Wonder Woman (2017)

2017 #81
Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

Wonder Woman

Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which does on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

Undercover woman

Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

4 out of 5

The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.

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Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)

2017 #153
Rick Morales | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Batman vs. Two-Face

Last year the spirit of 1966 was revived when Adam West and Burt Ward returned to the roles of Batman and Robin (or their voices did, anyway) in Return of the Caped Crusaders, a fun comedy-adventure animation that paid tribute to the enduringly popular ’60s incarnation of the (not-so-)Dark Knight. Given the film’s success, it was no surprise a sequel was instantly in development. West completed work on it before his death earlier this year, meaning it now acts as a tribute. It’s unfortunate, then, that it’s not very good.

As the title makes clear, it sees West’s Batman come up against Two-Face — perhaps the most major member of Batman’s extensive Rogues Gallery to never appear in the TV show. Famed sci-fi author Harlan Ellison did actually write a treatment for a Two-Face episode, but the series was cancelled before it could be produced. It was adapted into a comic in 2015, and there was speculation it would form the basis for this animation too, but that isn’t the case. Maybe it should’ve been.

Things are weird from the off. The film begins by depicting a version of Two-Face’s origin — one that involves Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, a character who wasn’t created until 25 years after the series this is based on. Anyway, it still sees DA Harvey Dent getting half his body fried and subsequently turning into a supervillain whose every decision is ruled by the flip of a coin. With this established in the pre-titles, there’s then a title sequence that shows plenty of Batman vs. Two-Face adventures. Is this a preview of what’s to come? No, because post-titles the story resumes with Harvey being cured. What a weird idea for a ‘first’ Two-Face story.

Why you two-faced...

Then Batman has to take on a variety of other foes, and you begin to wonder why the hell this is called Batman vs. Two-Face if he’s fighting everyone but Two-Face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does come back around to the eponymous enemy, though Batman refuses to believe his involvement — Harvey has been cured, so is someone impersonating Two-Face? The Boy Wonder isn’t convinced, but Batman is determined to believe his old chum. Oh yes, that’s right — this guy who’s just turned up in the series is apparently Bruce Wayne’s oldest bestest buddy. No wonder Dick’s nose is out of joint.

At the core of this, once what’s going on is eventually unravelled, is a not-half-bad Two-Face story. Unfortunately, that’s not really a strong marriage for this version of Batman — we don’t want a serious Bat-adventure, we want something light, daft, and above all fun. Batman vs. Two-Face isn’t exactly a sombre affair, but it isn’t funny enough either, lacking the gadabout charm of Return of the Caped Crusaders. The tone is just wrong. The makers admit they were trying to mix “camp with noir”, but — as I think any of us could’ve told them — that’s an unnatural combination that just doesn’t work. None of this is helped by the fact the animation looks cheap, even by the standards of DC’s other direct-to-video movies.

Best buds, supposedly

Clint Eastwood was being lined up to take on the role of Two-Face back in the ’60s, but he’s a bit above this kind of fare nowadays. Instead, the villain is voiced by another megastar of ’60s genre TV: William Shatner. Known for his mannered, scenery-chewing acting and ability to send himself up, Shatner seems the perfect foil for West’s Batman. Sadly, the material doesn’t allow Shatner to ham it up like you expect him to. Two-Face’s side of the story is played pretty straight, allowing none of the excess you’d expect from Shatner in comedy mode. Instead, the erstwhile starship captain delivers a genuinely decent acting performance. His voice work creates a clear delineation between the characters of Harvey Dent and Two-Face, and he delivers a fine interpretation of a man held hostage by his own alter ego. But, again, such a straight portrayal is not what’s desired from a Batman ’66 movie.

I was surprised to discover that Batman vs. Two-Face comes from the exact same writers and director as Return of the Caped Crusaders. The previous film nailed what it needed to be so perfectly, yet this seems to miss the mark almost entirely. My score errs on the side of harshness — there is fun to be had here — but it reflects my feeling immediately after the credits rolled that, overall, this was a massive disappointment.

