Meet Joe Black 1998 ***

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If Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt find themselves in the same line for a wheatgrass juice at Ralph’s on the day before the 2020 Oscar ceremony, it would be interesting to know what these nominees might think of their second pairing in Meet Joe Black. Pretty much everyone agrees that Brad Pitt will fully deserve his mooted Oscar for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood; not only is he pretty much playing a leading role, but he was also excellent in Ad Astra. In truth, Pitt has generally been a great movie star since his debut in Thelma and Louise; Meet Joe Black was one of his few misfires, but it was a significant one. Director Martin Brest was coming off the back of helping Al Pacino to awards from his Scent of a Woman performance as an older man explaining the pleasures of life to a younger, less experienced figure. Brest reunited Pitt with his Legends of the Fall co-star Anthony Hopkins for a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, a venerable property. So what could go wrong?

Or indeed, did anything go wrong? Meet Joe Black pretty much doubled its budget with it’s $150 million worldwide box-office take. And Hopkins got great notices for his role as Bill Parrish, a multi-millionaire businessman who is awakened at night by a premonition of Death, who soon turns up at his New York State mansion in the form of Joe (Pitt). Death wants a holiday, or at least a mini-break, and postpones taking Parrish’s soul so he can spend a weekend eating peanut-butter and cookies, speaking patois, looking good in suits and tuxes, and lusting after Parrish’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani). Parrish demands that Joe will only come to collect on his own soul, not Susan’s, but Joe is as much a sap for Susan’s sweetness as he is for all other confectionary, while Parrish’s business interests threaten the legacy he was hoping to leave.

The languid, glacial pace has put passing viewers off Meet Joe Black, but the last hour of the film is pretty compelling. The detail of Parrish’s life, dinner parties, dinner tables, board-rooms and waiting helicopters, is convincingly done. But the mystery at the heart of this film is Pitt, who dials back all the things we’d later come to love about him as a star. He plays Joe as blank and distant, and yet when he crosses Parrish, there’s a sense of otherworldly malevolence that’s very much at odds with the film’s conventional romance. Playing a personification of death isn’t easy, but Pitt leans into the darkest aspects; his Death is banal, but no less deadly.

Some of the mechanics of Death Takes a Holiday, or the play on which it was based, seem to be lost in translation; it seems odd that Susan will accept either Death or a guy from the coffee shop as her suitor; anyone will do for Susan, as long as they look like Brad Pitt. Maybe that’s not so strange after all, but it doesn’t quite chime with the otherwise thoughtful and melancholy nature of the film. Meet Joe Black was savaged by critics at the time, but looks a more interesting prospect today, not least because we know how just how far outside his comfort zone Pitt’s deeply strange, yet memorable performance is.

 

Jack the Giant Killer 1962 ***

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Once upon a time, Jack the Giant Killer was something of a staple of Christmas mornings and Boxing Day afternoons on the BBC. Nathan H Juran’s fantasy film is generally dismissed as a rip-off off the producer’s own The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and ended up in a legal nightmare when Columbia successfully sued for plagiarism. On reflection, that award seems harsh; while Juran’s film certainly reworks familiar elements from the first film, from cast members to situations, it has a vibe of it’s own; this spanking new print on Amazon’s streaming service makes it well worth another look.

Anyone who has visited the south westerly area of Britain known as Cornwall will instantly recognise the world of witches, hob-goblins and evil creatures, many of which still populate the area to this day. Kerwin Matthews plays Jack, who kicks things quickly into gear by killing a giant attempting to abduct Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) at the behest of sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher, never knowingly underselling a scene). Pendragon wants to take over the area, but Jack sets out to stop him with the help of a caged leprechaun who desires nothing more than his freedom and a pot of gold.

The big miss here is obviously the effects which the inimitable Ray Harryhausen brought to the first film, but Jim Danforth’s Project Unlimited, who had just won an Oscar for The Time Machine, did a nice job on the stop-motion for various giants and demons. English fairy-tales, Breton lays and such ancient narratives are rarely filmed, but this Americanised version has a certain cheeky verve around it; it’s fun watching Pendragon ripping stone teeth from his castle’s statues and flinging them at Jack, only to them to turn into advancing warriors.

I think I first saw this film when I was seven years old, and it seemed to have a musty charm even then. The process shots are a mixed bag to be sure, but there’s a few cracking imaginative moments to enjoy here, as well as an unfamiliar narrative source. Jack the Giant Killer apparently had songs added to avoid copyright claims, but this streaming version skips the musical interludes; it’s a boisterous entertainment that comes up fresh despite a muddled pedigree.

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Alice in Wonderland 1972 ***

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The Disney-fication of classic stories works against, rather than for, appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story; Tim Burton’s film artfully creates backstory, but also forces a rigid adventure structure onto Alice’s various foray’s; part of the charm of the written-word versions is that Alice’s adventures don’t make a great deal of sense. Writer/director William Sterling’s adaptation is reasonably faithful to the book, and while the result doesn’t exactly flow, it has a few magical moments that make it worth a look.

