That’s all well and good, but numbers don’t always reflect accurately on whether a film is any good or not. So, does HI, MOM deserve the accolades that those numbers suggest? In short, yes, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
Jia Ling (the co-writer, director and star of the film) is one of China’s top comedians who came to fame doing celebrity impressions on a 2012 TV show called Your Face Sounds Familiar, and then worked her way through a variety of films and TV shows, ultimately creating her own production company. HI, MOM (I have to say, that overly Americanised English language title really grates on me) is based on her own experiences of grief and loss after her mother died when she was nineteen. In 2016, Jia Ling adapted those events into a comedy sketch called Hello Li Huanying (a much better title) for Comedy General Mobilization on Chinese TV and then, over the next three years worked with Bu Yu, Sun Jibin and Wang Yu to develop it into a screenplay. At first blush, it’s not the kind of subject matter that immediately screams out, ‘this story oughta be a comedy’ and, for me, the funny stuff she’s created is not what lingers in the thoughts and reflections after the credits roll. There’s something deeper and more profound going on here.
HI, MOM is the story of Jia Xiaoling aka Ling (Jia Ling) who is a constant disappointment to her mother, Li Huanying (Liu Jia). The opening scenes of the film drive this home as we watch the mother cope with endless disappointment and letdown as her daughter grows from toddler to adolescent. It’s not for want of trying on Ling’s part, but everything she does from pooping her pants to forging entry papers to a college leaves her feeling that she’s never done anything to make her mother proud and that this is a major part of what Ling perceives to be her mother’s unhappy life. But after Ling’s mother is critically injured in a cycling incident, Ling finds herself inexplicably transported back in time to 1981, well before she’s even born. Here, like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, she encounters and becomes friendly with her mother as a young woman (Zhang Xiaofel). But unlike Back to the Future, there is no pseudo-scientific explanation for the time travel (in fact there’s no real explanation at all – but that doesn’t matter in this story), and unlike Back to the Future, Ling is not trying to ensure that her future mother meets her future father so that the life she knows can be created. Quite the opposite, in fact. Ling sets about making a happier life for her mother by doing her best to see the younger Li Huanying make better choices that will lead to a more fulfilling and satisfying future life. This includes playing matchmaker between her mother and Shen Guanglin (Shen Teng) the hapless son of the boss of the factory where she works. Again, unlike Back to the Future, Ling seemingly has no concerns for what might happen to her own unborn self if she succeeds in pairing her future mother up with someone other than her own future father.
The comedy in HI, MOM (for me, at least) is more ‘smiling humour’ than laugh out loud gags, but that’s okay because what frames the funny stuff is an examination of a young woman who seizes the unlikely opportunity of changing the past to produce unselfish outcomes for someone who she feels deserves better in both life and the kind of daughter she has. It’s these themes that have, perhaps, struck a nerve with the rapidly growing audience; the idea that women who have not been well served by marriage or motherhood or opportunity deserve better and that the ‘better’ is much more effective in retrospect. Anecdotally, this has translated to much more than just mega ticket sales, with reports of increased focus in the media (both journalistic and social) on the relationships young people have with their mothers and the issues of satisfaction and happiness ion their lives.
There is much to like about this film. Others may find the funny stuff funnier than I did (although there are two set pieces – a volleyball match and a talent night – that are really well staged for both physical humour and some funny lines (as funny as English subtitles can be) but what elevates the film above the need to live or die by its humour is the depth and slow burn of its storytelling and the uniformly strong performances that Jai Ling has surrounded herself with, especially the work of Zhang Xiaofel and Shen Teng. The three of them are the core of this film and are each eminently watchable and relatable. To be honest. I was pleasantly carried along by Hi Mom for the bulk of its quite long (over two hours) running time which probably sounds like I’m damning the film with faint praise, but that isn’t my intention, because something happens in the third act that completely changes the pleasant experience to something more potent and emotionally powerful. I’m not going to say what it is, butmy admiration for Jia Ling rose considerably when I realised that she’d taken a calculated risk by playing the long game with this film, rather than going for the quick and easy laugh. And it’s a risk that pays off.
