Ghostbusters (2016)

aka Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

2017 #41
Paul Feig | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Ghostbusters

I doubt you need me to recap the controversy that dogged co-writer/director Paul Feig’s remake of the beloved ’80s classic Ghostbusters from its inception right through to its release (and, I guess, beyond). For one thing I think it would do us all good to be able to forget that ever happened, though I guess we won’t anytime soon. That said, one of the headline aspects of the campaign of negativity directed at the remake purely because it had an all-female lead cast (it’s unfathomably sad that that’s what it was all about, isn’t it?) was the reaction that greeted the film’s trailer — it’s officially the most disliked movie trailer in the history of YouTube. Obviously a lot of that was thanks to empty-headed hate, but it didn’t help that the trailer was legitimately weak: for a comedy it seemed short on humour, and what supposed gags were present either weren’t funny or were unimaginative and overused.

Fortunately this complete dearth of laughter doesn’t extend to the film itself, though it’s not all good news: while parts are pretty funny, others are just as lazy as the trailer implied. Considering the volume of alternate lines included in the film’s special features, you have to wonder how some glaring duds, overfamiliar ‘jokes’, and flat-out clichés were left in. Of the lead cast, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones are all equally affected by this sometimes good / sometimes bad oscillation, though Chris Hemsworth as their pretty-but-dim receptionist manages to escape unscathed in a bubble of, if not hilarity, then definite amusement. However, while even people who dislike the film on the whole seem to reserve praise for Kate McKinnon, I thought she was by far the worst of the main cast. I don’t think her kerazy antics made me laugh once.

The Ghostbusters

Although Feig opted to fully reboot the Ghostbusters universe rather than continue where the previous films left off, there are variety of fan-pleasing fun nods to the original film, which I won’t spoil be detailing here. The same goes for the scattering of cameos from most of the original cast, which some have read as pace-breakingly fan-service-y but I thought mostly worked (though I don’t know if there’s any truth to the rumours that Bill Murray only appears due to a contractual obligation he couldn’t get out of). Similarly, there are at least four different recordings of Ray Parker Jr’s famous theme song, not to mention that it’s often mixed into Theodore Shapiro’s score too. Maybe that’s overkill, but it is a helluva catchy tune (though there’s nothing in-film quite as good as this remix of the trailer music). Thankfully, the risible version by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott (which was at one point promoted as the main song) is relegated to a brief snippet in the middle of the film.

For a comedy director, Feig has a decent handle on the genre side of the movie. The climax is like an attempt at a big action scene by someone unfamiliar with filming action, but although it lacks a degree of polish it’s not bad — indeed, while McKinnon may not have made me laugh, she does get a fairly badass fight sequence. On the other hand, the special effects are excellent — some people seem to really hate them, but I think the colourful, fluorescent ghosts (and associated supernatural thingamajigs) look great. Even better is the way the apparitions regularly break out of the 2.35:1 frame. I mean, it’s pretty pointless (unless you’re watching in 3D, where such larks will enhance the 3D effect’s effectiveness), but it’s a kind of cinematic playfulness I like.

I ain't afraid of no fluorescent ghosts

However, one place the director’s hand really shows is in the story structure, because it’s really obvious that some stuff has been cut. Primarily, Wiig’s character rejoins the team in time for the climax, but we never actually saw her leave it. Later, villain Rowan makes the crowd pose in a dance move for no apparent reason, though the end credits reveal there was a whole dance routine that’s been relegated to under-the-crawl status. I guess these things were a victim of necessity: Feig has said the first cut was 4¼ hours long. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut that’s 17 minutes longer, though apparently it’s effectively more than that because it features many alternate takes as well as plain extensions. For that reason I decided to watch the theatrical cut now and I’ll check out the extended version at a later date.

