Superman (1978)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Superman: The Movie

You’ll believe a man can fly.

Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
UK Release: 14th December 1978
Budget: $55 million
Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

Stars
Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

Director
Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

Screenwriters
Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

Story by
Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

Based on
Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


The Story
The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

Our Hero
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

Our Villain
Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

Best Supporting Character
Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

Memorable Quote
Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Memorable Scene
As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

Memorable Music
John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

Technical Wizardry
The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

Truly Special Effect
You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

Letting the Side Down
In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compare to the sodding time travel.)

Making of
There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

Previously on…
As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

Next time…
Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies. There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

Awards
1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

Verdict

Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

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Atomic Blonde (2017)

2017 #166
David Leitch | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English, German, Russian & Swedish | 15 / R

Atomic Blonde

The uncredited co-director of John Wick takes sole charge for this action thriller set at the tail-end of the Cold War, which sees Charlize Theron’s British spy dispatched to Berlin to find “The List”, a document naming all the active intelligence agents in the city, which has fallen into the hands of the KGB.

It’s based on The Coldest City, a graphic novel that came out during my relatively brief flirtation with being a proper comic book reader a few years ago. Back then it caught my eye (though I never got round to buying it) because I got the impression it was a Le Carré-style thriller, so I was very surprised to eventually learn it was the basis for this film, the trailers for which promised a hyper-stylised actioner from the director of combat-focused John Wick. Watching the film, however, it’s easier to see how I might not’ve been wrong about the novel after all — take out the elaborate fight scenes and shoot it more like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy than The Guest, and this could indeed be a Le Carré-esque Cold War thriller.

Lots of style, little substance

Or maybe that should be “Le Carré wannabe”. The filmmakers were probably right to shift the focus in that way, because the plotting here isn’t up to that standard, particularly in a bevy of last-minute twists that bog down the final ten minutes, especially with their burst of misplaced patriotism (though I won’t say for which country lest it spoil something). Le Carré’s plots feel almost like the definition of substance being more important style (I’ve never actually read one of his books so certainly don’t mean that to be an insult), whereas Atomic Blonde is good ol’ style over substance. The best stuff here lies not in the intricacies of its spy-vs-spy storyline, but in the starkly coloured visuals, the cool ‘80s soundtrack, and (as you’d expect from the stuntman-turned-director behind 50% of John Wick) the expertly realised fight scenes.

Chief among these is an incredible single-take action sequence that goes from a sniper-beset protest march, into a building, up in the elevator, back down the stairwell — all in a series of bruising hand-to-hand fights — and then, for good measure, continues back outside and into a car chase shootout. Obviously the single take aspect must be as faked as Birdman (according to IMDb, it actually includes almost 40 different shots, many stitched together with the aid of CGI — I’d wager mostly during the car chase, which feels less smooth than the rest), but it’s still impressively crafted. The choreography of it all — both the fight moves and the camerawork — really is something else.

Fight!

Despite the flashiness of that one long section, what’s really effective about all the fight scenes is the level of groundedness. I’m sure they’re not what a real fight is like — they’re still choreographed brawls between trained combatants — but Theron doesn’t take down an army singlehanded, she fights a couple of guys, it’s hard work, and she ends up battered, bruised, and exhausted.

Sadly, between the confused plot and the irritating ending, Atomic Blonde ultimately rubbed me up the wrong way. Still, it’s worth watching for the style and the impressive action scenes. If only they’d managed to combine those with a better story, then this would’ve been something really special.

3 out of 5

Atomic Blonde is available on Sky Cinema from today.
David Leitch’s new film,
Deadpool 2, is in cinemas everywhere now.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

2018 #105
Sam Liu | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

I was all up for this adaptation of Gotham by Gaslight when it was first announced — I’m a fan of the original book, as well as the sequel (which they’ve also used parts of); and, I thought, even if they chose to deviate from it then I like the basic concept of “Batman meets steampunk”. But then the last few DC animations I’ve seen have been subpar, and the trailer for this one looked rather bland, so I decided to opt for a rental instead of purchase. Well, I never got round to doing that, and then Amazon slashed the price of the Blu-ray, so I ended up buying it — it still cost more than a rental, but if I liked it I’d save money in the long run. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case.

