The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)

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2019 #90
Fede Alvarez | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English | 15 / R

The Girl in the Spider's Web

I love a bit of context to frame a review, but crikey, I can’t be arsed to recap the turbulent history of this particular franchise. Heck, it doesn’t even have a proper name! Officially it was the Millennium Trilogy, but that didn’t seem to stick (especially when it went past three books). The original Swedish films have been bundled as “The Girl” trilogy, owing to the formula of their English language titles. For this latest incarnation, they chose to label it “A New Dragon Tattoo Story”, I guess reasoning that “Dragon Tattoo” was a more unique identifier than “The Girl” (not wrongly).

The status of this film itself is equally confused. Is it a reboot? A sequel? If so, to what? I mean, it’s adapted from the fourth book, but only the first has been filmed in English (as is this movie), so is this now meant to be the second story? But as there doesn’t seem to be a Swedish language adaptation forthcoming, maybe this is intended to be a fourth one after all? Frankly, I suspect the filmmakers would rather we didn’t ask. The film makes little or no acknowledgement of any specific predecessors (aside from the fact that the recurring characters already know each other), instead diving headlong into a new, standalone story. Well, standalone-ish, because a lot of what occurs comes out of the past of Lisbeth Salander, the titular girl; and the events of her past were a key feature of some of the other stories as well, so…! Well, that you can’t escape your past, however much you might try, is sort of a theme here, I guess, so maybe we can kindly say it’s only appropriate.

Whichever films or books you take in before this one, I don’t think Spider’s Web is a good jumping-on point. It assumes we have familiarity with the lead characters — hacker Lisbeth Salander (now played by Claire Foy) and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Sverrir Gudnason), and their relationship, or lack thereof — which is a barrier to it being newcomer friendly. Anyway, the actual storyline sees Lisbeth being hired to steal a dangerous computer program from the CIA, which leads to all sorts of trouble with crime gangs and spies and whatnot.

l33t h4x0r skillz

Where the first three Millennium / Girl / Dragon Tattoo stories were all fundamentally crime thrillers, Spider’s Web opens up the storytelling world into much more fanciful realms. It’s a bit like they’ve tried to make Salander a kind of freelance female James Bond, using her l33t h4x0r skillz to stop evil cyber-terrorists. It also helps that she’s pretty handy on a motorbike and with a gun. How? Just because. Unfortunately, an element of ‘just because’ powers too much of the film, with fundamental flaws in even its basic setup: the computer program she has to steal is uncopyable, hence the she has to steal it, but that’s (apparently) not even possible. I guess the writers just thought “eh, it sounds plausible”, but, well, it didn’t sound plausible to me, and apparently it is indeed not possible to create a program that can’t be copied, so there we go.

And yet, if you can suspend your disbelief, Spider’s Web is mostly enjoyable while it’s on. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot — few, if any, are genuinely surprising, but it keeps it ticking over; as do the running about and shooting at things. It’s nothing special as action-thrillers go, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They’ve plumped for an R rating, in keeping with the darker adult themes the series is known for, but it’s a funny one: some of it feels tamed down as if they were aiming for a PG-13 (it’s scrupulous about never showing Lisbeth naked, even when she is), but there are some swears and the odd burst of violence that would never have got past at the lower certificate. Arguably that kind of half-heartedness extends to the whole experience.

Yas Queen!

Consequently, I feel kinda bad for Claire Foy in the lead role. After her acclaim in The Crown I can see she must’ve had big opportunities calling, but I imagine was also keen to show her range after becoming famous for such a particular kind of role. Lisbeth Salander is about as big a 180 from Queen Elizabeth II as you can get, right? However, she has big shoes to fill. Lisbeth is a potentially complex role, much desired by actresses keen for some meaty material (well, there was tough competition when they were casting the US remake of Dragon Tattoo, anyway), but both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have put a firm stamp on it already (the latter even secured an Oscar nomination). I’d wager Foy is up to the task, although the screenplay doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with. Giving Lisbeth some (more) familial conflicts sounds potentially weighty, but the actual material doesn’t dig into it a whole lot.

As for the rest of the cast, the fact they’ve cast someone you’ve probably never heard of as Blomkvist, the role previously played by a hot-off-Bond Daniel Craig, shows how he has a downgraded part to play here. The rest of the supporting cast includes a few somewhat more familiar faces, like Stephen Merchant, LaKeith Stanfield, and Sylvia Hoeks, all of whom are fine with what they’re given, but, as I say, it’s not exactly something to write home about.