Before her Bond fame, Fiona Fullerton makes a wide-eyed and wholesome Alice, introduced as she lapses into the slumber that generates her dreams. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth won a BAFTA for his work here, and although the prints are never great for this film, some of the effects are striking, notably the way Alice seems to increase and decrease in size without use of green (or blue circa 1972) screen. Some of the other trick-work is awful, and the songs don’t quite capture the melodies of John Barry’s score. But cameos abound, as the episodic nature of the adventures allow; Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore squabble as the March Hare and the Dormouse, while Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher Robert Helpmann is the Mad Hatter. Roy Kinnear is the Cheshire cat, Spike Milligan it the Gryphon, Michael Horden, Ralph Richardson, Dennis Price, Flora Robson all contribute; it’s not always easy to see who is who under the make-up, which has similarities to the 2019 Cats movie, but the costumes are striking.

Carroll’s story has always been to pin down; there are specific meanings to be parsed from the elliptical characters, but the meanings are hardly relevant. Alice’s adventures defy logic, like a David Lynch film, and perhaps that’s why we still enjoy them. This 1972 British version has all but vanished, and yet it must have been a prestige production of its day. Perhaps the mustiness of the enterprise is not for kids, but for nostalgic adults, it’s got an off-kilter energy that feels true to Carroll’s whimsical attitudes.

Highlander: The Director’s Cut 1986 ****

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There’s been a reboot of Russell Mulcahy’s film in the works for a decade now; how hard can it be to revamp such an appealing property as Highlander? Five sequels, a tv show and many a rain-soaked holiday in Scotland has been inspired by this wonderfully daft bit of world-building. Highlander is a great-looking, funny and often dazzling fusion of The Terminator with sword and sorcery; if it seemed indigestible to critics in 1986, perhaps the time has come to embrace the story of Connor Macleod. Certainly, letting the John Wick’s Chad Stahelski loose on the Lionsgate property seems like a good idea, since when it comes to great Highlander movies, it would be a real shame if there could be only one.

‘I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal…’ is the line that introduces our hero, played by Christopher Lambert after Mel Gibson turned the role down. Lambert was, and still is, something of a dude’s dude; his shock-haired turn as the evasive thief in Subway built his reputation is an unpredictable but charismatic leading man. Lambert’s French accent was widely mocked, but there’s always been a close historical connection between France and Scotland via the Auld Alliance, so that mis-step could be forgiven, even if Macleod’s inability to pronounce Glenmorangie seems like a genuine gaffe.

Macleod is an Immortal, doomed to walk the earth listening to a Queen soundtrack, brooding in an awesome New York apartment, watching wrestling matches and heeding the advice of his foppish mentor, Egyptian metallurgist Ramierz (Sean Connery). A reckoning, a quickening, a happening, whatever it is, something bad is coming and it’s likely to take the form of bad boy The Kurgan, played by the perennially awesome Clancy Brown.

This European cut has some key scenes in the Highlander universe; during WWII, he rescues a little girl from a Nazi and casually machine-guns him to death with the line ‘Whatever you say, Jack, you’re the master race.’ This is a striking, irreverent and surprisingly brutal throwaway scene that opens up a potentially interesting world. If the Highlander is immortal, then he’s an old soul with a uniquely educated and evolved historical perspective, and his instant recognition of the Nazi foe is delightfully fleet and sour at the same time. More such flashbacks would be welcome, although training and soul-searching are centre-stage, this being the 80’s and all.

As with the John Wick films, the first in the series offers an imaginative springboard that the later films can only limit in terms of choices. The second Highlander film killed the idea stone dead by positioning Macleod as an alien. But Gregory Widen’s script taps into specific Scottish folklore with regards to magic and immortality, and there’s every reason to think that a reboot could boil down the existential philosophy of the Highlander films to an organic, granular level. There’s a reason why Scotland punches above its weight in terms of talent, in terms of acting, writing and ideas, and that eternal struggle finds one of it’s most entertaining manifestations in this gloriously deadpan fantasy epic.

Jumanji: The Next Level 2019 ***

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The fourth entry in the Jumanji franchise is pretty much a re-tread of the third; an overlong adventure with a vague video-game theme, with a few added guest-stars without which this would be fairly indistinguishable from the previous film. Aimed specifically as small kids, Jake Kasdan’s sequel manages to remove some of the crude sexism of the previous entry, but there’s little improvement in the overall package.

Like the first film, there’s a lugubrious intro to various young characters, hardly memorable for the first film; Spencer (Alex Wolff from Hereditary) is the only one who makes an impression. He’s chilling with his grand-father (Danny De Vito) when his dad’s old friend Milo (Danny Glover) comes to visit. All of them get sucked into the Jumanji video game, which leads to a confusing version of the laboured body-swap humour previously featured. If you can’t remember who Bethany, Martha and Fridge are, then it’s pretty hard to work out what’s happening when they get trapped in the bodies of their avatars. It’s all really just an excuse for googly-eyed schtick from Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, who grab for their pay-check with both hands.

