Vixen (2017)

Featured

aka Vixen: The Movie

2017 #137
Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Vixen

Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

At times it’s own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

Queen of the jungle

The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen‘s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

3 out of 5

The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

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Antz (1998)

2017 #119
Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Antz

I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

A bug's famous voice

Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

3 out of 5

Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

2017 #132
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

Last weekend, a film about an android negotiating an existential crisis when he learns he may actually be human, told over almost three hours with a slow pace in an arthouse style, topped the US box office. Put like that, Blade Runner 2049‘s debut sounds like a stonking financial success. Alternatively, it’s a widely-advertised critically-acclaimed $150-million-plus effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle with a pair of movie-star leads, in which context its $33 million opening weekend only looks remarkable for how poor it is. For those of us who did bother to see it (and us Brits turned out — it did good numbers on this side of the pond), such concerns are almost immaterial. In creating a belated sequel to an innovative, influential, and beloved classic movie, 2049 has (to borrow a phrase from another unexpected big-screen sci-fi sequel) done the impossible — because it’s really bloody good — and that makes it mighty.

Set 30 years after the original movie, 2049 introduces us to new characters and a new mystery: when blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) makes a shocking discovery at the home of a Replicant he’s just retired, it starts him on a mission to find something previously thought impossible that could have world-changing implications; something with connections to the events of 30 years earlier. While unfurling this mystery/thriller plot, 2049 is also about K’s personal development/crisis as a character. Although they kept it out of the marketing, it’s only a mild spoiler to say he’s a Replicant (as if the single-letter name didn’t hint at that already, it’s also mentioned casually within the first couple of scenes), and the case he works causes him to question his place in the world.

Buried secrets

This is a movie with a lot to think about. It doesn’t do the thinking for you either, instead leaving space for the viewer to interpret not only what themes they should be thinking about but also what they should be thinking about those themes. This seems to have been a little too much for some viewers — I’ve seen anecdotal reports of people falling asleep or walking out. That’s not necessarily just because they were asked to do some work, of course: it could also be the pace and length. It’s definitely a long film — a shade under 2 hours 45, though obviously there’s a fair chunk of credits — and, watching it with a grotty cold, as I was, it certainly felt long. But I would also put that entirely down to the cold. It’s not a mile-a-minute thrill ride of a movie, but I think it’s the length it needs to be. It leaves room for ideas to sink in.

Not only that, it allows you time to luxuriate in the visuals. This is possibly one of the finest-looking films ever shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, we all know this, but if he doesn’t finally earn it for 2049 then there is no justice. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the kind of thing to expect. When people say “you could hang any frame of this movie on your wall” it’s usually a ludicrous overreaction, but here it’s as true as it ever could be. (Also, having complained in several reviews recently that I think my cinema of choice is showing films too dark (a not unheard of problem — they run the bulbs too dim to save costs), 2049 looked absolutely fantastic. Maybe it’s just that other filmmakers aren’t as good as Deakins.)

Hot robot-on-robot action

It’s not just the film’s technical merits that recommend it either, as there’s an array of superb performances here. Gosling has a difficult job as K: he starts out almost as a blank, an emotionally reserved Replicant but also a character that we need to identify with, and later struggling with his innate programming as he’s presented with challenging ideas. It might be easy to do this in a very outward manner, all handwringing and moistened eyes and so forth, but Gosling keeps it low-key — in keeping with the overall style of the film, of course. I guess some will find him cold, but I still thought he was a relatable, likeable character.

Elsewhere, Harrison Ford is definitely a supporting character, despite his prominent billing. That’s okay, though. He gets some great, meaty material — surely the best stuff he’s had to work with in a long time, and he delivers on it too. Deckard isn’t as obvious a personality as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really matter how much Ford does or doesn’t feel like his role of 35 years ago: Deckard has a place and a function and a story in this new narrative, and that he sells. As a fan, it’s impossible not to think of the long-standing debate from the first movie: is Deckard a replicant? 2049 manages to smartly dodge this question that you’d’ve thought it has to answer. If you’re watching out for how it handles it, it’s an impressive bit of work. And the debate does still rage: as shown in a recent joint interview, Ridley Scott still thinks Deckard definitely has to be, but Denis Villeneuve disagrees. You can make up your own mind (if you think it even matters).