Burning down the franchise

Once upon a time Dragon Tattoo was a darling of the pop culture world, the books attracting a tonne of attention, the Swedish films going down very well, and the star-studded US remake suitably hyped up. Its shine has waned since then (possibly as a result of said US remake underperforming at the box office, which is a whole other can of worms), and now Spider’s Web is probably too little too late to revive it — certainly, it fared poorly with both critics (40% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (a paltry $35 million worldwide). To say it deserved better might be overselling it, but there is value here, at least for any undemanding fans of the action-thriller genre.

3 out of 5

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Karate Kid (2010)

2018 #72
Harald Zwart | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | PG / PG

The Karate Kid

For some, The Karate Kid is one of the defining films of the ’80s, with a legacy so strong that, 34 years after the original film, YouTube launched a sequel/spin-off series — and it did well enough to get recommissioned twice (so far), so I guess they were right. I’m pretty sure I rented the original film on video when I was a kid, but my memories of it are incredibly vague, and I’ve no idea if I ever saw the sequels. Anyway, my point is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to the original, which seems to have coloured some people’s response to this remake (which is itself rapidly approaching being a decade old!) Maybe that’s for the best, because it seems to be a pretty thorough reimagining — heck, the kid doesn’t even learn karate!

This version stars Jaden Smith (son of Will) as the eponymous child, Dre, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing when his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job transfer. Struggling to find his place in a foreign country, Dre gets bullied by his schoolmates, including a young kung fu prodigy (Zhenwei Wang). During one particularly vicious beating, Dre is saved by his building’s unassuming maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), who it turns out is a kung fu master himself. When the bullies refuse to apologise because they’re taught poor values by their master (Yu Rongguang), Han agrees to teach Dre so that he might enter a kung fu tournament and face them fairly.

So, having a quick read through a plot summary of the original film, the actual story isn’t that different — set in China instead of the US, with different character names, and with kung fu instead of karate (apparently Sony considered changing the title to The Kung Fu Kid but producer Jerry Weintraub refused), but otherwise fundamentally the same narrative. Well, it is a remake — what do you expect?

Everybody was kung fu fighting. I mean, it was a kung fu tournament; that's kinda the point.

From reading other viewer reviews, I get the impression a lot of people dislike it just because they’re nostalgic for the original or because they’re annoyed by Jaden Smith’s parents trying to make him a movie star. But if you remove those external contexts, the film offers a decent storyline and some strong performances — it’s Jackie Chan, c’mon!

Speaking of which, there’s an alternate ending which features Chan fighting the other teacher (something that doesn’t occur in the film as released, obviously). I can see why they wanted to get more of Jackie fighting into the movie, because his is a supporting role otherwise, but it would’ve kinda diluted what the film is really about right at its climax. That said, some versions of the film are perhaps already structurally comprised: apparently the Chinese release was re-edited to make it seem like the American kid started all the fights against those good Chinese boys. I can see why Chinese censors would force that on the film, but I don’t see how it quite chimes with an ending where Dre comes out victorious.

As for the cut the rest of us get to see, I can’t speak for how it compares to the 1984 original, but it holds up pretty well as an enjoyable film in its own right.

4 out of 5

Shaft (2019)

2019 #98
Tim Story | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Shaft (2019)

I wrote recently about Shaft 2000 (I’m gonna start calling it that, even if nobody else does), the turn-of-the-millennium attempt to reboot the ’70s blaxploitation classic. It didn’t really take off, for various reasons, but I think it’s a pretty solid thriller in its own right. Now, 19 years later, they’ve decided to try again, only this time they’ve thrown away the spirit of the original in favour of an intergenerational buddy comedy.

John Shaft Jr (Jessie T. Usher) is a bookish FBI data analyst whose dad, John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson), abandoned him when he was a baby so he could go off galavanting with other women and solving crime while looking cool. Down the years he’s sent Jr presents like condoms and a box of porn mags — he’s that kind of dad. (Is that a kind of dad, or is it just a caricature of one?) Anyway, after Jr’s former-junkie best friend dies of an apparent overdose, everyone else believes it was a relapse, but Jr isn’t convinced. Struggling to investigate on his own, he turns to his estranged father for help.

Where Jackson’s Shaft was once a cool dude kicking ass and taking names (or whatever it is cool dude PIs did in the early ’00s), here they’ve turned him into a bit of a throwback dinosaur, spouting politically incorrect opinions with every other line of dialogue. This film does acknowledge the existence of the 2000 movie (an opening montage covering the last 30 years of the Shafts’ lives includes shots from that film to show Shaft Sr quitting the police), but it doesn’t feel like the same character we saw back then — he’s much more of a caricature of an outdated sex-obsessed oldie here. At times it’s like someone adapted one of those facile “millennials are to blame for everything” articles into a movie; or at least copy-pasted it into Shaft Sr’s dialogue.