If you’re not familiar with Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s original tale, it involves Batman battling Jack the Ripper in late 19th Century Gotham City. It’s regarded as the first Elseworlds story, which is DC’s branding for stories that take place in different times, places, or “what if” scenarios — “what if Superman had landed in Russia?”, for example. This animation is a rather loose adaptation, which takes the basic concept from Augustyn and Mignola’s work but otherwise almost completely rebuilds it, mixing in a lot of ‘Easter egg’ stuff (like appearances from many more well-known Bat-characters) and some elements of the sequel comic, Master of the Future.

Fisticuffs!

So anyone expecting a straight-up adaptation may be disappointed, but taken as a film in its own right, for the most part it works. Having all the different familiar characters pop up makes it feel like a proper Batman tale, rather than a Ripper story that happens to have a costumed vigilante in it. Most prominent is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, although she isn’t really the latter here — Batman gets fully suited up, but the most Miss Kyle gets is a whip. The relationship between Bruce Wayne and Selina is one of the film’s best aspects, in fact, with the Elseworld setting seeming to allow a different focus than the usual antagonism that pairing has in screen adaptations — as one of the filmmakers says in the audio commentary, “it’s not a movie about Batman and Catwoman, it’s about Bruce and Selina.” Jim Krieg’s screenplay is good across the board, with several nice passages and scenes, even if at times it rests too heavily on exposition and speachifying.

The one change that didn’t work for me is that it glosses over the bit about Bruce have recently returned from Europe, his return to Gotham coinciding with the Ripper’s arrival, thus making Bruce Wayne a suspect. Perhaps this isn’t a major point, but it’s a grace note that helps sell the whole concept for me. This wasn’t an oversight, however: they consciously decided to make Jack the Ripper a Gotham serial killer in this universe, so his London crimes never happened. But surely the point of using Jack the Ripper is the crimes he’s famous for? I think everyone knows he was a London serial killer, but the film does nothing to dispel this prior knowledge, nothing to establish that this version emerged for the first time in Gotham.

The idea behind the change was to widen the suspect pool for the “whodunnit” element — if the Ripper had just come from London, his identity has to be someone who’s just arrived in Gotham. I can see where they’re coming from, but there are other ways round the problem — for example, the Gotham Ripper could’ve turned out to be a copycat, which would’ve added to the twist. As it stands, the identity of the Ripper (which has been changed from the book) is a huge twist, and, fair play to them, they pull it off. I’ll say no more because of spoilers, but I’m surprised it didn’t seem to cause outcry online. Maybe after the furore around The Killing Joke people just stopped paying attention.

Miss Selina Kyle

As with most of these DC animations, the quality of the visual is more TV than feature film, but they make the most of what they’ve got. There’s a squareness to the character designs, using few and simple lines, that is almost appealing. Perhaps it was inspired by Mignola’s artwork, though it does still feel sanitised compared to his exaggerated style. Also, a lot of effort is put into establishing this version of Gotham, with plenty of wide shots and scenes set in many different locations. Those were both deliberate choices to help make the city a major part of the film, and to give it life and texture as a Victorian metropolis. It’s an admirable effort considering the new era was a bit of a production headache: on their other movies, things like generic background characters and props can be recycled from film to film, but here every single element had to be designed and created from scratch.

Voice casting is mostly spot on. Again, effort was put into evoking the period without wanting to go overboard — they didn’t want the voices to sound modern, but they didn’t want everyone doing English accents or something either. Bruce Greenwood makes for a dependable Batman and Anthony Head is perfectly dry as Alfred, but the foremost performance is perhaps Jennifer Carpenter as Selina. She’s most famous for Dexter, where she’s such a tomboy, but here she conveys a kind of Victorian elegance, with a hefty dash of feminism, very well. Inspired casting. Just as good is Scott Patterson as Commissioner Gordon. Best known for his modern, working-class character in Gilmore Girls, I didn’t even realise it was him until the credits rolled. Well, partly this is a problem with billing — only Greenwood and Carpenter get it. They’re the leads, so of course they’d get top billing, but Head and Patterson have sizeable roles and are surely just as famous? I guess it doesn’t matter, but it was a bit of a surprise to hear a recognisable voice crop up when they hadn’t been announced (as it were) by the opening credits.

The Ripper approaches...

In other merits, there are some surprisingly decent action sequences — a mid-way one atop an airship is the highlight — plus a nice music score by Frederik Wiedmann, which was partly influenced by Hans Zimmer’s work on the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, but I swear I heard some overtones of Danny Elfman’s Batman in there also. In all the film is only an hour-and-a-quarter long, but it doesn’t feel like too much of a quickie — there’s enough incident here to fuel a ‘proper’ movie. I mean that in a positive way.