2 out of 5

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

2017 #135
Justin Kurzel | 115 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA, France, UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Malta / English, Spanish & Arabic | 12 / PG-13

Assassin's Creed

There seemed to be great hope when the Assassin’s Creed movie was announced. Partly because it’s a popular video game series, so of course its fans were excited; but also because it attracted star Michael Fassbender, an actor doing Oscar-calibre work, who then hand-picked director Justin Kurzel, whose previous movies suggested loftier ambitions than just trashy blockbusters. Feelings seemed strong that this could be the first great video game adaptation. But it was not to be.

Fassbender plays Cal, a criminal who is ostensibly executed but then wakes up in a strange facility where a doctor (Marion Cotillard) informs him that they’re going to strap him into a machine called the Animus, which uses Cal’s DNA to kind of send him back in time to relive the memories of his ancestor, who was an Assassin (with a capital A, because they’re like a guild or something). Her organisation, the Templars (who are the bad guys, presumably), want to use this totally plausible science to access the aforementioned memories so that they can locate the world-changing MacGuffin, hidden away by Cal’s ancestor (who was a good guy, I think). Something like that, anyway.

Academy Award Nominee Michael Fassbender

To be honest, a “something like that” feeling pervades the film. It’s a very strange viewing experience, in that you can follow what’s going on while at the same time feeling like it makes no sense whatsoever. Until the last act, anyway, when it goes thoroughly WTF. In part that’s because all the nonsensical bits and bobs that you let slide earlier finally come into play. Like, what’s going on with the other inmates? Are they actual Assassins? Did using the Animus make them Assassins? That seems to be what happens to Cal. So, how does that work exactly? And then the actual ending… what the hell was it all about? I’m not sure I could even summarise my confusion — like I said before: it’s both completely followable and completely nonsensical. Of course, it’s very much trying to leave things open for a sequel. I guess that won’t be happening…

For a video game adaptation marketed as an historical actioner, there’s altogether too much plot (whether it’s followable or not, the story is dull and unengaging) and too little action. What’s there is mostly well realised — apparently a lot of it was done for real, and although there’s obviously a lot of CGI background extension (with a nice painterly look), there’s a definite physicality to the parkour and fisticuffs that you don’t get with CGI body doubles. I mean, there are only three or four action sequences total, and only one and a half of them are really worth it, but at least there’s something to like in them. Unfortunately, the action carries no weight: our hero can’t change the past, just witness it as he helps the bad guys watch to see where the MacGuffin ended up. So we are literally watching someone watch someone else do all the action — like, y’know, watching someone else play a video game. It’s almost a meta commentary on video game movies, except I don’t think that was the intention.

Running and jumping

So what is it trying to comment on? I mean, it’s an action blockbuster, so “nothing” would be a perfectly adequate answer. Nonetheless, some reviews claim it’s trying to consider philosophical, religious, and/or genetics-related concepts. I suppose it does technically mention such things, but it fails to actively engage with them to such a degree that I think it’s doing it a kindness to even claim it’s attempting to be a thoughtful movie. In a similar shot at intelligence, apparently we were meant to feel neither the Templars nor Assassins are good or bad, but both morally grey. However, rather than creating ambiguity in who to root for, it just comes across as a smudge of indifference.

Nothing else impresses either. It’s a very visually gloomy film. I can’t discount the possibility that’s because I watched it in 3D, with the notorious darkening effect of the glasses, but my setup usually compensates for that (I don’t recall noting any undue darkness on other 3D viewing). Actually, the 3D itself was fine — good, even, at times — but it’s battling the largely unappealing visuals.

Come up to the lab and see what's on the slab

I’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, but I’d wager they don’t primarily consist of people nattering in a lab interspersed with the occasional period action scene. Maybe a greater adherence to such thrills, and less needlessly convoluted plotting, would’ve made for a more likeable movie. My rating’s possibly a tad harsh, but Assassin’s Creed could and should have been better.

2 out of 5

Assassin’s Creed is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Eye in the Sky (2015)

2017 #8
Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

Someone's got to make the call

Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

Emote control

One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

4 out of 5

Anomalisa (2015)

2017 #2
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Anomalisa

Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on), Anomalisa tells the story of Michael (David Thewlis), a depressed customer service expert who perceives everyone else as looking and sounding the same — until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose uniqueness to him immediately attracts Michael.