Still a sex machine to all the chicks

This aspect has come in for much consternation among the film’s wider critical reception, but, eh, I dunno — the crap Shaft comes out with is definitely being played for laughs, with other characters eye-rolling (and similar) at most of what he says and does. At the same time, Jr’s character arc still comes down to “manning up” in the way his father wants him to. For instance: he hates guns, but when assassins attack at a restaurant, he borrows his date’s handbag-sized pistol and takes them out with expert marksmanship, before throwing the gun down in disgust. Put another way, the film is having its cake and eating it — it knows these old-fashioned ideals are, well, old-fashioned, but it’s gonna let them play out anyway. Even the plot pretends to be kinda modern by suggesting it might all have something to do with terrorism and radicalising Muslims — though as that’s been a plot driver for nigh on 20 years now, maybe it stretches the idea of “modern”. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because really that’s a red herring to cover up a standard drug smuggling affair.

The film’s best bit comes at the end, when Richard Roundtree’s OG Shaft gets roped into things for no particularly good reason. But it doesn’t matter, because granddad Shaft’s antics, and the banter between all three generations, is the most entertaining part of the movie. It certainly helps cover for the TV-movie-esque quality of the action scenes. It’s a shame the film waited so long to get him involved.

Shaft cubed

So Shaft 2019 is antiquated in myriad different ways, be it the values espoused by its co-lead or the general tone and content of its story. It didn’t need to be like that — Shaft may’ve been born in the ’70s, but I don’t think the very nature of the character requires him to still embody ’70 values. Nonetheless, if you don’t let that stuff bother you too much, the result is a moderately entertaining watch — nothing special (the other two films with the same title are both better), but a passably humorous 110 minutes.

3 out of 5

Shaft is available on Netflix everywhere (except the US) now.

The Happytime Murders (2018)

2019 #9
Brian Henson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

The Happytime Murders

The Muppets meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets an R rating in this black comedy murder mystery from director Brian “son of Jim” Henson. Set in a world where Muppet-esque (but not actual Muppets, because IP rights) puppets co-exist alongside humans, disgraced puppet cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips (performed by Bill Barretta, which, let’s be honest, is a better name for a comedy private eye than the one they’ve actually used) stumbles onto a spate of connected puppet murders, and must reluctantly team up with his former partner, human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to crack the case.

The mystery that drives the plot isn’t too bad, including a neat twist/reveal that’s perhaps guessable but not terribly so. It does hew closely to the tropes and clichés of the noir genre, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, as it’s not a straight crime movie I don’t think it’s a problem for it to recycle all those things when it has fresh comedy to hang off them, or if it’s somehow riffing off familiar elements but with the puppet stuff, but often it isn’t that clever.

Women and puppets in blue

Nonetheless, there are some legitimately funny bits along the way, often found among the riffs on the puppet thing (for example: one of the victims is drowned, and before bagging the body they ring him out). Unfortunately it isn’t funny as often as it should be, too often relying on worn or lacklustre humour. I mean, it tries to run with the old playground favourite “idiots say what?” as a running gag. It also leans on puppets being lewd and crude as the extent of the gag, which simply isn’t that funny in itself, partly because it isn’t as original as the film seems to think it is (cf. Team America, Avenue Q).

While The Happytime Murders isn’t close to the echelons of quality where you’d find Roger Rabbit or the best of the Muppets, it’s also not a total washout. From behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve read it sounds like a lot of effort was expended on filming it, making sure the puppets could interact with the humans and so on, and those technical aspects are first rate. It’s just a shame the same level of innovation wasn’t poured into screenplay. I didn’t hate it, but it doesn’t live up to its potential either.

3 out of 5

The Happytime Murders is available on Netflix UK from today.

Murder Mystery (2019)

2019 #96
Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

Detectives or suspects?

The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

3 out of 5

Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Finding Dory (2016)

2018 #122
Andrew Stanton | 97 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Finding Dory

I was never that big a fan of Finding Nemo. I mean, I like it well enough — it’s a very good movie — but I’ve never loved it. My rewatch last year confirmed that feeling. It was something of a surprise, then, that I mostly really enjoyed this sequel. It’s a weird thing where I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better than the first film, but I think I like it more.