As I said at the start, I expected very little of Gotham by Gaslight, for various reasons. I came away pleasantly surprised. In the commentary they talk about how much they enjoyed making it — how everyone involved, from the executives down to the storyboarders, all thought it was a particularly special project — and how they’d like to make a sequel, and they’ve got an idea for one involving the Joker. I’ve no idea how this has performed commercially, but I hope they get the chance.

4 out of 5

Another Elseworlds-y Batman animation, Batman Ninja, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week, and will be reviewed in due course.

ManHunt (2017)

2018 #94
John Woo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | China & Hong Kong / Japanese, English & Mandarin | 15

ManHunt

John Woo’s latest movie is now “A Netflix Film” in the UK, US, and presumably some other territories too. After almost 15 years spent making period dramas, it’s a return to the contemporary action-thriller genre that made his name. Whether it represents a return to his previous quality… well…

ManHunt introduces us to Du Qiu (Hanyu Zhang), a Chinese lawyer for a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, credited with saving the company when he won a court case three years ago. Now he’s leaving to head to America, but the company’s president tries to persuade him to stay by sending a sexy lady to wait at his house. Unfortunately for Du, when he wakes up the next morning she’s dead and he’s the prime suspect. Soon he’s on the run to clear his name, with hot-shot cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) on his tail, though he’s not convinced of his target’s guilt. That’s just the start of it — why would someone want to frame Du for murder? Well, it gets complicated…

For the first half of its running time, ManHunt is a baffling experience. Not so much because of the plot — though that sets so many wheels in motion that one must pay attention — but because of how it’s put together. One major problems is the way it casually mixes together multiple languages, leading to some flat translations (that’s being kind — maybe the screenplay, which comes courtesy of seven screenwriters, was unexciting to begin with) and clunky line delivery. But hey, this is an action movie, so we can forgive some iffy performances. A greater barrier to enjoyment comes in the form of Taro Iwashiro’s underpowered, plinky-plonky score. That might be fine during chatty scenes, but it continues into the early action sequences, robbing them of pace, dynamism, and excitement. It’s a thoroughly bizarre choice that undermines the film’s raison d’être.

Not chuffed to be cuffed

With its unoriginal innocent-man-on-the-run story and disengaging production quirks, it’s tempting to give up on ManHunt before the half-hour mark. However, director John Woo does begin to sneak in some of his trademark flair. One particularly good bit sees Yamura and his new partner visit the crime scene to go over what they think happened. Woo mixes together their reenactment with flashbacks in interesting, increasingly overlapping ways… until the sequence ends with the female officer getting hysterical, the old-fashioned-ness of which undercuts the sequence a little right at the end.

As the various plot strands kicked off at the start begin to come together, the film becomes increasingly worth watching. If you can make it through the first half, the second begins to revel in its own silliness. It stops mattering that everyone has to deliver dialogue in at least two languages but none of them can actually act in more than one. It stops mattering that the plot barely makes sense — in fact, it actually improves the crazier it gets. A framed man on the run? Yawn. A pharmaceutical company searching for a secret formula to perfect the currently-lethal super-soldier drug it’s testing on homeless people, which is in the possession of the widow of a former employee they killed for alleged corporate espionage, and using drug-enhanced hitwomen to do its dirty work while corrupt addict cops cover up the indiscretions of its president’s son? Awesome. And the action finally kicks into gear too, gradually shifting first into having some good moments, then into whole sequences that are worth your time. Is it all too little too late? Kinda. But at least it rewards those prepared to stick with it.

Sharing is caring

In many ways I should give ManHunt just 2 stars, but that would be to ignore the fact that I’m glad I watched it. But if a 3-star rating is any kind of recommendation, here it’s a very cautious one.

3 out of 5

ManHunt is available on Netflix now.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main things that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extended to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

2018 #87
Anthony & Joe Russo | 149 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Avengers: Infinity War

People are incredibly wary of Infinity Wars spoilers right now — understandably — so here’s the deal: this review starts off completely spoiler-free, until a clearly-marked move into spoiler territory. Then the last paragraph (after the picture of Thanos and right above my star rating) is everyone-friendly again. Get it? Got it? Good.

