing.
Who wouldn’t want to watch an enjoyable film? People who hate joy and filthy communists, that’s who. You’re not a communist, are you? No, well, I recommend you schedule this film into your viewing plans, even if it’s not an absolute priority.
Rejected running jokes for this review: references to Seal Team 6, Seal lyrics, Seals of approval, and something really tenuous about the Chuckle Brothers. I’ve not been well.
Talkative young Jun, a girl with a strong imagination and an innocent heart, sees her father, the prince, leave the magical castle on top of the hill in his carriage, after attending the ball with a beautiful fair-haired woman. Excited, she runs to tell her (dark-haired) mother of what she has seen.
The castle is, in fact, a love hotel, and her father is certainly no prince. In the next scene we see her father preparing to move out of the family home and, in a 100% successful attempt to add “scumbag father” next to “scumbag husband” on his curriculum vitae, her father tells Jun that this is all her fault. The distraught child then meets a magical egg, which tells her that her talkativeness is the problem, and that she must be cursed to never speak, so that she can’t harm anyone or cause them pain again (and also so that she can’t fall foul of nefarious telemarketers). No, really.
We jump forward several years, and Jun is now in high school, where she is selected by her teacher to be part of the leadership committee for their class’s community outreach project. She manages to utter a couple of words in protest (which shocks her classmates, none of whom have ever heard her speak), before suffering crippling stomach pain, something she experiences whenever she tries to talk.
Jun goes to the teacher’s office to plead with him, and walks in on Takumi, a boy there for the same reason as her, singing, and something is lit inside of her. Jun, living in her own, speechless, solitude for so long thinks that Takumi has the power to see into her heart because of what he was singing about and, frightened and confused, she confronts him. He has no such power, of course, but Takumi and Jun begin a friendship, which extends to the other committee members, baseballer Daiki and cheerleader Natsuki, as they decide to really challenge themselves, and the class, by putting on a musical, with lyrics based on Jun’s stories about a prince, a castle and an evil egg.
I, as cynical old man, am definitely not the target audience for this film, which is aimed, I think, more at teens, but I found myself quite touched by much of the film. I am very much aware that had this been a) in English and, especially, b) live action then I may well have felt very differently about it as, though it avoids the most clichéd ending, it is open to criticisms of unoriginality and saccharinity. I do have a few criticisms, though: as with most films, the voiceovers are, at best, unnecessary (though fairly limited in use here), and its need to spell out the metaphors is infuriating, even given the age of its intended audience, and it’s certainly a bit heavy-handed with its message of the importance of self-expression.
But while her falling for the first boy that shows some interest in her is a rather obvious, and easy, route to take the character, that Jun improves and grows as a result of discovering the joy of music and friendship is touching and true, and reminds me that, thankfully, I’m not nearly as cynical as I think I am.
In general the animation is serviceable. It’s clean and well-drawn, there’s just little that is remarkable about it, though there are some scenes (the light and dark in the performance of the musical, and subtleties in the characters’ movement in that section, in particular) where director Tatsuyuki Nagai shows hints of something a little more special. Also, as Jun doesn’t speak for much of the film, we rely on the animation to understand her, and it does a fine job of that.
And I liked the music – I’ve always had a fondness for hearing songs sung in a language not my own, and I don’t find the Japanese lyrics set to western tunes (Over the Rainbow, Swanee, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, Around the World in 80 Days) incongruous in the slightest, as many seem to have done.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Anthem of the Heart, and found myself engaged by Jun’s plight: afraid to talk in case she is hurt, or, worse, hurts someone else; a reminder of the power, and danger, of words, and especially the care one must take with the words used to, and around, children. As the film observes, words hurt people, and you can’t take them back.
It’s hard to fathom, given the ever declining attention spans that the modern world tends to encourage, but once the world paid rapt attention to televised chess matches between the dominant Russian grandmasters and the young upstart American Bobby Fischer as he sought to challenge them. The seventies are a foreign country, they do things differently there, and it’s generally some kind of cold war proxy.
Pawn Sacrifice, a film made in 2014 which sat on a shelf for a year before a US release, and then another two before appearing in the UK, which tends not to be a great sign, dramatizes the story of aforementioned Bobby Fischer, as he grows from a youngling with a raw talent for the game, to a young man with a formidable genius for chess, but with equally formidable personal problems, including a paranoia that will eventually be his ruin.
Tobey Maguire plays Fischer as an adult, prodded into mounting a serious challenge to the Russian team by lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s seconded by William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), one of the few American players he seems to have any respect for, and sets about preparing for and beating the chess out of the Russian team, with his sights set on end boss Boris Spassky, played here by Liev Schreiber.
And so it goes, although for obvious reasons it’s a little more concerned with the deterioration of Fischer’s mental state than his genius for the game, probably because it’s not obvious as to what’s a genius move in chess unless you’re also close to a genius level yourself. I know the rudiments of the game, but if it weren’t for Schrieber’s raised eyebrows I couldn’t tell you the difference between a question mark exclamation point and a exclamation point question mark. Little chess notation joke for you there. Sure that’s widely applicable to everyone listening out there. Strong demographic correlation. Tested well in focus groups.
So, while there’s no minimising his talent here, the bulk of the drama comes from Tobey Maguire frantically disassembling phone receivers looking for Russian listening devices, and it’s largely downhill from there. Of course, the thing of it is that being spied on is not an entirely unrealistic expectation given the geopolitical proxying going on at the time.