Made 13 years later but set not too long after the events of the first movie (I don’t know what the lifespans of these fish are in real life, but I imagine considerably less than 13 years), the plot revolves around Nemo comedy sidekick Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) — in the first film her memory loss was a comedy bit, but here it’s front and centre, as Dory goes searching for the family she forgot she had. Accompanied by Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his dad Marlin (Albert Brooks), she heads to California and the theme park-ish Marine Life Institute.

Like so many Pixar movies, Nemo didn’t desperately need a sequel, so I was worried this would seem like little more than an excuse to return to these characters. In fact, the plot actually works very well. Far from being a desperate stretch, it actually feels like a worthwhile development and follow-up from the first movie. Alongside the worth of the narrative, it’s also just a lot of fun to watch, even if it gets a bit outlandish in the final act (fish driving cars…?)

Something fishy going on...

Another concern I had was that I remember thinking Dory was a bit irritating in the first film, so making her the central character could’ve scuppered it for me (other people seem to find her endearing, so I can see why Pixar went with this concept). But no, she makes for a likeable enough companion. The film does a really good job of handling her memory loss, too. It’s more than just a joke this time round, what with Dory being the central character. The easiest route to take for the filmmakers would’ve been to cop out of it somehow, either by flat-out fixing her memory, or at least not being wholly true to how short-lived it was before. Instead, they’ve put the problems and the scariness of having no memory at the forefront of the film. For example, at one point Dory needs to enter a network of pipes to get somewhere vital within the Institute, but she won’t go in because she knows she’ll forget the directions. A more constant fear is that she’ll forget about her family or friends, the people she loves, which I think is the kind of notion a viewer of any age could empathise with.

As a Pixar movie, it goes without saying that it looks superb, but I’ll nonetheless take a moment to mention that I thought the 3D aspect was really great too. It seems to be pot luck with this stuff (I found Nemo’s rather underwhelming, and I wasn’t that impressed by Coco’s either, for example). I guess most people don’t care anymore, but there we go.

Finding Dory was a pleasant surprise all-round. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is Pixar’s best non-Toy Story sequel. Maybe that’s not saying much (half its competition is Cars movies), but I mean it positively nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Pixar’s latest sequel, Toy Story 4, is out in the UK and US next Friday.

Review Roundup

As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • Upgrade (2018)

    2019 #44
    Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

    Upgrade

    Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

    On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

    Change can be painful

    On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

    Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

    4 out of 5

    Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    BlacKkKlansman (2018)

    2019 #86
    Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    BlacKkKlansman

    Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
    6 nominations — 1 win

    Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

    “A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

    Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

    Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

    Spot the black man

    The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

    If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

    Black power

    I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

    5 out of 5

    BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Bumblebee (2018)

    2019 #83
    Travis Knight | 114 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 16:9 | USA & China / English | PG / PG-13*

    Bumblebee

    The live-action Transformers movies, eh? Seemingly hated by everyone, critics and fans alike, and yet combined the first five grossed almost $4.4 billion at the global box office. Nonetheless, with the fifth one being the lowest grossing so far, and Michael Bay finally making good on his oft-repeated desire to leave the series’ director’s chair, someone clearly felt it was time for a change. That brings us to Bumblebee a spin-off (it’s focused around the de factor second-in-command Transformer) cum prequel (it’s set in the ’80s, explaining some events that occurred before the 2007 movie) cum soft reboot (with redesigned characters and nothing that explicitly ties it to the Bay films, this could be the start of a whole new continuity). Did fans finally get what they want? Well, maybe, but it obviously didn’t work for the wider audience: the film took $468 million worldwide, which is good in itself but still represents almost a $140 million drop from the previous film. And it didn’t work for me, either: Bumblebee isn’t necessarily any better than the best of the Bay-era films, it’s just middling in different ways.

    The film begins much like Man of Steel: launching us into a conflict between aliens on a distant planet. I criticised that film for throwing us into the deep end with a bunch of hard-sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and I find similar fault here. I guess the point is to get an Epic Action Sequence up front (unlike Man of Steel, where it’s political arguing, here it’s a full-blown battle) and to show off the new-look old-style Transformers, which have been modelled more on their appearance in the ’80s cartoon series. But it does nothing to dispel the notion that this is nothing like the Bay films — it’s just another frenzy of metal-on-metal and garbled mythology. Then Bumblebee, who’s mainly identifiable as “the yellow Transformer”, gets sent off to Earth, where he accidentally winds up in a scrap with some military types. More action, but with a slight change of pace.