That’s not all, though: there’s also 138 minutes (aka just over 2¼ hours) of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes on the UK & European Blu-ray (over an hour more than on the US release). If you’re a serious fan of the film then I guess that’s a treasure trove, but it also says something about how comedy movies are produced nowadays, doesn’t it? (Or possibly how they always have been, I dunno.) I suppose you can spin that as both a positive and a negative. In the latter camp, it’s a “throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks” approach, rather than a “write something good in the first place” one. In the former, why not try everything you can think of on set and then hone it to the stuff that works best in the edit? Though, as discussed earlier, it doesn’t feel like we got all grade-A material in the final cut.

Bustin' makes me feel badass

For all the dumbass criticisms online about it starring women (which there’s at least a couple of jokes about in the film, as it goes), it can only be a positive to see a genre movie starring women in the central roles. It’s not wholly positive in this field (the male characters are all degraded in one way or another, which is a full-180 role reversal that might feel just but isn’t helpful in the grand scheme), but every little helps, right? Leaving such political aspects aside, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (as the closing title card would have it) is mostly entertaining while it lasts, though it’s kind of lightweight with it, and therefore not something that’s likely to endure as the original has. Well, there have been worse remakes.

3 out of 5

Ghostbusters is available on Sky Cinema from today.

San Andreas (2015)

2017 #24
Brad Peyton | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

San Andreas

San Andreas is a most amusing movie. It’s not a comedy, just a generic effects-driven disaster movie in exactly the same style Hollywood has been producing for about 20 years.

In its favour it has the surprising likeability of Mr The Rock, Paul Giamatti hamming it up for a paycheque, and the mammarially blessed Alexandra Daddario running around, lazing in a bikini, getting wet, etc. There’s some solid spectacle, including a couple of nice long takes, which is what these movies are all about.

Conversely, it couldn’t be any cheesier if it had been entirely made out of dairy products.

3 out of 5

Logan (2017)

2017 #30
James Mangold | 137 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

Logan

Little Miss Sunshine meets Hell or High Water via Midnight Special, with more superpowers and (probably) fewer Oscar nominations, in the film some people are calling the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.

In the not-so-distant future, the man once known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman), is living / hiding on the US-Mexico border, his once formidable powers diminished by age. He works as a limo driver to afford meds for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose psychic powers have become dangerous as his brain falters with age. When a woman recognises Logan and asks for his help, the disillusioned former X-Man fobs her off. But soon dark forces and a mysterious girl (Dafne Keen), not to mention his innate moral code, will force his claw-wielding hand…

While Marvel Studios harp on about how they mix other genres into their superhero movies, with such-and-such a film being superheroes-cum-political-thriller, or this-and-that film being superheroes-cum-heist-movie, and so on, everything they produce is really merely colouring within the lines of the superhero picture, they’re just using different crayons to do it. Logan not only uses different crayons, but it’s colouring a whole new picture, too. It’s not the first superhero movie to operate at a remove from the standard big-budget tropes of the genre, but it is perhaps the first from a major franchise to dare to step so far outside the norm. As I intimated at the start, the feel of the piece is more indie neo-Western road movie than CGI-driven superhero spectacular, though to imply it stints on expensive action thrills would be disingenuous. It still cost $97 million, after all, and so works at ways to retain the favour of a blockbuster-seeking crowd. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of a refreshing change for the subgenre, with a more distinctive feel than any of those aforementioned Marvel movies.

Wolverine vs Robotic Hand Man

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, sadly. Functionally speaking, Logan barely has a villain. There are some ill-intentioned and dangerous people after X-23, so our heroes have to run away from them — that’s all the role they have to play. Heading up the hunt is Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a henchman figure who’s de facto lead villain purely because he gets the most screen time. Unfortunately, he has more personality in his defining attribute, a CGI robotic arm, than in the rest of his characterisation combined. The theoretical Big Bad is Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), an evil scientist who we’re told developed some kind of virus that all but wiped out mutantkind, but now seems incapable of tracking down a group of preteens. He’s not on screen enough to make any kind of meaningful impression. On the bright side, on my “how badly miscast is Richard E. Grant” scale (which ranges from “very badly” to “not that bad, I suppose”) this errs towards the positive end, precisely because of that lack of screen time. Lastly there’s younger, fitter Wolverine clone X-24 (also Jackman), who’s at least intentionally devoid of personality — he’s been bred without it so he’ll be the perfect biddable killing machine. Obviously he’s ripe for some sort of thematic commentary — on ageing; on morality; on heroism; on, frankly, anything — but it never comes.