Ironically, it’s actually quite easy to give a fair summary of the plot without spoiling anything that’s not already been teased in previous films: alien warlord Thanos (mocapped and voiced by Josh Brolin) is out to collect the six Infinity Stones, crystals from the birth of the universe with unique powers, which when amassed together will grant him ultimate power. Out to stop him is pretty much every hero introduced in the previous 18 MCU films.

I confess, I was all prepared for Infinity War to fail to live up to the hype and hyperbole of the reviews that have swarmed over the internet in the past few days, just like happened for me with Avengers Assemble six years ago. In this case, there’s so much going on, the experience is such a huge rush, that it’s almost hard to get your head around what to think of it. I don’t believe there’s ever been another movie quite like it — so many disparate primary heroes, all needing time, and facing a single huge villain, who also gets plenty of focus… Setting aside any of the usual quantifiable elements, reviewing the film comes down (as it really always should) to one simple question: did I enjoy it? Yes, I did.

Avengers (partially) assembled

Like the first Avengers, it’s certainly a great event of a movie — but more so, natch. It trades off that event status too: the stakes are huge, the pace and size relentless. It could’ve been like a Transformers movie — “a beginning, then AHHHHH! for another two hours or so”, as someone once described them — but thankfully it’s not so one note: as well as big action, there’s room for humour (plenty of that, it being a Marvel movie, but never ill-placed) and emotion (some affecting dramatic scenes, most of them too spoilersome to mention here).

It’s impressive to join together so many different sub-franchises and manage to create a consistent tone. In some respects it does feel like they’ve chopped up bits from the characters’ individual movies and spliced them together. The most striking for this is the entrance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, when the Russos cut so abruptly into those films’ style that it initially feels misjudged… though I guess a lot of people won’t mind because, hey, everyone loves the Guardians (my audience practically cheered with recognition — not at seeing the characters on screen, but at the very obvious stylistic shift just before they appear). But, across the movie as a whole, it gels well. I suppose some would counter this with “all Marvel films have the same formula and tone so obviously it works”, but that’s not wholly fair — The Winter Soldier and Thor: Ragnarok are hardly the same, are they?

Science meets magic

Whatever the cause, the big plus is that none of the characters ever feel inconsistent — you’ve not got funny people suddenly being serious, or serious people suddenly cracking one-liners, just to make it all fit together. On one level that’s just good character writing, but it’s also good story structure: which characters get teamed up together, because each group has a good mix to butt against each other in the right ways. That doesn’t mean every set has one Funny One, one Serious One, etc, because sometimes the film needs to be able to cut from The Serious Group to The Funny Group. Several reviews I’ve read talked about the film’s “surprising team-ups”. Well, maybe… if you haven’t watched any trailers or seen any posters. Whatever, they mostly work very well. Some characters are better served than others, which is inevitable in a film of this scope, but pretty much everyone gets at least a line or a moment. Who your personal favourites are might dictate whether you think the screen time was fairly allocated or not.

(Spoilers follow.)

Talking of other reviews, I read one that said that, while the film may be entertaining, it’s ultimately hollow because it has no major thematic throughline to explore. I disagree. It leans quite heavily into the question of “at what cost?” What is everyone prepared to sacrifice to achieve their end goal? Both the heroes and Thanos are presented with this question, again and again. Heck, it’s not only a major test for Thanos, it’s part of his origin story too! Now, you can argue about how well the film expounds on this theme, as you can with any work of art (In this case: several of our heroes make that ultimate sacrifice, only for it to be undone by plot necessity), but to say the theme isn’t there feels disingenuous.

Thor and Rabbit, off on a whirlwind adventure

With all of that accounted for, I don’t know what more could be asked of the movie, in some respects. That said, two fairly specific things bothered me. The bigger one was that we only witness Thanos collecting five of the six stones. Why not show us the lot? How he acquires his second stone makes for an effective opening scene — immediately killing off two well-liked characters, as well as defeating two of the MCU’s main heroes, quickly establishes Thanos’ power — but then how he got the first stone is just revealed in some exposition dialogue later on? C’mon, you can do better than that! The other was the random reappearance of the Red Skull, not seen since Phase One. I guess they felt in need of some kind of reveal at that point, but I’m not sure why. Does him being there even make sense? I don’t see how, but then I’ve not watched The First Avenger in the last six years so maybe I’ve just forgotten. They even had to get a sound-alike to do the voice, so clearly they felt it was vitally important!

