Criterion Sunday 37: Time Bandits (1981)

If this is considered a family film classic, then it’s a dark and strange one. In many ways, it feels like something of a template for Terry Gilliam’s later filmmaking after the previous decade spent subsumed into the Monty Python comedy collective. It’s a story that comes from a place of imagination and wonder, so it’s suitably focused on a young boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film role), who’s led by a group of dwarves from his bedroom through a portal into another dimension of fantasy and Gilliamesque weirdness. I’m not sure I’m always a fan of Gilliam’s skewed take on the world, though it’s impossible to deny the anarchic energy he brings to every element of filming and set design, the latter of which seems to be entirely based around the toys littering Kevin’s bedroom. The film takes a child/dwarf’s-eye view of the world, with plenty of close-to-the-ground framings of various dastardly creatures (giants, swordsmen, God and Evil, and the very tall John Cleese as a condescending aristocratic Robin Hood). Gilliam keeps the film focused on the merry little band, with strong roles for David Rappaport as their self-appointed leader Randall and Kenny Baker as lovably dim sidekick Fidgit in particular, though given their bandit nature, all of them remain largely selfish and nasty up to the end. Time Bandits has that delight in upsetting the adult world of order that you see in, for example, Roald Dahl’s kids’ books, so it’s certainly not devoid of gruesome little jokes scattered around the madcap capering through this literalised dreamscape. Quite what it all amounts to, I’m not always sure, but it’s certainly diverting.

Criterion Extras: There’s a long filmed interview with Terry Gilliam from on stage at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, around the time of the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he speaks volubly and at length about his career, with only brief prompting from his on-stage interviewer. He only briefly touches on Time Bandits, but it’s an interesting piece. There are shorter pieces about the creation of the film’s look, as well as archival footage of Shelley Duvall talking about her (very small) role in the film. The commentary track merges a number of interviews, primarily with Gilliam talking about the making of various scenes, but with brief interpolations from some of the actors like Craig Warnock, Cleese and Michael Palin, who was also a co-screenwriter, and is all very informative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam and Michael Palin; Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, David Warner, Ralph Richardson; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2015.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Another attempt to kick-start a veteran science-fiction franchise, this fifth Terminator film harks back to the first one, even repurposing footage from it to create an inter-generational fight scene, which is pretty much the best thing on offer here. That said, I find it difficult to write the whole thing off as awful, because despite a general lack of inspiration — bolstered by a largely vacuous young cast (Jason Clarke’s John Connor at least carries the wounds of war, but nobody really convinces as a battle-hardened veteran) — it never actively offended me, and even offered a fairly entertaining two hours. Sadly, the script is largely at fault, with characters being forced to spend large chunks of screen time explaining the convoluted time travel premise, which involves multiple timelines and allows Kyle (Jai Courtney) to retain memories from the other timeline. At least… I think? It’s hard to really be sure. The big (non-spoilery) twist is that Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor now takes the lead in her relationship with Kyle (thanks to tutelage from a second Terminator/Arnie). Beyond that, the film constantly references plot points and memorable images from the first couple of films, suggesting that were it not for the messy time travel narrative, it could have just been a simple reboot of the stripped-down original, and perhaps that would have been better.

Terminator Genisys film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Taylor; Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau; Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea [2D], London, Wednesday 8 July 2015.

The Terminator (1984)

Re-released to cinemas in time for Terminator Genisys‘s upcoming return to the same events, it’s easy to think of this as an Arnie film, or as a James Cameron film — and it is those things (certainly it cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, and was Cameron’s breakthrough) — but it’s also a film that centres on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, as well as being a film co-written by a woman (its producer and Cameron’s wife for the next five years, Gale Anne Hurd). In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Arnie’s eponymous character is somewhat peripheral, like a lurking terror, leaving us with a story of two people (Connor and Michael Biehn’s military man Kyle) in a twisted time travel narrative that owes perhaps a little to the modernist Chris Marker short film La Jetée. However, far more than any of those things it’s a shlocky exploitation flick, very much in the Roger Corman mould (one of his favourite actors, Dick Miller, even shows up as a gun shop clerk), a refinement of the kind of things that Cannon Films was putting out during this era. The film’s best lines carry an unmistakable ring of campness (those bouffant 80s hairstyles certainly help), and Arnie’s iconic “I’ll be back” gets a little cheer from the audience I was watching with. It only occasionally overstretches in trying to find deeper meaning, but for the most part it stays on the right side of being a lean and pulpy action film, meaning that it’s aged perhaps a little better than some of its contemporaries.