Blade Runner 79, more like

Among the rest of the supporting cast, the stand out for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend. You may’ve seen some reviews that say 2049 has a “a woman problem”, and maybe it does, but I still thought Joi was an interesting, nuanced character. Her role is very much in how she affects K, that’s true, but that the film tackles a love story between a robot and an AI is fascinating in and of itself. Maybe theme trumps character. Maybe they contribute to each other.

Really, it’s no surprise that 2049 has struggled at the box office. Despite trailers that emphasised the action, reviews were keen to point out it isn’t an action movie. Although they’ve mostly been glowing, maybe people looked beyond the star ratings to the content, which highlighted the truth: it’s a slow, considered movie; one that makes you think, rather than simply entertains. It’s not for everyone. All of that said, it’s kind of surprised me how few people it’s for: I’ve not even seen reviews pop up from many of the blogs I follow that routinely review new releases. (If you’ve posted one and think I’ve missed it, feel free to mention it in the comments.) One I did see is by long-time Blade Runner fan the ghost of 82, which is more spoilersome than this piece and so digs deeper into some of the film’s questions.

Shoot to retire

Now that it’s ensconced as a classic, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the original Blade Runner wasn’t massively popular with critics and didn’t do well at the box office back in 1982. It started out with a cult fanbase, which grew into the more widespread esteem it enjoys today. 2049 isn’t doomed to the same fate, but perhaps it’s destined for a similar one. Mainstream audiences might be ignoring it right now, but this is a movie that many people are going to be thinking about, talking about, rewatching, thinking and talking about some more, and being influenced by, for years — decades — to come.

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. Go see it.

Blade Runner 2022-2048

You’ve probably heard that three short films have been released as part of the promotion for forthcoming sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049. More than just trailers, these shorts go some way to bridging the 30-year gap between 2049 and the original Blade Runner. They were released out of sequence over the past couple of months, but here they’re reviewed in chronological order.

Blade Runner: Black Out 2022
(2017)

2017 #130a
Shinichirô Watanabe | 16 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English

Black Out 2022

The first short is an anime directed by Shinichirô Watanabe, best known for Cowboy Bebop and, I guess, helming two of the Animatrix shorts. Set a couple of years after Blade Runner, it tells the story of some Replicant rights activists and their successful attack on LA, which will lead to a ban on Replicant production.

As a story it is, of course, background detail — presumably not essential enough to be included in 2049 proper, but filling in the backstory for fans. It’s the kind of thing you could read about in just a line but is more exciting dramatised. That said, with such a short running time there’s no space to grow attached to characters, so the ultimate effect on the viewer isn’t so different to just reading about the events depicted.

As a short animation, however, it’s a quality production. Animation allows it to do things a live-action short couldn’t — you’d need a blockbuster CGI budget to pull this off for real. It’s a good marriage of form and intent: in the context of a prequel short, it’d be pointless to do an anime of people sat in a room talking. It has a bit of needlessly fiddly story structure at the start (including one of my pet peeves: “two weeks earlier”), but mostly it puts its short running time to decent use. There are a couple of striking, effective images, alongside various nods to the original film — visually, a lot of tributes are paid. Plus, look for cameos by Edward James Olmos’ Gaff and Dave Bautista’s character from 2049.

It may be worth noting that it’s nothing like Cowboy Bebop, either. No surprise — Bebop‘s tone hardly fits the grim world of Blade Runner. If you wanted an anime comparison, it’s more like a Ghost in the Shell short — again, not so surprising given the source similarities.

Despite my complaints about its structure and ultimate purpose, this is probably the best of the three shorts.

4 out of 5

Watch Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 on YouTube here.