If you hadn’t noticed, Anomalisa (a portmanteau of “anomaly” and “Lisa”, not “anonymous” and “Lisa” as I’d assumed) is an animated movie. Although an everyday kind of drama that would be largely achievable in live-action, it uses the form to its advantage when depicting the central conceit, giving every character who isn’t Michael and Lisa the same face and having them all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan). For me, this was the most effective part of the movie. It’s a really neat way of executing the concept of not being able to tell people apart. Noonan is the film’s real star, too, voicing “everyone else” in a way that makes them sound plausibly unique but also all the same, a tricky balancing act that he nails.

The one thing that did disappoint me about it was this: the inability to distinguish people is a genuine medical condition, but the film tackles it only as a signifier of Michael’s depression rather than as an issue some people live with. Conversely, I presume that’s a pretty rare condition, whereas depression and isolated feelings are increasingly widespread, so the film perhaps has more to say in that regard. Ultimately, I shouldn’t be criticising a film for not being about something it’s not trying to be about (even when I thought that was what it was going to be about).

Even puppets get the blues

As for the rest of the movie… hm. It takes an age to get going, but once it does there are a few funny scenes (the “toy” shop; the hotel shower; Michael struggling with his room key), and who’d’ve thought a puppet movie would have one of the more realistic sex scenes in the movies? Especially as it pulls that off without becoming laughable thanks to Team America. More pertinently, it gradually unfurls a sometimes touching story about isolation and love. However, by the time it reaches the happy-sad ending (one person’s life seems to have been transformed; the other continues to be miserable), I wasn’t sure what it all signified. Maybe the line that “sometimes the lesson is there is no lesson” is very relevant.

So, some good stuff, but that long slow open takes getting over, and I’m not sure what it all meant.

4 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

2017 #138
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | New Zealand & USA / English & German | 15 / R

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s no two ways about it: I’m late to the party with What We Do in the Shadows. After rave reviews at film festivals and when it was released in some countries (including the UK) in 2014, its acclaim as a cult comedy seemed to reach a focal point in early 2015 when a Kickstarter campaign to give it a wider US release attracted over 7,000 backers and the best part of half-a-million dollars. I recall preordering the Blu-ray in the wake of the slow-burning fuss I kept hearing about it. That came out in April 2015, and swiftly ended up on one of my many unwatched piles… until now!

For the sake of those who are even later to it than me, it’s a mockumentary about a group of housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, who are vampires. With each of them being hundreds of years old, they’re thoroughly out of touch with the modern world — until they make some new, younger friends…

This juxtaposition allows the film two rich strands of humour. Firstly, it riffs off vampire movie clichés and references — there are bits about sleeping in coffins, turning into a bat, and so on. In a similar vein, each of the housemates is a version of a classic movie vampire: there’s a silent Nosferatu-ish one; a violent womanising Dracula-ish one; an effeminate dandyish one; and so on. There are also various scenes that play on vampires’ familiar abilities by featuring a neat and often surprising use of special effects — the film’s so low-budget and so naturalistically staged, you’re not expecting any outright fantastical stuff. That element of unexpectedness makes such moments all the more effective.

Night life

In the second strand, it embraces mundanity — putting these supernatural creates in the same dull suburban lifestyles that we all know, like struggling to get into the good nightclubs, or a supposedly grand ball taking place in a rundown community centre. Perhaps best of all are bits which straddle the two stools — the practicalities of being a vampire; like how do you get dressed up to go out if you can’t see your reflection, or having to clean up the mess after drinking someone’s blood. The film plays these various comic facets with a great deal of wit and cleverness, but it’s also suitably silly, which allows the humour to function at various levels. What’s even more surprising is that, as it goes on and we build up a connection to these characters, it becomes actually quite touching at times.

Apparently writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi wrote more than 150 pages of screenplay for the film, then didn’t actually show it to any of the cast so they would improvise scenes and be surprised by plot developments. That resulted in over 125 hours of footage, which took almost a year to edit down to just an hour and a half. (No wonder the Blu-ray includes piles of deleted, extended, and additional footage.) On the one hand, perhaps that helps explain why the film is so funny — they were able to really cherrypick the best bits. On the other other, it makes the final result all the more impressive — that they were able to hone storylines and character arcs from that immense supply of material. And it still clocks in at just 86 minutes! Hollywood moviemakers who let their part-improvised comedies sprawl to baggy two-hours-plus running times might learn a thing or two here.