    Bayhem never dies

    Only after all this has gone done do we finally get to the supposed point of the movie. We’re introduced to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager in 1980s California who likes listening to 1980s music and wearing 1980s clothes and doing other 1980s things because this is set in the 1980s. She’s down on her luck for various reasons, but what she really wants is a car. She finds one in a boat scrapyard (totally logical), but that turns out to be Bumblebee in disguise, and suddenly she has a giant robot for a best friend. But Captain Military Man (John Cena — I have no idea what his character name was. I could look it up, but this was more amusing), who Bumblebee fought with in that second action sequence, is on the hunt for our big yellow friend, and so are some Decepticons (the bad robots).

    The “a girl and her robot” angle is what the film was sold on, combined with the ’80s setting to suggest a throwback to movies of that era, like E.T. and so on. I quite like it as a concept — it’s certainly a change of pace from the increasingly overblown city-destroying world-saving antics of the earlier films — but it’s the execution that disappointed me. It takes too long to get it up and running. Even after the palaver I’ve already described, it spins its wheels on Charlie getting Bumblebee started, on comedic interludes with her family, on establishing a wannabe-love-interest for her (a guy who both works opposite her at a fairground and is her next door neighbour, yet apparently she’s never even noticed. Incidentally, I can’t remember his character’s name either). There’s altogether too much time spent on the military and Decepticons hunting ‘Bee, too, especially considering it amounts to little that’s meaningful. I mean, specifically two Decepticons turn up on Earth, and they’re therefore the film’s primary villains, but I can’t remember their names either. Their personalities amount to “the one who plans” and “the one who just wants to shoot everything”.

    A girl and her robot... which is disguised as a car

    But after nearly an hour of this faff, the film gets good, with Charlie and Neighbour Boy getting up to some enjoyable ’80s kids’ movie-style antics with their friendly giant robot. But oh, then it’s time for the climax, so it’s back to explosions and indistinguishable chunks of metal hitting each other.

    This is why it’s frustrating to me, because for a brief bit of time in the middle you see what I think this movie really wanted to be, and what I really wanted it to be, before it descends back into Bayhem-with-calmer-editing. Incoming director Travis Knight (whose only previous credit is the exceptional Kubo and the Two Strings) handles individual sequences well, suggesting he was a canny hire, but the film’s problem is bigger than that. The wonky pace and structure devotes time in the wrong places, leading to underdeveloped character beats (the big payoff for Charlie’s emotional subplot actually made me laugh out loud, which was not the intended effect) and taking too long to get to where it wants to be — just as it’s getting good, it has to dart off into a finale that doesn’t have enough impact, because we’re not really invested in the villains either.

    Talking of what the movie “should’ve been”, a word on the certification. Bumblebee was originally given a 12A by the BBFC, just like every other modern blockbuster, but there was some kerfuffle in Australia that led to it being cut down under, and it seems that version was tamer enough to get a PG in the UK, so that’s the one that was released here (and, I think, everywhere outside the US). It loses about six seconds of injury and violence, apparently. There was a time earlier this century when anything below PG-13 was a bad thing, because they thought teens/adults would write the film off as being kids’ fare. Maybe that’s changed. Maybe it just doesn’t apply in the UK. Maybe they thought being a PG wouldn’t put grownups off (as an adult, who looks at the certificate, especially for the sixth movie in a well-established franchise?) but would allow more kids in. Who knows. It is what it is. I’m not sure it’s worth caring about.

    This cute dog is also in it a bit

    Also, another thing about differing releases: I wish they’d put it out on 3D Blu-ray somewhere, so that I could’ve bought that version. As noted at the start, I watched the 4K UHD disc, and the (upscaled) picture was fine but not spectacular (aside from one or two bits, and the usual benefits of HDR), but there were whole chunks I feel would’ve benefited from 3D. The Bay movies certainly did. I know those of us who enjoy the format are more in the minority than ever, but it seems that interest remains in some markets (looking at other titles that didn’t get a 3D release in the US and UK but did elsewhere, countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, and India seem to be among the lucky ones), so I don’t know why this hasn’t turned up in any of them.

    Anyway. If Bumblebee managed its structure and pace better it’d be a lot more fun. I feel like, even with just the material that made it to the final cut, you could do a radical re-edit and turn it into a much better movie — ditch the Cybertron crap, cut way back on the baddies hunting for ‘Bee, get the relationship between Charlie and ‘Bee up and running faster, then focus on their teenage hijinks. Instead, someone thought it would be neat to bookend the film’s heart with a bunch of Bay-esque whooshbangery, and it gets in the way.

    3 out of 5

    Bumblebee is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.