HI, MOM is a warm and thoughtful film that presents Jia Ling as not only an accomplished writer and a talented director, but also as a highly engaging actor able to underpin the comedic veneer of the film with a heartfelt and genuine sense of wanting to say something about the kinds of opportunities for the expression of love and respect that a sudden death steals away from us. Don’t go expecting a laugh out loud gag-fest – but do go. And afterwards, call your mother.
HI MOM is currently playing in selected cinemas.
The upshot of this has been that many of us who, for some time, have been quite used to feeding our film fix via our smaller domestic screens with screeners and streamers and (if you’re old school) the occasional DVD, suddenly found these other screen experiences competing for our eyeballs – works that we would ordinarily have seen live in theatres and concert halls and galleries.
So, what’s this got to do with the Taub Brothers’ film EXTERNO? Well, while watching this visually rich and highly conceptual film I found, quite often, that I had to remind myself that this was indeed a film and not one of these interlopers - a virtual version of a kind of hybrid performance-visual-art installation piece that I was accessing on my flat screen in lieu of the actual experience. It’s out of this dichotomy (of my own making) that my two minds about the film formed and, by the time the end credits rolled, left those two minds with opposing feelings about how the film affected me.
Externo is the first feature outing for Argentinian brothers Leandro and Jonathan Taub. Whilst they share the producing and directing credits, Leandro picks up an extra couple of nods as both screenwriter and actor. Between the two of them, what they come up with resonates with Jonathan’s background in works that rely on an immersive experience heavy on visuals and music and Leandro’s extensive work as a novelist. But it’s not so much a story they tell as it is an idea or a response to the big issues that face the world.
Leandro plays Joseph, a driven and focused but somewhat spiritual man who is presented to us as a solitary and hermit-like figure rattling around in an abandoned and cavernous structure somewhere in an isolated wildness of bushland. Joseph has a plan for the world, a mobile phone and two thousand dollars in capital. With seemingly benevolent or well-meaning intensions, Joseph’s goal is to leverage the cash into a personal commercial fortune that provides him with global power. He achieves this one transaction at a time with the aid of Zeta (Christian Bargados) a disembodied voice on the end of his mobile phone. Into the endless routine of commercial transactions comes a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich) known only as She, who interrupts Joseph’s focus on the accumulation of wealth and power by reminding him how his success can impact on humanity and the havoc his plan can easily wreak if he allows himself to deal only with the end goal, rather than the means by which he gets there. Joseph’s progression towards world domination is marked by title cards with ‘chapter headings’ and single, provocative words projected onto surfaces in both the internal and external spaces as well as visuals intrusions of stock imagery of the human impact on the world and environment.
It's here that I found myself alternating between seeing this work on the one hand as a film and on the other as a multi-media artwork. If I view it as a narrative work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, then I find it very quickly makes its point about global corruption and abuses of power and the influence of wealth and then has little more to offer than the same point repeated over and over. In this sense, I was engaged early but soon tired of the sameness of pace and setting and dynamic in the way it kept me essentially the same thing in slightly different ways. However, when I released myself from narrative expectations and started to consider the visual, performative and artistic aspects of the film, I found I engaged with EXTERNO on a very different level. I could imaging being immersed in the environment of this decaying structure surrounded by lush vegetation and encountering the performers as living visual elements of a highly conceptual installation (not unlike Punchdrunk Theatre’s astoundingly good, site-specific, multi-sensory installation-promenade-performance Sleep No More based in New York – if you’ve never heard of it, look it up).
The thing with this latter interpretation of EXTERNO is that it gives you permission to drop in and out of your artistic engagement and, to a large extent, make of the work what you will. For me, this kind of relationship with what the Taub brothers have created – like setting your iPod to shuffle mode – can still achieve the overarching goal of the concept without having to work your way through the plodding narrative. Viewed in this way, EXTERNO works a lot better for me than if I view it (as, no doubt, intended) as a more traditionally structured film. Either way there are provocative and interesting ideas embedded in EXTERNO, even if they don’t successfully coalesce around a narrative thread.
Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is a middle-aged man stuck in a rut. He wakes, commutes to a dreary accounting job at his father-in-law’s factory, comes home, wonders when his wife and kids begin to drift away from him, and repeats. As title cards crash unrelentingly through days and weeks in this opening montage, Odenkirk perfectly wears Hutch’s pathetic resignation; he’s a far cry from John Wick or Bryan Mills. However, after a home invasion threatens his family, something in Hutch snaps. Seeking revenge, he resorts to skills gained from his previous career as a contract killer for government agencies, only to inadvertently start a feud with a Russian mob boss.
If you’ve seen a trailer for NOBODY (or John Wick, or most Liam Neeson films from the past decade), Hutch’s secret past probably isn’t a twist. In fact, Kolstad’s script is keenly aware of this trope and subverted my expectations, instead choosing to slowly, and nonchalantly, reveal details and trust viewers to put the pieces together. This culminates in the wonderfully morbid recurring joke of Hutch telling his story to wounded mobsters, getting lost in his monologue, only to look back and realise his audience has already bled out. You hear enough exposition dumping in other films, so why waste time?
Odenkirk’s casting puts a fresh face on the familiar premise and is the clearest reason for the film’s success. NOBODY requires an actor that makes you sit up giddily and say “Really? This guy?” much like the first Taken film did with Neeson years ago. While his long-running TV stint as Saul Goodman has seen him associate with criminals, I doubt anyone has ever seen Odenkirk this close to the action. Nevertheless, he delivers a carefully measured performance capable of turning from submissive white-collar worker to stoic, world weary ass-kicker on a dime, and handles himself well during the expertly choreographed fight scenes (see below). Odenkirk’s comedic background also suits Kolstad’s at times tongue-in-cheek dialogue, like demanding that robbers return his daughter’s prized ‘kitty cat bracelet’ while somehow keeping a straight face.
Speaking of fresh faces, English-speaking viewers likely won’t be familiar with Russian actor Aleksei Serebryakov, though his eccentric turn as Hutch’s newfound nemesis Yulian makes a somewhat underwritten role memorable. There are plenty of archetypal displays of his sociopathy, such as beating up associates who are already in hospital, where Serebryakov is suitably intimidating. But I preferred the scene of him entering his nightclub and just singing and dancing on stage for over a minute without interruption. The song is in Russian (I think) and there are no subtitles, so it can’t be important for the plot. Did Naishuller include this scene purely to show that Yulian is a charismatic, if odd, figure? If so, it clearly worked on me, and I would’ve loved to learn more about him.
NOBODY is a tightly paced film, relying on MacGuffins and, as previously mentioned, viewers’ awareness of action tropes to keep the time between flashy setpieces to a minimum. In a film without much genre expertise behind the camera, this narrative slightness could’ve been an issue. Thankfully, the action is so infectiously fun that it simply doesn’t matter. From a claustrophobic five-on-one brawl on a public bus, to a climactic factory showdown featuring Home Alone-esque booby traps and a literal Chekhov’s gun, I was in awe of the impressive stunt work and Naishuller’s virtuosic direction. Notably, the camera is often close enough to see that Odenkirk is doing the hand-to-hand combat himself, a testament to his willingness to truly go out of his comfort zone for this role.
Consider this my plea to Hollywood that Bob Odenkirk be allowed to try any genre he wants, provided he’s surrounded by the right people. NOBODY wouldn’t work without such an experienced team behind it ensuring that its simplicity didn’t equate to lowered standards. The action sequences here are unlikely to live on in genre fame, but will easily live up to the expectations of anyone who loved John Wick or Taken. Nevertheless, the real draw of this film is its star, who demonstrably proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks and make it look effortless.
So, I give you the same advice. Even though it’s no longer in cinemas, seek it out by whatever means possible and try not to read up on it at all before you see it. In the meantime, I’ll try and say as little as possible about the film whilst offering my thoughts about why I think it’s so good.