Drinking blood

Perhaps the more familiar you are with vampire fiction the more you’ll get out of What We Do in the Shadows’ humour, but I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to enjoying it — I should think knowing the basics of vampire mythology is enough to get laughs from the majority of the movie without feeling like you’re missing anything. And in the end, the most important thing is that it’s incredibly funny. Or, as the poster accurately puts it, “hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious, hilarious.”

5 out of 5

What We Do in the Shadows is available on iPlayer until 28th November.

The UK TV premiere of Taika Waititi’s previous film, Boy, is on Film4 tonight at 10:50pm.
His new film,
Thor: Ragnarok, is out everywhere now and is reviewed here.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

2017 #142
David Slade | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

For the third Halloween in a row, I’ve subjected myself to true cinematic horror: a Twilight film. I suppose this one’s theoretically the turning point of the franchise: it’s the middle movie in the film series, while in the books it’s the penultimate instalment — surely in every regard placed to set up the final conflict. Well, you wouldn’t know it, because this is another Twilight film where very little happens.

The plot, such as it is, sees Bella (Kristen Stewart) trying to juggle her romantic relationship with vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) and her just-about-platonic friendship with werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), which is tricky because the pair don’t get on owing to an ancient feud between their species. Just your regular high school problems, then. Meanwhile, a series of mysterious murders in Seattle have caught the attention of Edward’s de facto vamp family, because they reckon it’s probably not your bog standard serial killer, but rather something in their neck of the woods. (Their neck of the woods. Geddit? Neck of the woods. Nothing? Okay then.) What do they plan to do about it? Watch it… on the news… and… er… wait and see… if it comes near them… maybe?

So, that, but for two hours.

I know how to settle this... a stare off!

So yes, nothing happens — and yet, somehow, nothing happens less boringly than last time. I mean, it’s not great, but it’s not as bad. It actually has some passably good scenes and conflicts, for example. That said, it spends the whole movie getting to basically where the last one ended. The dialogue’s still shit as well. Especially the supposedly passionate stuff, which is like some 11-year-old-who’s-watched-too-many-movies’ idea of what would be romantic. Most of the scenes go on far longer than needed. Plots go round in circles (as I said, nothing happens). And there’s nothing as brilliantly awful as Face Punch, though Edward and Jacob do get one passingly amusing one-liner each. And I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why it’s called Eclipse. I suppose Twilight and New Moon didn’t mean a great deal either, but I still think they meant more than Eclipse.

This may sound a strange thing to say, but this one’s very much a romance movie. The first two must’ve been as well, because that’s what Twilight is, so I’m not sure why I felt it more this time. I suppose the first one had a lot on its plate establishing all the supernatural stuff, and New Moon had a lot of palaver building out the world further, mixing in werewolves and the vampire high council (or whatever). Eclipse does have the Seattle stuff, but that just pops up now and then in between Bella umming and ahhing over her relationships.

Team Abs

As to that, the story tries so. hard. to make you believe it’s possible Bella could change her mind and switch affections from Edward to Jacob — but did anyone ever really believe that was an actual possibility? The story just isn’t built that way. Before I watched the films, I could never understand why anyone would be Team Jacob. It seemed so obvious she’d end up with Edward, why waste your energy? But now, even still thinking it’s inevitable, if I had to pick a team it’d definitely be Team Jacob. The reason is Taylor Lautner. No, not because of his phwoarsome abs. I remember everyone being very surprised when Lautner joined BBC Three sitcom Cuckoo, but actually watching these films you can see he has at least some ability with comic timing. His character is also more down-to-earth and levelheaded than his vampiric rival. Put together, these traits make Jacob much more likeable than bloody Edward.

The rest of the cast are as much nonentities as ever. It’s no wonder it’s taken Kristen Stewart years to re-establish the positive career path she was on before Twilight. Original Victoria actress Rachelle Lefevre was fired because her schedule for another film overlapped, and her replacement is Bryce Dallas Howard. Although Victoria has been an antagonist throughout the series, and her storyline ostensibly comes to a head in this instalment, she’s barely present. Quite why they cast a relatively well-known actress in such a minor role, or why she agreed to do it, is a mystery. At least it doesn’t seem to have harmed her career.