2036: Nexus Dawn
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 7 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2036: Nexus Dawn

2049 director Denis Villeneuve introduces each of the three shorts, explaining how he tapped filmmakers he respected to create these little tales. This one is by, to use Villeneuve’s word, his friend Luke Scott — director of Morgan and (most pertinently of all, I suspect) Ridley Scott’s son. We’re in live-action now, as entrepreneur Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) meets with some committee to convince them to re-legalise Replicant production.

It might seem odd, given their very different production styles, but this works well as a pair with 2022. It’s all in the story: the anime is about the final straw that banned Replicants; Nexus Dawn is about how they were brought back. Despite their short form, these films aren’t telling side stories, but revealing major points in Blade Runner‘s future history. There are also several direct references to the black out which further ties the shorts together. It might not be wholly clear in the anime itself, but that event was clearly world-changing. Perhaps that’s why 2022 was initially released last, to pay off the teasing references which feature in both live-action shorts.

For those seeking a tease for 2049, we get an indication of what Jared Leto’s performance will be like. I imagine those who find him inherently annoying will see nothing to challenge their preconception. For the rest of us, he’s okay. He suits the possibly-mad genius role, and thankfully keeps it understated. There’s also a supporting cast of names bigger you’d expect from just a prequel short (Doctor Strange‘s Benedict Wong, Peaky Blinders‘ Ned Dennehy), which I’m not sure adds a huge amount but perhaps indicates the esteem of the Blade Runner name.

Technically, the short itself is well shot — in both content and form, it could conceivably be a deleted scene from the main film. That’s both a blessing and a curse, I guess.

3 out of 5

Watch 2036: Nexus Dawn on YouTube here.

2048: Nowhere to Run
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 6 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2048: Nowhere to Run

The final short, again helmed by Scott the Younger, is set just the year before the new film. It introduces us to Dave Bautista’s character, a kindly but down-on-his-luck kinda guy who one day finds himself in a violent altercation that will clearly change his life.

Even more than Nexus Dawn, this feels like a deleted scene — I won’t be at all surprised if this leads directly into the events of 2049. As it’s not dramatising a turning point in history, it feels the most trailer-like of the three shorts. It’s still a little background narrative that’s (presumably) not to he found in the film proper, but it seems to be teasing where 2049 will begin rather than filling in important backstory blanks. Plus, an opening montage of clips from 2049 includes another reference to the black out, again suggesting that the anime is actually the most significant and worthwhile of the three shorts.

Bautista continues to be a surprisingly charismatic actor — even with very little to do here, and keeping it low-key, you warm to him. Perhaps that’s the point of this short: for us to like Sapper, and understand what he’s capable of and why, before his appearance in 2049. Perhaps it’ll even be deserving of a higher rating after seeing Villeneuve’s film. As a film, the side-street setting is probably not that much more logistically complex than Nexus Dawn‘s single room (aside from all the extras involved), but Scott makes it feel more expansive.

At first blush Nowhere to Run feels like the least essential of the three prequels, but we’ll see if that changes with hindsight after viewing 2049.

3 out of 5

Watch 2048: Nowhere to Run on YouTube here.

As a final thought, I’ll note that on Letterboxd I rated all three shorts 3.5 out of 5, and on IMDb gave them the equivalent 7 out of 10. Obviously I’ve separated them slightly here, with the anime getting 4 and the other two getting 3s, which would suggest an even finer gradation of marking (that I then rounded up/down). I don’t know if that’s really the case, but I think the reason why I settled on these differing scores is that the two live-action shorts feel like deleted scenes, while the anime feels like it’s expanding on something that would otherwise just be backstory. In other words, it depicts the most significant event in its own right.

Anyway, perhaps these scores will change after seeing 2049. Whether they do or don’t, all three shorts are essential viewing for fans, but probably inessential for the casual viewer — after all, if they really mattered, they’d be in the film.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas tomorrow.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

The 100 Films Guide to…

In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!