I can tell you some things. It’s set in August 1943, so a couple of years before the atomic bomb would bring the war to an end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an opening credit sequence we get to see a black and white cartoon training film in that WW2 era American animation style. It’s a cartoon that reminds us that USAF aircrews often blamed what they called ‘gremlins’ for those inexplicable mechanical failures that took place from time to time. The action that follows (and there’s plenty of it) takes place aboard a B-17 Bomber on a flight from New Zealand to Samoa. The crew is your stock standard band of oddballs, loudmouths and misfits with one exception – late entry, Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) a mysterious woman carrying a top-secret parcel. No-one seems to know why she’s on board, some question whether she’s really who she says she is, and most of them flex their misogynistic muscles by giving her a ribald hard time; all except nice guy Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith). I think that’s about all I want to tell you about the story, except to say that before long some pretty scary things start to happen that are as much to do with an encounter with Japanese fighter planes as they are to do with the possibility that there’s something else on board that no-one was expecting. Oh, and of course, we’re all wondering what’s in that top-secret package.
Moretz, who often plays vulnerable or damaged young women in films like The Equalizer (2014), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) and the remake of Suspiria (2018) is perhaps best known for her superhero work as Hit Girl in Kick Ass (2010) and Kick Ass 2 (2013). In this film, she brings both these sets of skills together in a character that is reminiscent of Geena Davis as Samantha Caine in Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). She’s a terrific actor and this performance is compelling, especially during a long sequence where she has to carry the film on her own with almost no space for physicalisation. It’s a cracker of a sequence, but it’s not the only one.
This film is a real surprise. On the surface it’s a World War Two adventure but that genre is laced with generous servings from both the thriller genre and the horror genre PLUS it’s pretty funny when it wants to be. The cast (many of whom are not familiar faces) work well as an ensemble but it’s worth noting that in addition to great performances from both Moretz and Smith, there’s a standout role for Byron Coll as the curmudgeonly, hard- bitten Sergeant Major Terrence Taggart. They’re helped along by a tight and well paced screenplay co-written by Liang and Max Landis (although I was surprised not to see a nod to Richard Matheson in there for what this screenplay owes to a rather famous short script of his from the Twilight Zone days (along with several remakes). There’s also some impressive cinematography from Kit Fraser who is completely undaunted by the limitations of the tight and claustrophobically small spaces the set offers to the camera.
Of course, as you might expect in a film like this, plausibility is often put to the test, but Liang strikes such a deft tone with her direction that events and sequences that might otherwise pull the rug out from under, become moments of sheer delight and, in some cases, edge-of-your-seat suspense.
In the end, this is a hard film to pigeon-hole in terms of style and genre and an almost impossible film to talk about in any detail without spoiling the ride. But underneath all this it’s also a celebration of the contribution women made to the war effort and the roles and responsibilities they took on. Within the narrative, that aspect of the film may fall solely on the shoulders of Maude Garrett, but during the end credit sequence it’s amplified by some great images of real women doing real jobs in and around flying war mahcines in the forties.
Sadly, I suspect the timing of this film’s release – one of the first films to be thrown up on the screen for real live audiences who were keen to make their way back into cinemas after such a long closure – will have meant that it won’t have been seen by anywhere near the audience it deserves. But isn’t that what the streaming service are for? See it when you can but, more than not just giving away the end... make sure you don’t give away any of the surprises that happen along the way.
Using the premise that all animals are anthropomorphic 2-D cartoons, the film revolves around Tom trying to get revenge on Jerry for the mouse ruining his grift as a blind piano playing busking cat (with dreams of making it in the music industry). Jerry sees Tom’s act and decides to get in on the action so he can make enough cash to find a decent place to live – it seems that rents in NYC are restrictive even for mice. After ruining Tom’s gig and equipment Jerry finds himself at the upscale hotel The Royal Gate where co-incidentally a young woman named Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) is running her own grift, that of being a highly skilled hotel employee when in fact she’s found that she’s not really suited to even basic casual jobs in the big city.
The Royal Gate is hosting the celebrity wedding of the year with Instagram famous couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) planning an extravagant event that requires the hotel to take on extra staffing to ensure it runs smoothly. Hotel manager Mr Dubrous (Rob Delaney) hires Kayla who has somewhat unintentionally used someone else’s credentials to help manage the event under the supervision of middle management Terence (Michael Peña). Terence is immediately suspicious of Kayla and takes a small level of dislike to her which sets up and cat and mouse game between the two characters as he tries to undermine her efforts.