Team Sparkles

Others have been less fortunate. I mean, Robert Pattinson still works, but in what lately? I thought the same about director David Slade, whose work here is perfectly serviceable while at no point being memorable. Previously he’d helmed well-received horror/thrillers Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, a promising start to his career. However, since taking the Twilight dollar (he’d previously slagged off the series, comments he tried to pass off as a joke when he signed on for Eclipse) he’s shifted to TV, starting off poorly with a raft of pilot episodes like This American Housewife (not picked up), Awake (ditched after a half season), Crossbones (cancelled after nine episodes), and Powers (only available on PlayStation). But more recently he’s been an executive producer and director on Hannibal and American Gods, and has a Black Mirror coming up. I guess the era of prestige TV is working out for him.

Anyway, back to Eclipse. For a movie in which so little happens, I found it surprisingly unobjectionable. It’s not good, but I’d say it’s the least-bad Twilight so far. Of course, it wouldn’t make any sense to watch it without sitting through the previous two first, so my assessment is even more damning with faint praise than it sounds.

2 out of 5

See you this time next year for Breaking Dawn Part 1… and maybe Part 2, just to get this thing over with.

Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

2017 #148
Taika Waititi | 130 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been a busy year for the MCU. Long gone are the days of Marvel Studios putting out one or two movies a year — this is their third theatrical release in 2017, alongside three full seasons of Netflix shows and two network TV series currently running. Whew! Nonetheless, according to Rotten Tomatoes this Thor threequel is the best-reviewed thing they’ve released this year (so far). Some critics have even said it’s the best Marvel Studios movie ever made. Well, let’s not get too hasty.

Two years on from Age of Ultron, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been scouring the universe in search of Infinity Stones, to no success. After the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) emerges from her prison intent on conquering Asgard, the God of Thunder is cast out to a remote world ruled over by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There he must compete in gladiatorial championships in order to escape and prevent Ragnarok, the long-prophesied destruction of Asgard.

Having previously attempted to make the Thor movies Shakespearean (by hiring Kenneth Branagh to direct the first one) and Game of Thrones-esque (by hiring Alan Taylor to direct the second), to diminishing returns as far as critical reception and audience responsiveness went, Marvel have tried a different tack for this third instalment. Essentially, they’ve done what they’ve done to most of their movies of late: made it funny. Tonally, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel (apart from it not starring any Guardians characters, that is).

Not a buddy movie

To this end, they hired director Taika Waititi, who’s been gaining attention with this comedies What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi’s influence is definitely felt in the film’s splashes of irreverent humour, but everything else about Ragnarok is a typical Marvel Studios blockbuster. Critics who’ve said it’s more a Waititi movie than a Marvel movie were overselling it. The plot, the locations, the characters — they’re all your standard Marvel stuff. It’s colourful, it’s fun, it’s exciting — all standard Marvel operating procedure.

Therefore, just as with almost every Marvel movie, the devil is in the details. Ragnarok is a good one because of Waititi — because of the extra humour he injects, a consistent presence throughout the film, but also because he clearly has a good eye for imagery. If you want a taster, a lot of the most striking stuff is, unsurprisingly, included in the trailers. (Though, interestingly, there are several shots in the trailer that have been modified for the sake of spoilers. But to say more would be, y’know, a spoiler.) Action and more dramatic material are handled as well as ever. That’s the way the cookie crumbles with Marvel Studios movies: a bad or unremarkable director will make a bad or unremarkable Marvel movie, but a good or unique director can seemingly only make their presence felt so far as making “a good Marvel movie”, perhaps with a few of their own flourishes.

They're not buddies either

You may have heard some reports claim Ragnarok is an intergalactic buddy movie. It isn’t. Or, if it is, it’s a buddy movie where one of them’s Thor and the other one’s constantly changing. As the eponymous hero, Hemsworth gets to flex the comedic chops he revealed in movies like Ghostbusters. Everyone’s favourite Marvel movie villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is back as well. While Ragnarok may ignore its predecessors tonally, it does a good job of continuing to build on Loki’s character arc. Blanchett is, if anything, under-hammy as the villain, pitching it too low when she’s sharing space with the likes of Goldblum. The expansive cast list means that both returning characters (such as Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)) and newcomers (such as Skurge (Karl Urban) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)) can only snag so much screen time each, but several of them are given efficiently-told arcs nonetheless (as usual, Heimdall mostly misses out).