With the villainous side of the equation so unbalanced, we’re left primarily with our heroes. Fortunately, they do take up the slack, mainly through a pair of fantastic performances from Jackman and Stewart. Wolverine is undoubtedly the defining role of Jackman’s career, a part he’s played on and off for 17 years across seven movies (as a lead, plus a couple more cameos). Here he’s the most human he’s ever been. In many ways Logan was always one of the most relatable X-Men, one of our points of entry into their world and taking the piss out of them and the situation when it was called for. He was still primarily a likeable character in a fantastical world though, whereas here he feels more like a real person, struggling with the physical detriments of ageing and (less explicitly) the metaphysical quandaries of what it was all for. As he puts his time with the character to bed, Jackman gets to deliver his most nuanced and affecting turn in the role. Neatly, it mirrors where it all began for this version of the character: protecting a young mutant girl struggling to come to terms with her dangerous powers in a world that’s out to get her.

Professor X-piring

Stewart is every bit as good as a man defined by his mental prowess whose mind is failing. Originally cast to play a statesman-like role in the series, here Stewart gets to have a bit more fun, to be a bit more cheeky, but also to tap into a bit more depth of emotion, as Charles struggles with whatever it was he did to land him in hiding in Mexico (I think there was some dialogue that explained it but, frankly, I missed it in the mumbly sound mix. I’ll catch that on Blu-ray, then).

Of course, they both die. Normally that’d be shocking in a major studio blockbuster, but it’s quite clear Logan is playing by different rules, and in those rules the old good guys die. Heck, nearly everyone dies, but the only deaths that matter are Charles’ and Logan’s. What’s at least a bit interesting is how they die. For Professor X, it’s almost ignominious, — in a bed, not even his own, stabbed by X-24 for virtually no reason, then later fading away in the back of a truck. It’s not a grand heroic self-sacrifice while trying to save the world, the kind of death you’d expect for a character of his stature (and more or less the kind he got in The Last Stand, the first time they killed him off). It’s a great life come to a meaningless end. Well, Logan’s that kind of movie — it has no reverence for such things, just as life itself does not. Conversely, the death of Wolverine / Logan / James Howlett (who is he, in the end?) is a sacrifice, the selfish man of the movie’s opening giving himself up to save some kids; or, in grander terms, to save the future. Ah, but he was never really selfish, was he? It was an act. An affection brought by the hard years. He was always a good guy at heart. Always an X-Man, as the neat final shot emphasises.

Wolverine: The Last Stand

So there is some thematic meat to tuck into here, even with the apparent dead-end (pun not intended) of the X-24 subplot. Couple that with the many uncommon-to-the-genre plot and tonal points and you have a movie that does merit consideration as one of the finer superhero films. However, the perception some espouse of this being brave or bold moviemaking is not inherent to the film. If this were an original story starring new characters, especially if they didn’t have superpowers, it wouldn’t make it a bad film, but nor would it be perceived as being so original or revolutionary. What is uncommon or remarkable is making that kind of movie with a well-known character, and in particular one who’s familiar from leading CGI-fuelled PG-13 summer spectacles.