Original Title: Per un pugno di dollari

Country: Italy, Spain & West Germany
Language: English and/or Italian
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: X (cut, 1967) | AA (1981) | 15 (1986)
MPAA: M (1967) | R (1993)

Original Release: 12th September 1964 (Italy)
UK Release: 11th June 1967
Budget: $200,000

Stars
Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Gran Torino)
Marianne Koch (The Devil’s General, Spotlight on a Murderer)
Gian Maria Volontè (For a Few Dollars More, Le Cercle Rouge)
Wolfgang Lukschy (Dead Eyes of London, The Longest Day)
José Calvo (Viridiana, Day of Anger)

Director
Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rhodes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

Screenwriters
Víctor Andrés Catena (Kill Django… Kill First, Panic)
Jaime Comas (Nest of Spies, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, Once Upon a Time in the West)

Dialogue by
Mark Lowell (High School Hellcats, His and Hers)

Story by
Adriano Bolzoni (Requiescant, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key)
Víctor Andrés Catena (Sandokan the Great, Cabo Blanco)
Sergio Leone (Duel of the Titans, Once Upon a Time in America)

Based on
Yojimbo, a Japanese samurai film written by Akira Kurosawa & Ryûzô Kikushima and directed by Kurosawa. (Not officially, but the makers of Yojimbo sued and it was settled out of court — presumably because it’s really, really obviously a remake of Yojimbo.)


The Story
The Mexican border town of San Miguel is ruled over by two rival gangs. When a gunslinging stranger arrives, he attempts to play the two gangs off against each other to his benefit.

Our Hero
The Man With No Name, aka Joe, seems to just be a drifter, who rocks up in San Miguel and sees an opportunity to make some money by doing what he does best: killing people.

Our Villains
Neither of the two gangs — the Baxters and the Rojos — are squeaky clean, but the Rojos are definitely the nastier lot. Led by three brothers, the cleverest and most vicious of them is Ramón, who’ll stop at nothing to punish Joe after he threatens their empire.

Best Supporting Character
The innkeeper Silvanito, who warns Joe away when he first arrives, but becomes his friend and almost sidekick later on.

Memorable Quote
“When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.” — Joe

Memorable Scene
As Joe heads off to confront three of Baxter’s men who shot at him earlier, he passes the coffin maker — and tells him to get three coffins ready. Coming face to face with four of Baxter’s goons, Joe asks them to apologise to his mule. They, naturally, refuse… so he shoots them all dead. As he walks back past the coffin maker, he casually apologises: “My mistake — four coffins.”

Memorable Music
Ennio Morricone’s score is as much a defining element of this movie as the visuals or the cast. His later theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be his best-known work, but there’s a cracking main title theme here too.

Letting the Side Down
It’s just a fact of this kind of production from this era, but the English dubbing is really quite terrible. Well, the acting’s not all that bad, as it goes, but the lip sync is not very synced.

Making of
When it premiered on US TV in 1977, the network found the film’s content morally objectionable: the hero kills loads of people, apparently only for money, and receives no punishment. While that might sound perfectly attuned to US morals today, they had different ideals back then. So they ordered a prologue be shot, showing Eastwood’s character receiving a commission from the government to go sort out the town of San Miguel by any means necessary — thus morally justifying all his later killing, apparently. The short sequence was directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and starred Harry Dean Stanton (RIP).

Next time…
The loosely connected Dollars (aka Man With No Name) Trilogy continued with For a Few Dollars More (which was part of my 100 Favourites last year) and concluded with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which someday will get the “What Do You Mean You Didn’t Like” treatment).

Verdict

The Dollars trilogy were among the first Westerns I saw, and I’ve been meaning to revisit them for many years. I was finally spurred on to start by watching Yojimbo for the first time. Watching that and this back to back, you can’t miss how similar they are — no wonder they settled the legal case, they wouldn’t’ve had a leg to stand on. Yojimbo is the classier handling of the material, giving the whole scenario a weightiness that has gone astray here. Fistful has its own charms, of course, as director Sergio Leone merrily reinvents the Western genre before our eyes — out go the simply white hat / black hat moral codes, in comes baser motivations (greed, lust) and quick sharpshooting. What it lacks in classiness or weight, it makes up with coolness and style.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • 21 (2008)

    2017 #114
    Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    21

    21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

    As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

    Counting cards

    Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

    21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

    3 out of 5