Meanwhile Jerry has moved himself in to the hotel and has no plans of leaving. When it is discovered that a mouse is living in the luxury building it falls to Kayla to try to remove him humanely (although the threat of exterminators is bandied about more than once). In response she officially brings Jerry on to the hotel staff, much to the consternation of Terence. Hijinks ensue. Or to be more precise, they don’t, at least not to a level that will satisfy younger viewers.
For most kids the pleasure of Tom and Jerry is seeing them fight in ridiculous ways. The rivalry is so well known and understood that it’s the basis of the meta comedy in The Simpsons with ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show.’ There are flashes of the dynamic that run through the film, but so much potential for slapstick cartoon action is wasted by the framing narrative involving the human characters. Tom and Jerry have an entire hotel and city to work out their famous rivalry, yet for most of the film’s runtime they are chaos producing characters that tend to make life difficult for the humans in the film. It’s a shame that director Tim Story (The Fantastic 4) doesn’t just allow them more time to run their absurd shenanigans as the major plot focus.
Although the narrative does a disservice to the animated characters, visually the film is quite rich. The 2-D animation works and is in many ways quite impressive. The production design is effectively the best thing about the film. Tom and Jerry both look as they should. Avoiding creating 3-D animated versions of the classic duo was a smart move as the film already seems miles away from what made the characters work – hence changing their appearance would only serve to further alienate the audience.
Chloë Grace Moretz commits to her role as Kayla, the human who Tom and Jerry interact the most with. Like Brendan Fraser before her, she’s aware of what kind of film she’s in and gives it her all without irony. Michael Peña seems less comfortable with the role and often his well-established comedic talents are wasted. Almost completely wasted is Ken Jeong who could just as easily been played by a number of actors with the same lack of effect. Writer Kevin Costello tries to throw in some amusing one-liners for the human actors but almost inevitably the jokes fall flat for both kids and adults alike.
The biggest mistake TOM & JERRY makes is to not invest in the formula that made the original cartoons successful. Over the top antics should trump stories about human beings listening to each other and finding their place. The lessons in the film aren’t aimed at the intended audience and they’re also not interesting or meta enough for the adults accompanying the children to screenings to find amusing or care about. In effect the film could have done with more rubber mallets and fewer set pieces with uninteresting and generally underwritten human characters. A lacklustre effort that will please few.
2020 | DIR: BEN MOLE | STARRING: SAM GITTINS, MICHAEL ELKIN, JOE EGAN | REVIEW BY DAVID NAGLE.
BEHIND THE LINE is a flyweight film with heavyweight ambitions. Despite the clear limitations of budget and experience, Behind looks to emulate some of the best World War II, sports, and World War II-sports movies around. From The Great Escape and the recent Dunkirk, to Triumph of the Spirit and Escape to Victory (and even Rocky IV), director Ben Mole’s film has a rich vein of cinematic history to mine. But it’s a shame that it never grasps which seams to focus on, which nuggets to keep and which to discard. Instead it becomes too much of a mashup of ideas and threads that would have benefitted from a tighter focus. A tight focus befits and benefits a tight budget.
Behind follows two members of the British Expeditionary Force who find themselves lost in France during their army’s retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Former champion boxer Danny (Sam Gittins) and Billy (James Haynes) run into a local French villager and her father, seeking help to find their way home. But a tense standoff soon ends with the ever selfless Danny suggesting they surrender to the surrounding Germans. To await transfer to Germany the pair are taken to a nearby makeshift prison, where the commander notices Danny's name and spots the chance to make things a bit more interesting for himself. Commander Drexler (Tim Berrington) forces Danny into fighting for his and his superior's entertainment, all while he and the other prisoners plot a way to escape.
Drexler is an attempt at the ‘sophisticated’ Nazi villain, one who sees himself as only part of the war for his own purposes, above his “more zealous colleagues”. The shoots are there and Behind could have developed this more, could have given the audience something on the path of the iconic Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds. He's not the only character that could have done with more development. While Gittins brings an easy, cockney wide-boy charm to Danny, he doesn't have quite the presence to hold the screen. Antonio Burstoff meanwhile, playing a French-Algerian prisoner, only gets one short scene but brings more emotional depth than any of the rest manage – maybe they should have focused the story on him.