Is that alone enough to confer greatness? Logan’s consistency of style and tone render it easily the best Wolvie solo movie (as much as I liked The Wolverine on the whole, its climax was horrible), but for this X-fan it’s not enough to usurp the top-draw traditional superheroics to be found in the three or four genre classics produced by the main series. Perhaps time and re-viewing will increase Logan in my estimation, however, because it is a very strong film indeed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

2017 #19a
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

Black and Doof

And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

Furiouser and Furiosa

Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)

aka Zoku Zatôichi monogatari

2016 #194
Kazuo Mori | 73 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the debut Zatoichi movie a year after first watching it, I promised that reviews of the series’ future instalments would follow in 2015. Well, it’s 2017, and here’s Film #2. Yeah, this is going to be the new Rathbone Holmes, isn’t it?

Anyway, this second movie is — as its title might suggest — a direct sequel (a rarity for the series, so I gather), which sees our hero, the blind masseuse and skilled swordsman Ichi (Shintarô Katsu), back in conflict with one of the gangs from the first film. Despite that, it doesn’t start like a direct sequel at all. Reference is made to the previous film, the events of which have given Ichi a reputation, but that could be a reference to something that occurred off-screen for all its significance to the story. Later, however, we learn that Ichi is travelling to pay homage to the grave of the samurai he killed before, and we end up in the same town with some returning characters. It’s quite a nice structure for a sequel: to seem like a new adventure before revealing and exploring connections to the previous movie. Unfortunately, to say this film “explores” anything would be doing it a kindness.

All the ladies love a blind man

The consensus seems to be that The Tale of Zatoichi Continues is a faster-paced and more action-packed movie than its predecessor, which is obviously to some viewers’ taste. The fight scenes are certainly on a more epic scale: where the first movie ended with a one-on-one between Ichi and an opposing samurai, here he takes on a small army of men. It’s less than an hour-and-a-quarter long, too, at which length it’s hard to avoid running at a brisk speed. However, I thought it lacked the artistry of the first film. It’s very focused on plot rather than digging into character, which is especially problematic when it comes to a subplot about a rogue who turns out to be Ichi’s brother. It’s structured to make for good reveals, but they aren’t always well executed, and what should carry a weight of emotion ends up rushed.

The movie as a whole is oddly paced and very oddly ended. What turns out to be the de facto climax starts earlier than you’d expect, but then the film moves on from it… before suddenly stopping. Is this meant to be a cliffhanger? It doesn’t quite play like one, but it’s also unresolved. Film 1 felt like a complete story, but this ends with the need for a Part 3 — or rather a Part 2.1, because it doesn’t feel like a whole movie. The fact the next one is called New Tale of Zatoichi isn’t promising…

Brotherly love

Technical merits are similarly mixed. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s not as striking as its predecessor. The music is occasionally horrendous. There is indeed more sword fighting, and with it more involved choreography, but it doesn’t feel like an earned trade-off with the lightweight story.

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues comes with lots of great ideas and potential themes, but the rushed production seems to have led to a weak execution. It’s almost like you want to say to the filmmakers, “good effort, you’re almost there. Now try again and do it properly.” Of course, there are 23 more films where they may do exactly that…

3 out of 5

London Has Fallen (2016)

2017 #14
Babak Najafi | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Bulgaria / English, Italian, French & Japanese | 15 / R

London Has Fallen

The unwanted sequel to the less-good of 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” double bill sets its rip-off sights lower: the entire plot feels rehashed from a weak season of 24. It may as well begin with a gravelly-toned voiceover informing us that “the following takes place between 9AM and 9PM Greenwich Mean Time.” Fortunately, events don’t occur in real time.

Those events take place in the wake of the British Prime Minister’s unexpected death. Granted a state funeral, the American President (Aaron Eckhart) is naturally in attendance, along with 39 other world leaders — most of whom are suddenly wiped out in a series of terrorist attacks. POTUS’s Secret Service chum (Gerard Butler) must get him out of the embattled capital, away from an enemy who seems to have foreseen their every move.