Gillan is introduced, legs akimbo, in tiny shorts, and with the camera zooming right into her crotch; one of the regrettable elements of the franchise is the leering emphasis on objectifying women in children’s entertainment. Fortunately, The Next Level doesn’t force her into quite such demeaning situations as the first, although locking lips for a snog with Johnson, who is old enough to be her dad, is particularly stomach churning. Awkwafina also turns up to self-sabotage her own Oscar campaign for The Farewell, looking somewhat embarrassed to ride a flying horse in the interest of exposure.

There’s a nice idea buried here; only Rhys Darby as the exposition-heavy host captures the right satirical tone for making fun of video-game clichés. Otherwise, there’s some elaborate set-pieces involving ostriches, monkeys, rope bridges and a climactic punch-up set to Baby I Love Your Way. Jumanji: The Next Level passes the time, but there’s nothing new or exciting about it. The first film was lucky to come up against an almost universally disliked Christmas blockbuster (The Last Jedi) which was overlong and not particularly suited to families. The Rise of Skywalker is still an unknown quantity at the time of writing, but it seems unlikely that Jumanji: the Next Level will be so lucky with throwing the double-sixes again.

Hawk The Slayer 1980 ***

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There must be something about the worthy quality of film-watching during awards season that makes it so appealing to file copy on so-bad-it’s-good entries. And so we return to the sacred text of Hawk the Slayer, a bizarre fantasy film by Terry Marcel which featured briefly in Netflix’s recent Maniac tv show. Why would a hot director like Cary Joji Fukunaga be a fan? Well, because Hawk the Slayer is one of the cheesiest films ever made, and that’s the appeal; if you’re looking for production values, imaginative plotting and social relevance, stay away. If venerable British character actors, Morricone-goes-disco music cues and shonky dialogue are palatable to you then Hawk slays over and over again, much like an automatic crossbow.

Yes, automatic cross-bows are a big thing in this film, but then, so is dialogue like ‘The hunchback will have something to say about this!’ Hawk the Slayer is set, according to the poster, in a word of sword and sorcery, one where Voltar (Jack Palance) reigns supreme. His brother is Hawk (John Terry), and a flashback reveals that Voltar tied Hawk to a tree and tried to make things happen romantically with Hawk’s wife (Catriona MacColl), a plan which ended badly. The two bothers are sworn enemies, and things get worse when a survivor of one of Voltan’s massacres seeks sanctuary in a monastery, encouraging Voltan to kidnap the Abbess (Annette Crosbie). Hawk sets out to rescue her, with the help of a merry band including a dwarf, a sorceress (Patricia Quinn), a giant (Bernard Bresslaw) and a quick-firing elf.

There’s some familiar names in there, and even more further down the cast list; Roy Kinnear, Harry Andrews, Patrick Macgee, Ferdy Marne, Warren Clarke, Graham Stark and more all appear as Hawk gets bogged down in all kind of inessential sub-plots. But things are pulled along by a weird production design that features lots of fog and lots of Star Wars-lazer effects, plus a rousing score by Harry Robinson hiding under the name Robertson; imagine Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds and you’ll have a handle on the epic disco sound featured here.

Hawk the Slayer wears various Star Wars influences with pride; Voltan’s helmet is much like Darth Vader’s, and the explanation for why he wears it is familiar. It’s worth remembering that one of the appealing elements for children seeing Star Wars back in 1977/8 was that it was never revealed what was under Darth Vader’s mask, and a sequel seemed inevitable for that purpose. That sense of mystery arguably created today’s franchise cinema.

Hawk The Slayer might be a rip-off, but it’s a fun, idiosyncratic film that’s gaining momentum as a cult item; if Fukunaga has James Bond watching this is No Time To Die, it would make some kind of sense, although you’d have to use the same goofy logic as an automatic crossbow requires.

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Border 2019 ****

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As odd a film as could be imagined, Border is an intelligent Swedish film that pursues some off-beat analogies in style. Tina (Eva Melander) is a creature of some kind who is employed as a customs agent; she has the ability to sniff out illegal activity and is used by her bosses to investigate the darker end of human behaviour; child pornography. Tina meets Vore (Eeor Milonoff), whose gender is unclear, and who seems to have many of the same physical characteristics that she has. Taken from a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi’s film is tricky, dank and obscure at times; it’s dealing with real world issues through decidedly downbeat fantasy, and the result is uncomfortable to watch. Without revealing the various twists, Border casts the audience into a strange place without many signposts; the characters surprise themselves and the viewer, and there’s no simple punch-line meaning; we’re talking about gender and cultural borders, but also talking about what makes us human. A curiosity, Border is a difficult film that’s worth seeking out for the jaded. Acting and make-up design are of the highest order, and it’s inevitable that either a US remake or a rip-off will follow.

Streaming, DVD and Blue Ray are out on MUBI in the UK from 15 July 2019.