Mole allows himself a few filmic flourishes – shadow boxing in the shadows, a stylistic introduction to Danny’s final opponent – but overall his direction is simple and would have gained from more play with lighting and varied lens choice. The fight scenes are tight but they don’t make the most of the inherently cinematic nature of boxing. It’s easy to lose the pattern of the fights, the rhythms of the round. The film also flies through its last 15 climactic minutes, while it paradoxically drags out earlier less hefty or necessary scenes. But it actually finds a confidence in those final moments that ironically brings the flaws of what’s come before into sharper focus. Had that confidence been extracted and extrapolated over the rest of the running time we might be talking about a wholly different level of film.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rough and ready movie made with the same boys’ own energy that the film tries to hark back to, then Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk might be for you.
Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is a lonely gas station worker regularly feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. Early scenes provide the viewer with ample evidence for why Melinda has become so unhappy: her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) coerces her into performing the most degrading, physically demanding jobs like cleaning toilets, while the customers refuse to thank her and lavish attention on Sheila instead. When the mysterious and troubled Billy (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly attempts to rob the station at gunpoint, Melinda finally begins to show other people how far she’s unravelled.
BURN is at its best when making inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and back characters into often-literal corners. For instance, the cramped employee break room initially hosts awkward back and forths between Billy and Melinda, only for this to suddenly become a disturbing sexual assault, then a frantic game of hide and seek. Later on, as a police officer walks down a long corridor between the shop floor and the scene of a crime, the viewer feels Melinda’s heart beat faster with each step.
In the broadest possible sense though, Melinda is a weird and frustrating lead. The sheer specificity of her idiosyncrasies and obsessions make me sure that Gan had quite a specific vision in mind for her, but not enough of this ultimately ended up onscreen. As it stands, Cobham-Hervey delivers a suitably creepy performance to pique the viewers’ curiosity, but is too vague and icy for us to care what happens. Even if Gan didn’t want to show backstory, at least making passing references could’ve gone a long way to capturing a more precise characterisation. A key example of this is her long-standing obsession with Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) which, while intriguing, isn’t explained in detail.
Furthermore, BURN struggles to come up with links between its more dynamic sequences, rendering the second half less satisfying. Hutcherson is absent for much of this stretch of the film (I won’t spoil why), a void which Gan fills by having Melinda largely resume her nightly work duties and try to keep cool about the preceding events. The result is surprisingly formulaic: a one-off character approaches Melinda with a query, a stray line of dialogue makes it seem as though all might inadvertently be revealed, but then it isn’t. It all simply feels like it doesn’t matter whether the audience is paying attention to these ‘scenes between scenes’, a problem exacerbated by the lifeless, smalltalk-esque dialogue.
Despite its shortcomings, BURN is a solid proof of concept for Mike Gan’s directorial style, showcasing his talent for both the genre, and coaxing unique performances from actors. I suspect that Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the main aspect of this film that viewers will remember, but I would also argue that the structure underneath her oddball turn is even better.
2021 | DIR: JOSH LAWSON | STARRING: RAFE SPALL, ZAHRA NEWMAN, RONNY CHIENG, DENA KAPLAN, NONI HAZLEHURST | REVIEW BY ALEX MAYNARD
Teddy (Rafe Spall) is constantly putting off plans and decision-making, a relatable and frustrating habit that’s left him only somewhat content. He’s got a very patient fiancé, Leanne (Zahra Newman), and a gorgeous beachside home, but hasn’t managed to balance his day job with his passion for photography. Shortly after a mysterious stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) warns him that he may regret not seizing the day more often, Teddy awakens to find that a year has passed and he can’t remember a single second of it. He soon begins jumping forward to the next year after mere minutes, watching as the people he loves grow and change in surprising ways.