The Terminator film posterCREDITS
Director James Cameron; Writers Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; Cinematographer Adam Greenberg; Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, earlier in my life).

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Perhaps I’m just getting weary of superhero movies now, but it’s not just me, surely? Days of Future Past, while hardly being terrible (sorry, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), is not the equal even of its immediate predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011, although I’m setting aside 2013’s The Wolverine). I had hope for Marvel movies after the surprisingly enjoyable Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that was made by a different studio. By comparison, Days of Future Past just seems lazy and bloated. There’s an end-of-days apocalyptic plotline, including a thin excuse to bring together the different timelines (and their respective actors), but it’s no more compelling than Star Trek: Generations so many years before, another franchise to which Patrick Stewart has lent his considerable actorly gravitas. As with that franchise, here too it’s ultimately the younger generation who are more convincing and enjoyable in their roles, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto nicely playing off one another, though Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine remains dependable across both timelines. There’s also an expanded role for Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s just as well she’s such a fine actor as she’s required to express plenty of fairly uninflected rage and caprice. Indeed, if there’s anything I’ll remember about Days of Future Past in years to come, it won’t be the special effects or the big setpieces or the now-canonical protracted final battle sequence, but the sense of so many very talented actors (those named above, along with a smaller role for Peter Dinklage, and poor Anna Paquin all but left on the cutting-room floor) being wasted on over-extended big-budget bloat.

X-Men: Days of Future Past film posterCREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writer Simon Kinberg (based on the Uncanny X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne); Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Thursday 22 May 2014.

Looper (2012)

Rian Johnson’s debut Brick (2005), also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a nice little story set at a high school, an original script but filtering it through all kinds of cinematic influences, not least noir movies. This film too is written by director Johnson but filtered through even more influences. It has a grandiose affect and purports to deal with the fate of humanity’s future, but at heart it’s a character-based drama, and is all rather goofily perplexing.

The film’s gimmick is that two of the actors (Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are nominally playing the same character, Joe, at different ages. However, thanks to alternate timelines, they are effectively different people, althougn the older Joe has the memories of the younger, and is physically affected by events that happen to his younger self. Confusingly, old Joe isn’t affected until they happen in younger Joe’s (past) time, but the film doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the paradoxes of time travel. In fact older Joe basically tells his younger self to stop thinking about it — which is probably just as well, because as ever a few moments’ thought renders it all rather silly.

This leaves the narrative with Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Willis (padded out by some prosthetics, so I gather, although to me he comes across more as Daniel Craig than Willis), all taut whispers and explosive action, as well as the interactions between these two characters and Emily Blunt as impoverished farmer Sara. Her involvement comes around halfway through, as she is possibly the mother of a future crimelord who has killed older Joe’s wife, and prompts some handwringing for the protagonist about the way future events have been affected by both Sara’s unconscious choices and by those made by himself.

Ultimately all the issues raised within the story seem subordinate to the film’s sense of style. A Blade Runner-like future dystopia gets the hardboiled noir voiceover treatment, with some comic book gangsterism that resembles nothing so much as Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels. Willis’s involvement triggers memories of 12 Monkeys (1995), in turn recalling La Jetée (1962), present here in the flashbacks to old Joe’s home life and wife. However, this is just to touch on the influences: they pervade the film from start to end.

I imagine all this will be pleasing to many viewers but it gets a bit wearying to this one. However, I did enjoy the film, and it has plenty of forward momentum which carries it through to a surprising denouement. Certainly worth a watch, but take its advice on not thinking too hard about the time travel.

Looper film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), Friday 9 August 2013.