Something I’ve previously written about being bothered by in movie franchises are two-part films. As a rule I prefer that, even when a pair of films are connected, they should function as finite units — think Back to the Future Part II and Part III, for example, or the link between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Avengers 3 and 4 have an interesting history in this regard: originally announced as Parts 1 and 2, this was later changed to them having individual titles, to indicate they were two separate stories… but still connected, because the two films were shot back to back, and Avengers 4’s final title hasn’t been announced presumably because it’s an Infinity War spoiler. Nonetheless, some people seemed to interpret all this as meaning the two films would be completely standalone from each other, and are now annoyed at Marvel because, surprise surprise, there’s a cliffhanger.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a high-tech Iron Man-esque suit can

(I know I already gave a spoiler warning, but just in case you read on regardless: the paragraphs between now and the next photo give away, like, everything.)

So, here’s my take: obviously Infinity War is not entirely isolated from Avengers 4, but I don’t think this is a Kill Bill one-film-split-in-two situation either. Fans who now think the original Part 1 and 2 titles would’ve been apt are maybe taking too simplistic a view of story structure. I mean, look at it this way: it’s only half a movie to us because we know the Avengers are going to come back and win somehow; but if you’re Thanos — the film’s real protagonist, remember — then the story’s over: he did what he set out to do, the end. Maybe this is an academic distinction, but I do think it’s fair enough to have ditched the subtitles that implied it was one movie in two halves. This film tells a whole story (of Thanos trying to wipe out half the universe) and the next film will tell a new story set after it (presumably, how the Avengers try to undo that).

Either way, the film ends on a cliffhanger — a bloody huge one! But I have to wonder: is it actually too much? By that I mean: it has to be undone. Yes, obviously we know the heroes will win in the end, but none of those final deaths can stick. Even if you took Benedict Cumberbatch at his word that Doctor Strange 2 isn’t confirmed, and James Gunn at his that Guardians Vol.3 might feature a changed line-up, we know they need Peter back for Homecoming 2, T’Challa back for Black Panther 2, and so on. So if it has to be undone — if there have to be resurrections — well, why not also resurrect Loki, and Heimdall, and Gamora, and Vision, and anyone else who genuinely died earlier in the story? In fairness, in this I may be getting too far ahead — how the resurrections occur is absolutely a question for next time, after all. But it’ll have to be a very specific solution — one that undoes Thanos’ final act, but doesn’t undo all the ones that led up to it — to not just seem like a stereotypical death-doesn’t-matter superhero cop-out.

A final point on these deaths. I’m not sure I can actually remember everyone who lived and died during the wipe-out-half-the-universe finale (there were so many!), but I’m fairly certain they were mostly Phase Two and Three characters. I remember that Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Cap all definitely made it, anyway. My point is this: things are now set for Avengers 4 to really cap off the first 11 years and 22 films of the MCU by placing at its core the heroes who started it all. That’s quite neat, isn’t it? You’ve got to assume that’s deliberate.

Thanos

Avengers: Infinity War is like a massive comic book crossover rendered in live-action. You might think “of course it is”, but it’s not that long ago that this wouldn’t even have been possible (the CGI required is phenomenal), and even less time since it would’ve been considered profitable (remember when all superhero movies had to be “grounded”?) As much as it’s a familiar epic sci-fi action blockbuster, it’s also a new kind of thing to the big screen. There are pros and cons to turning that kind of narrative into a movie, but Infinity War is heavy on the former and relatively light on the latter. When it comes down to it, it’s just marvellous entertainment.

5 out of 5

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia and China) now.
The fourth Avengers movie will be released this time next year.

Geostorm (2017)

2018 #70
Dean Devlin | 109 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Cantonese, Russian, Hindi & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

Geostorm

Geostorm met with widespread derision when it hit the big screen last year, but, despite the many negative reviews (it has just 12% on Rotten Tomatoes), I heard someone say it was actually an entertaining popcorn blockbuster. I forget who that was, sadly, because they were wrong. Very wrong.

Set in the near-ish future, it’s about a giant weather-control system installed in orbit around the Earth that begins to malfunction and cause disastrous freak weather events, which have the potential to build into a so-called “geostorm” — a devastating planet-wide weather fuck-up, basically. And there’s only one man who can stop it… despite the fact he’s not been involved with the system for about three years and during that time it’s been successfully run by a massive team of no-doubt-highly-skilled people.