I guess about five or six years ago I watched a documentary going round the festival circuit, Bobby Fischer vs. the World, which had a very similar focus to this film, and if my memory serves I think I preferred that to this. I don’t have a very strong reason for that view, really, as Pawn Sacrifice is also a perfectly acceptable film, with perfectly acceptable performances, particularly from Maguire and Schriber in the final confrontations.
There’s a few things that stops this being entirely successful, particularly because there’s no way it’s thought of to really get across the nuances of what makes a chess game great, other than cutting back to an excited looking Sarsgaard explaining it to Stuhlbarg, which works well enough I suppose, but it’s not hugely cinematic. I’m not saying I’ve got an answer for that conundrum, but, well, I’m not the fella putting chess in front of modern cinema audiences.
And, well, I don’t know how someone who had not been keeping up to date with Fischer’s life story will approach it, but if you do know that the ending is in no way happy, you may wonder how the film will send you home with a song in your heart. It very much does not. Indeed, the abrupt drop off from Fischer’s moment of triumph to the text describing his ultimate end game leaves as bad a taste in the mouth as the credits roll as any film I can think of.
Pawn Sacrifice is a decent enough film, and it’s well made, with a talented cast. It’s just taking a difficult subject to make an entertaining film out of, and not quite meeting that goal. It seems a story altogether better suited to a documentarian format. There’s still an audience for this, but it’s certainly not a wide one. Chess fans? Those with a particular interest in the period and the politics? Those looking for a portrait of declining mental health? Only the intersection of all of those sets? I’m not sure. It’s a solid film, but I’m not sure who’ll appreciate it best.
I’m afraid there’s no solid conclusion to this review, which I shall blame on the flu, but, well, if you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like.
1980s the Isle of Man. Actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) is Mindhorn, an MI5 officer with a laser eye, and an eye for the ladies. He dashes about the island (stand-in so often in real life, thanks to generous tax breaks, for other parts of the UK) in his Jaguar XJ; dodging bullets, causing explosions, wooing women. The Six Million Dollar Manx. The Bionic Bergerac, with his enhanced eye that can literally see the truth. Thorncroft was a star. And after 3 series he decides that he’s had enough of this soggy little rock in the middle of the Irish Sea and its people, as well as the detective that made his name, and he’s off to Hollywood.
A quarter of a century later, and Thorncroft is a washed-up, bald, paunchy loser. He never made it in Hollywood, and is now both bitter and delusional, claiming friendship with the likes of Kenneth Branagh (played here by Kenneth Branagh), while trying out for wildly inappropriate roles. His agent (Harriet Walter) can’t stand him, and the only roles she has managed to procure for him in recent years are for adverts selling surgical supports and other similarly glamorous products.
When a real-life murder happens on the Isle of Man, and the chief suspect, a simpleton referring to himself as The Kestrel (Russell Tovey), contacts the police, and says that he is willing to talk, but only to Bruce P. Mindhorn, Thorncroft spies the potential for publicity and redemption. Back where he made his name, Mindhorn discovers that his old flame and co-star Pat (Essie Davis) is now married to the show’s stuntman (Simon Farnaby), and his hated former colleague Peter Eastman (Steve Coogan) is now a star and local great thanks to 16 series of a CSI-like MIndhorn spin-off. With all of these challenges to overcome, Thorncroft girds his loins, gees himself up, and proceeds to make a complete and utter tit of himself. Again and again.
Redemption will come to Thorncroft eventually, but he’s going to have to suffer a lot of pain to get there (as, unfortunately, do we), and it’s going to be an unpleasant personal journey for the actor as he goes on a journey where, as director Sean Foley puts it, “an arsehole realises that he’s an arsehole”.
Not because of the presence of Steve Coogan (who is, in fact, rather pointlessly cast here), but Mindhorn very much brings to mind Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. But while the cheap and parochial feel of that film very much fit the infamous radio host and his circumstances, it just makes Mindhorn feel tremendously low-rent. There are some genuinely very funny scenes in Mindhorn, but they’re few and far between. Most of the rest is incredibly try-hard – a thirty minute idea, or perhaps even just a handful of sketches, trying, and failing, to fill even this modest 89 minute runtime. Particularly symptomatic of this is Russell Tovey’s Paul Melly (aka The Kestrel), whose unfairly-blamed innocent who believes that Mindhorn is real, could potentially have been quite interesting. Instead, he’s given little to do other than wear a silly outfit, make silly noises and play about with plasticine. He’s a crazy person, so he makes shrieking noises. Oh, the hilarity! My sides! Aidez-moi! I fear words like “wacky” and possibly the hideous “zany”, or some synonym, were in the air while these scenes were being written.
Barratt, who co-wrote the screenplay with fellow The Mighty Boosh alumnus Barnaby, is actually pretty engaging in the title role, and gets the majority (well, actually, all) of the best scenes. I doubt that’s selfishness though – I feel that they had an interesting idea for a character, but very little idea for what to surround him with. With the possible exception of Richard McCabe’s down-on-his-luck publicist, none of the other characters or storylines add anything, from Nicholas Farrell’s vain mayor, to Andrea Riseborough’s thankless role and plot thread and even Barnaby’s bizarre, half-naked Dutchman (who’s bordering on Goldmember-ish). And how many nemeses does one has-been actor need?
I’d really rather been looking forward to this, so I’m particularly disappointed. It’s not awful, but it’s really not very good, and, as I said earlier, it’s very, very try hard. As a thirty minute TV special I think this could have been great, but it’s not worthy of the big screen. One to avoid, sadly.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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