Building on the fresh premise, LONG STORY SHORT delivers plenty of fun twists to shake up any guesses for what might happen in the next time jump. The ending will likely be predictable to most viewers (it is a rom-com, after all), but Lawson’s script impresses by seamlessly weaving characters and callbacks into each ‘year’. While it’s not as flashy as the large-scale, clockwork rhythm of Punxsutawney, I was surprised by how many and which details became important. Lawson has clearly done his homework on what gives this type of film an extra level of re-watch value, as if it being laugh-out-loud funny somehow weren’t enough.
Spall is funnier here than I’ve ever seen him, expertly balancing Teddy’s natural wit while playing up his constant confusion. He may have the perfect zinger to coolly tell the universe how little he cares about his situation, yet there’s no hiding the utter bewilderment on his face at finding out his infant daughter is named ‘Tallulah’. Likewise, Ronny Chieng is charming as usual as Teddy’s best friend Sam, often stealing scenes by prefacing all of his insight and helpfulness with sarcasm.
Meanwhile, Newman has perhaps the most challenging role and nails it, delivering plenty of her own one-liners in addition to serving as the film’s emotional anchor. The way her expression subtly changes at the start of an argument–as Teddy’s lack of memories from the past year turns from amusing to hurtful–is powerful; Lawson doesn’t linger on these moments, he doesn’t need to. Finally, Noni Hazlehurst plays The Stranger with just the right know-it-all attitude to persuade viewers to take in her fairly explicit summary of Lawson’s key themes, however, I wish her role had amounted to more than a cameo.
My one minor caveat with LONG STORY SHORT is that aside from jokes, the dialogue often consists of clumsy exposition (which is surprising given I’m usually a fan of Lawson’s writing). For instance, Leanne regularly chastises Teddy for spending so much time at his job during the years he can’t remember instead of pursuing photography, yet the viewer doesn’t find out what his job is, it’s always referred to as “that job”. Similarly, despite enjoying Hazlehurst’s performance, I felt that The Stranger’s lack of clarity surrounding Teddy’s situation was a slight cop-out. If there’s a(nother) lesson to be taken from Groundhog Day, it’s to take an all or nothing approach when it comes to explaining fantastical elements.
LONG STORY SHORT is an intimate film, both in its focus on one relationship and in its framing, rarely featuring more than two actors in a scene, and utilising only a handful of sets. With a high-concept premise, this simple approach is a clever choice, ensuring that the humour and heart of a rom-com always shine through for viewers to whom these were the main appeal. It’s another great feature from Josh Lawson, and something I’ll forward to rewatching year after year after year....
2020 | DIR: TAKASHI YAMAZAKI | STARRING: TONY OLIVER (KANICHI KURITA), LAURIE HYMES (SUZU HIROSE), DAVID BRIMMER (KŌTARŌ YOSHIDA), PAUL GUYET (TATSUYA FUJIWARA)| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Leblanc documented his hero’s exploits in seventeen novels and thirty-nine novellas (including two or three where Lupin meets an ageing Holmes – although Conan Doyle forced Leblanc to change the English detective’s name). Fast forward to 1967 and relocate yourself to Japan for the first appearance of Lupin’s grandson (hence Lupin the Third) courtesy of manga master Kazuhiko Katō (better known as Monkey Punch). For the next fifty years or more, Lupin the Third became a media juggernaut spawning, beyond his many manga adventures, half a dozen aminated television series, twenty-seven animated television specials, eleven animated feature films, two live action features, two musicals and much more (including CDs and video games). Phew! See what I mean about having been under a rock?
So now it’s 2021 and, even though it’s almost fifteen years since we saw the last Lupin the Third animated feature (Lupin the Third: Dead or Alive, 1996) the ‘Lupin on screen’ phenomenon seems to be getting a revival in both animated and live action worlds. For the live action side of things, the French have gone back to the source (via Netflix) and have enlisted the wonderful Omar Sy to play a contemporary version of the Gentleman Thief that spends it’s highly entertaining five-episode debut season (season two has already been announced) teasing us about whether he’s the grandson of Lupin or not (of course he is!!! Isn’t he???). But for the return of the animated incarnation, we find ourselves firmly in the world of anime and, although 2019 saw the sad passing of Kazuhiko Katō, highly respected award-winning Japanese screenwriter, director and visual effects whiz, Takashi Yamazaki has fashioned a new story that is not only dedicated to Monkey Punch, but is set in the sixties, the time when his Lupin the Third was first committed to the pages of manga.