A lot of films of this type start out okay and get dumber as they go on. Geostorm hits the ground running with shit dialogue and nonsensical plot developments — I’d list some, but God, there are far too many for me to bother. That said, here’s my favourite: when someone advises the US President that they’ll need to send a whole team with various skills and abilities to fix the malfunctioning global satellite weather control system (because, you know, that must be a pretty complicated set of interrelated systems, and no one knows whether it’s software or hardware or whatever else), the President decides they’re only allowed to send… one person. And it isn’t even a specific person who he thinks is a whizz — his next instruction is “find me that person.” And everyone else in the room seems to think this is a reasonable course of action. I mean, there are no words for that kind of stupidity. Well, maybe “Trumpian”, but the film isn’t presenting it as satire. And, as I said before, there’s already a massive staff up there running operations — why would the President not assume the one person with the specific skill-set needed to diagnose and fix the problem is already up there? How do people get paid to write crap this stupid? How could any self-respecting writer generate this?!

From their expressions, I presume they're reading the screenplay

Well, quite frankly, I’m not sure Geostorm was even written by a writer. Exhibit A: About 56 minutes into the movie, one character says “it’s bigger than you and me”, and a supporting character corrects him: “you and I”. But “you and me” is grammatically correct in that situation. Any writer worth whatever you get paid for writing a $120 million movie should know that, ergo there can’t’ve been any writers involved. Or, yeah, the writers who were involved were really, really, really shit. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The film is littered with faults, minor and major, that draw attention to themselves like this. Apparently the original cut received poor reactions from test audiences, leading to extensive reshoots, which I imagine explains some of the inconsistent crap that goes down during the film’s finale. (Spoilers follow, should you care.) One of the significant establishing traits of the film’s primary hero, Jake (Gerard Butler’s character), is he has a daughter who he loves very much — there’s an emotional scene when he leaves her to go off to the weather satellite, and so on. But later, when he has just minutes to live, he seems to have no pressing desire to want to talk to her. He just tells his brother to stay in her life — which the brother wanted to do anyway, but earlier Jake had been stopping him. Written like this that almost plays like character development — how he’s accepted his brother again — but that’s not how it plays out.

Gerard Butler, thwarted by another door

Oh, but it gets worse. (More spoilers!) So, the station’s commander departed ages ago with the rest of the crew, leaving Jake alone to fix the problem and then die when the station blows up anyway (don’t worry about the logistics of that, the film doesn’t). But then Jake gets stuck when he has to… open a door. And suddenly the commander’s there, and she knows what to do to… yes, open a door. So that means she’s been hiding out somewhere on the station, making sure Jake doesn’t see she’s still there, until that precise moment when he needs help… to open a door. Oh, and then, by total chance and plot implausibility, they actually survive the destruction of the station, and get in a satellite and use it to return to Earth. Not an escape pod, a satellite. Why does a satellite have enough empty space to carry two people? There’s no way you could answer this stuff.

Some people, even including some filmmakers, seem to think critics and “pretentious” filmgoers slag off movies like Geostorm based solely on the genre or concept or some other fundamental characteristic. And, yeah, there must be some people who won’t give certain genres a fair shot; but that’s not widely the case, as the praise attracted by better blockbusters proves time and again. No, films like this get slagged off when they’re shittily made. Geostorm is shittily made.

1 out of 5

The Dark Tower (2017)

2018 #25
Nikolaj Arcel | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower started life as a literary work that is, according to its author, Stephen King’s magnum opus: a series of eight novels, written over 30 years and spanning some 4,250 pages, that not only tell their own genre-mash-up story, but also reference or connect up many of King’s more widely-known works. Since 2007 there have been various efforts to try to wrangle such an epic work onto the screen, with perhaps the most high-profile being Ron Howard’s ambitious plan to spread it across both film and TV, alternating a trilogy of big-budget movies with seasons of TV on HBO in order to adapt the whole saga. This clearly proved to be too formidable a goal, but eventually paved the way for what was released: a single 90-minute film. From one extreme to the other, eh…

It’s easy to imagine why fans of the books have found this film disappointing, then — I mean, there’s no way they’ve managed to accurately condense seven novels (and some of them very long novels at that) into an hour and a half. But, despite the series-encompassing title, it’s my understanding that it’s primarily an adaptation of the first novel, so surely fans would know they could expect the rest of the narrative if sequels were produced? The perceived problems must go deeper, therefore, and be more general: leaving aside fan reaction, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 16%.