From there, the film is a relentless assault on the notion of good filmmaking. The narrative is so poorly structured that it doesn’t feel like there’s a climax — it’s only apparent with hindsight that what seemed like the back-half of Act 2 is actually meant to be the big finale. The main villain is only dealt with in a tacked-on coda; so too is the obligatory mole, whose presence appears to be solely motivated by a futile attempt to plug plot holes.

Going Underground

The dialogue is horrendous (“You should have let us kill him quickly, because now… we’re going to kill him slowly”) and the CGI is ceaselessly cheap — shots of the various terrorist attacks wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie. A single-take action sequence feels like it should be exciting filmmaking, but is actually more like watching someone else play a video game.

Even with that, London Has Fallen does just about pass muster as a brains-off actioner, in the truest sense of the term: you’ll need to switch your brain off to endure the rampant xenophobia and American flag-waving.

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

2017 #5
Travis Knight | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Kubo and the Two Strings

The latest film from animation studio Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), Kubo and the Two Strings is a samurai-action fantasy-adventure inspired by Japanese culture and folklore — but animated in stop-motion and rated PG! Not that either factor in any way undermines what may be the greatest animated movie of last year.

It is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kubo (voiced by Art “Rickon Stark” Parkinson), a young boy in olden-times Japan who regales the folk of his local town with fantastical adventure stories, which he brings to life with origami that he animates using magic from playing his shamisen (basically, Japan’s answer to the banjo). These stories actually come from Kubo’s mother and relate to his own life: Kubo’s grandfather is the evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who they fled from when Kubo was a baby, while his father stayed behind to aid their escape, presumably to the death. Kubo mustn’t go out at night lest the Moon King see him and send his minions, Kubo’s creepy aunts (both Rooney Mara), to capture them. So Kubo never goes out at night and they all live happily ever after.

Not really! When the aunts come for them, Kubo’s mother uses the last of her magic to whisk Kubo away on a quest to find some mythical armour that he’ll need to defend himself against the Moon King. To help him, she brings his wooden monkey charm to life (voiced by Charlize Theron); and along the way they stumble across a man-sized beetle who used to be a samurai (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Scrapes ensue as the trio hunt for the three pieces of the armour, with the vicious aunts in pursuit.

Monkey, Beetle and Boy

At its most basic, Kubo sounds like an archetypal “fantasy quest” narrative, with a gang of heroes in search of a MacGuffin to defeat a Big Bad. But the devil is in the details — something the folks at Laika know only too well. The Japanese myths they’ve tapped into here make for some fantastic detail; if anything, the familiarity of the broad story arc allows the unique aspects of the mythology to be all the more prominent, including some possibly surprising developments later on. I say “possibly” because I’ve read at least one complaint about the twists being guessable to adult viewers. Well, this is a fable and also, technically, a kids’ movie — just two reasons why plot guessability doesn’t really matter. I mean, if all you want from a movie is to be surprised, why not just watch 90 minutes of things popping out of boxes?

The other aspect massively in Kubo’s favour is the animation. It’s genuinely stunning — beautiful to look at, as well as being technically audacious and consequently impressive. Some of it is so grand that several times I forgot that most of what we’re seeing on screen was built for real and animated by hand over several years. I say “most” because it is augmented with CGI, just as any action-fantasy live-action movie would be these days. The fact there was green screen and compositing and some wholly CG elements doesn’t detract from the technical workmanship on display. That included the largest stop-motion puppet ever built. I won’t spoil what or where it is in the film, but there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse during the end credits that is breathtaking.

Relatively dangerous

Another area the animation excels is in the action scenes. That’s a field which is rarely animation’s forte, especially stop-motion animation, but Laika took on the challenge and nailed it. Everything from the antics of Kubo’s animated origami to a centrepiece duel aboard a ship at sea are the equal to anything you’d find in a live-action samurai actioner. The character work is excellent too, especially the villains. The aunts are fabulously creepy, mainly thanks to their blank mask faces and the way they float everywhere, seemingly indestructible. There are a couple of other monstrous creatures too, but their wonders deserve to be discovered in situ.