So that’s the context. But what about the movie? Well, I’m a bit in two minds about it.
The story begins during the second world war in Nazi occupied France where Professor Bresson (Marc Thompson) entrusts his secret diary to the care of his infant daughter before dispatching her to a safer place. Unfortunately, before safety can be reached, the evil Professor Lambert (David Brimmer) in the employ of the Nazis, intercepts her and steals the diary. What he doesn’t realise is that there’s a key to open the diary’s complicated mechanical self-destructive case. Flash forward to the 1960s and the diary is somehow up for auction at an exhibition celebrating the late Professor Bresson. This, of course, is where we meet Lupin the Third (Tony Oliver) in one of his trademark disguises. We also meet Laetitia (Laurie Hymes) who is there posing as a security guard. She manages to abscond with the diary before Lupin the Third can secure it but, in turn, loses it to a third player; Fuiko Mine (Michelle Ruff) who, it seems, is a regular character from the manga series. There are other regular characters that form part of Lupin’s team and, of course, a hapless gendarme, Inspector Koichi Zenigata (Doug Erholtz). And let’s not forget the evil Lambert who, it seems, is still working with the Nazi’s fifteen years after they’ve lost the war. The rest of the film is a relentless tussle between all these interested parties as they try to possess and open the diary and, ultimately, benefit form the riches that it promises through something called the Eclipse. There are secrets, as well, and a connection back to Lupin’s grandfather (Lupin the First) who seems to have also had some connection to the mysterious diary.
The chase takes the players to various exotic locations and even raises the possibility that Adolf Hitler might still be alive in Brazil.
Visually, the film’s a knockout - highly stylised, vivid colours, characters rendered all sharp edged and angular feeling very much like they’ve been lifted straight off the pages of a Monkey Punch manga and let loose on the screen. In many ways, it took me back to the kinds of dubbed Japanese cartoons I used to watch after school in the sixties – Prince Planet, Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Gigantor, The Amazing Three and my favourite, Phantoma. (although, the quality of the animation here is infinitely superior, especially in its 3DCG format) For me, though, this echo of sixties cartoons is both the strength and the weakness of this film. On the plus side, there’s an energy, a hyped-up pace, a kind of corralled chaos that this kind of animation is imbued with which is a big part of its appeal. Music, of course, is another key element and here Yuji Ohno’s frenetic, brassy screeching soundtrack excels. What detracts (for me at least) is the American/English dubbing. It’s one of the things that I never thought about with those old cartoons, but it’s a strong part of what I remember about them. Here, though, the abrasive, urgent, heightened tone of those dubbed American accented lines kept undercutting the flow of the film by pulling me out of the visually rich world on screen. I felt as though I need to be immersed in Lupin’s world but the voices keep preventing me from getting there. I couldn’t help but feel that this would be better if I were somehow able to experience it in the original Japanese voices – but, sadly, I don’t speak Japanese.
The other element where, for me, the style lets the film down is in the screenplay. Now, I readily accept that true aficionados and rusted on fans of the manga versions of these stories may violently disagree with me (and they may well be right), but from an outside perspective, I find that the breakneck pace, highly expositional form and jump-cut storytelling that works so well in graphic novels, isn’t quite as effective on screen, especially in a complex story like this. The energy works but what its communicating doesn’t. Characters are often not very clearly introduced (perhaps relying on prior knowledge from the manga) and the convoluted plot is often more reliant on convenience and coincidence than on strongly constructed narrative. Perhaps that’s fine in the world of Monkey Punch but despite how much I went for the visual style and the impact of the music, for a newbie like me who was looking forward to the prospect of a heightened, colourful, stylistic, fast-paced, funny adventure, it ended up leaving me behind. But, at least, I now know about Lupin, and aside from looking forward to season two of the Netflix series, I might even hunt down some of the other films and a few of Leblanc’s books.