Arguably the film’s standout character is Korg, voiced by Waititi and spewing lines that feel very much from the director’s wheelhouse, even though he’s not credited as a writer. Most of the biggest laughs come from him, especially as bits like “friend from work” are now very familiar from the trailers. There’s also a cameo from Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), which feels like it’s there just because they included that credits scene in his movie and so were committed to paying it off. I suppose it may have future benefits, as I believe Thor is now the only Avenger to have met Strange, but we shouldn’t be thinking about that — what have we all said before about the MCU being needlessly over-connected?

She's definitely not got any buddies

Talking of credits scenes, you may wish to know that there are two here, Marvel’s default number nowadays. Without spoiling anything, one is the vaguest of vague teases, the other a funny button on one of the film’s subplots. Neither are going to be remembered among the studio’s best credits additions.

If Thor: Ragnarok has a problem it’s the hype that’s been attached to it since the likeable trailers and glowing reviews started coming out. For those with appropriately managed expectations, make no mistake, it is a highly entertaining couple of hours. But it doesn’t break the Marvel mould, instead just filling it with more colourful materials. The best Marvel movie ever? No. The best thing they’ve released this year? Maybe.

4 out of 5

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas in the UK and various other countries now. It rolls out across the world in the coming weeks, ending with the US on November 3rd.

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

2017 #54
Jon M. Chu | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France* / English, Mandarin & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Now You See Me 2

Con thrillers are much like magic tricks: they set you up to expect one thing, then reveal something else was going on all along. The major difference is that, unlike most magic tricks, con thrillers eventually show you how it was done. So whoever came up with the idea of combining those two things into a movie where magicians use their skills to pull off elaborate heists was practically a genius in my book — what a magnificent marriage of ideas! Unfortunately, the resulting films — Now You See Me and this sequel — aren’t much good at magic, routinely substituting CGI for the tricks, and they’re not great at cons either, substituting a headlong rush and a barrage of twists for a plot that hangs together. And that’s why these films are fundamentally empty: they don’t understand that the impressiveness of both magic and a reveal-based narratives lies in doing it for real, not in pretending to do it.

Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the first movie — in spite of its flaws, it was a daft bit of fun. The sequel (which misses a trick from the off by not being titled Now You Don’t) is too stupid to even manage that level of entertainment, instead devolving into a morass of nonsensicality. It’s not even that its plot has zero credibility as a plausible story — it’s the very way it’s put together as a film. Scenes feel disconnected from one another. Bits within them seem to have been snipped out. Sequences of varying scales seem to have been created from the notion of “what if we had a scene like this?” with no thought given to if it fits in the film, or even if it makes sense within itself. I’m left wondering if the movie had to be heavily trimmed for time; or did it never make any sense and this is the best they could stitch together?

The cast try to understand the plot...

Some spectacle-driven movies can drift by without too much sense, but a con movie — where a major component is the explanation — is not one of them. Indeed, Now You See Me 2 endeavours to make sense. It tells you there was a twist; a clever plan; that someone pulled the wool over someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it does even pretend to explain how they supposedly achieved that… but it doesn’t actually explain it. It tries to just sweep you along in a whirlwind of “surprise!” moments. That might be fine if you don’t care how it hangs together, but if you pause to consider who knew what when, and who plotted what and how… well, the film doesn’t want to give you a chance to think about any of that. That just contributes to my belief that, if you did stop and try to piece it all together, you’d discover it doesn’t actually make sense.

A few minor positives come from the new cast members. Lizzy Caplan is really good, a funny addition to the team, and Daniel Radcliffe entertains as the smiling villain, although thanks to the flurry of reveals he doesn’t get as much screen time as he deserves. Actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine feel like they’re phoning it in for a paycheque. Well, sometimes a movie’s worth doing if it, say, pays for a nice house, eh Michael?

Watching it doesn’t bring any such benefits, though, so don’t bother.

2 out of 5

* I had this down as a USA/UK/China/Canada co-production. IMDb now says USA/France. Other places say just USA. One of the main production companies is from Hong Kong, according to IMDb. So who the hell knows? ^