It’s not just scale that Kubo does well: the attention to detail was immense, with Japanese cultural experts called in to inform the tiniest detail, like period-accurate stitching on the clothing. This is background detail on 10-inch puppets, remember, but they went to that much trouble. It’s indicative of the attention paid to every facet of the movie, and while using the correct stitching, or developing appropriate techniques for animating water, or applying genuine principles from Japanese beliefs, do not in themselves make for a great movie, they indicate the level of care taken over this project — which does help to produce a great movie.

Then there’s the music, composed by Dario Marianelli, which integrates the shamisen as well as other appropriate instruments into a consistently lyrical score. And the photography, by Frank Passingham — it’s not just the design work and high-quality builds that make the film so gorgeous to look at, but the quality of the light that’s captured. And I’ve been so busy singing the film’s production praises that I haven’t even mentioned how funny it is, or how emotional, with Mar Haimes and Chris Butler’s screenplay tucking some very positive lessons away in the final act. Indeed, the alternative perspective offered by embracing a different culture means that, for once, they might not just be lessons for kiddie viewers. By the time the credits roll — to a glorious cover version of a perfectly chosen song — the whole experience is completely enchanting.

The quest goes ever on

I think Laika as a name went a bit unnoticed with their first feature, Coraline, because it had the already-headlining names of writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick. Their two subsequent features seem to have been well-liked but not set the world on fire (I’ve still not seen either). But here, they’re firmly stamping their name as a mark of quality. Come in Pixar, your time may be up. I’m sure Kubo won’t be picking up many gongs in the current awards season, what with three big-name Disney-backed pictures arrayed against it, but I find it hard to believe any of those outdid the artistry on display here, both in its spectacular animation technique and its majestic storytelling. To say it’s 2016’s best animated film is underselling it — it’s one of my favourite films released last year, fullstop.

5 out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

2016 #176
Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

Kung Fu Panda 3Po and co are back in a movie that bucks the sequel trend by being perhaps the best Kung Fu Panda yet.

The two-pronged plot sees Po (Jack Black) finally meet his birth father (Bryan Cranston), while evil warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons) breaks out of the afterlife to hunt down the Dragon Warrior, putting Po’s new-found community in harm’s way.

After the occasionally muddled second film (which I felt improved a little with repeated viewings, at least), KFP3 sets the legendary adventures of awesomeness back on track with an appealing mix of humour, action, and moral lessons for kiddies and adult viewers alike. It keeps things focused and pacey, running just 83 minutes before credits, as well as maintaining the series’ typically stunning animation, which is just as polished whether creating epic scenery or up-close physical combat.

It’s also particularly satisfying when watched alongside its forerunners: it feels like the Po’s story has come full circle, with the film linking in and wrapping up plot points from the first movie (as well as resolving things from the second). Reportedly DreamWorks have three more Kung Fu Panda films planned, but at this point it feels like a completed trilogy.

A downside for UK viewers, though: our localised soundtrack replaces the voices of two palace geese with members of the Vamps, who are a popular music combo, apparently. Wow. Aside from the underwhelmingness of the ‘famous’ guest voices, they’re appalling actors. They only have about three lines between them and they’re still terrible. To rub salt in the wound, some ‘clever’ disc coding means that if you have a Region B Blu-ray player this soundtrack is completely unavoidable, even if you import. Poor region-locked people. Family resemblanceI hope for humanity’s sake the version on Sky Cinema retains the original voices.

There are very few threequels that can lay claim to being a series’ best entry. Whether KFP3 actually tops the original or not is debatable, but it at least feels like a course correction after the somewhat disappointing first sequel.

4 out of 5

Kung Fu Panda 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today, screening on Premiere at 1:40pm and 7:15pm.