Strut

Well, I don’t know what people were hating, because I thought it really wasn’t that bad. I can’t comment on its faithfulness or thoroughness as an adaptation, but as an action-fantasy movie in its own right I thought it held together pretty well. It only cost $60 million (a bargain for a blockbuster nowadays), but they got good value for money: it doesn’t look cheap, and it has a respectable lead cast as well. Idris Elba’s presence may’ve pissed off some people (his character has consistently been depicted as white in illustrations accompanying the books), but he seemed to fit the role. Matthew McConaughey makes for a decently unsetting bad guy. Our identification figure is a kid played by Doctor Foster’s Tom Taylor, who’s fine here but got to show more chops in that series.

The relatively stringent budget probably explains why it’s a little light on things like epic action sequences, with those that are included feeling like the makers were probably doing their best on a limited expenditure — the action isn’t bad, but those scenes aren’t as awesome as the film thinks they are. Less readily excused is the plot, which is a bit slim — the story is very straightforward, despite the intricate fantasy gubbins dressing it up, moving directly from A to B to C with minimal complication. Similarly, familiar character arcs are efficiently executed. But if a film’s biggest crime is unoriginality, it’s no worse than the majority of Hollywood’s output for the past 20 or 30 (or more) years, is it?

Slinging guns

Well, according to script editor (and fan of the books) Andrew Ellard in his discussion of the movie, that’s precisely the problem. He argues the film represents “the exact same competent mediocrity we’ve seen before from — say — I, Robot or I Am Legend. Not a bad film especially. Just kinda nothing. Or like Inkheart or Assassin’s Creed, fantasy you won’t remember tomorrow. But the books are fascinating. Full of ideas & imagery that haunt you. To pick the blandest, most generic stuff? Dumb.” This, I do suppose, is what fans were primarily upset about. If you don’t know the books then the film we’ve been given is fine as just a reasonable time-passer, but if you feel that it could — should — have been something truly special, how frustrating that must be.

The Dark Tower grossed $113 million, which, at less than double its budget, probably isn’t enough to secure the mooted sequel (especially when it’s put in comparison to 2017’s other Stephen King adaptation, It, which surpassed $700 million). I guess someday it’ll get re-adapted, probably as a TV series, maybe by Netflix, or Amazon, especially if they still haven’t found the Game of Thrones-beater they’re currently looking for. Until then, this version stands as a reasonably enjoyable quickie — not as bad as you may’ve heard, but apparently not all it could’ve been either.

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (1964)

aka Zatôichi abare tako

2018 #50
Kazuo Ikehiro | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword

Zatoichi’s built up quite the reputation by the beginning of this seventh adventure: his previous escapades have left many gangs gunning for him — literally, as it turns out, because the story begins with Ichi getting shot by an opportunistic nobody. Fortunately for everyone’s favourite blind masseur-cum-swordsman, the guy’s clearly not a great shot, and a friendly passerby sees to it that Ichi gets the care he needs. Later Ichi sets about tracking down his mysterious benefactor, which puts him in the middle of a conflict between two gangs — what else is new? This time they’re arguing over a free fireworks display and the rights to provide a river crossing service. Sounds a bit less violently dramatic than normal, doesn’t it? But when gangsters don’t get what they want…

Flashing Sword offers a more straightforward story than some other instalments of the Zatoichi series: the opposing sides and their differences are thoroughly established, and one of the gangs are even clearly the good guys! Makes a change from Ichi having to pick between the lesser of two evils and/or trying to wipe out both sides. Some other reviewers seem to find the story simplistic or lightweight. Conversely, I appreciated the clarity of approach, and thought the film found different ways to add complexity beyond pure plot gymnastics.

Did somebody mention gymnastics?

Playing out as more of a drama than some of the other films, the events here have something of an emotional impact on our roving hero. As the two sides argue in low-key fashion, Ichi’s involvement in the conflict is limited, and so he settles into the home he’s been welcomed to as a guest, to the point where he almost seems ready to settle there. Well, we know he never will, but that’s dramatic irony for you. It’s the same with the pretty young lady that Ichi once again finds himself involved with (all the ladies love a blind man, it would seem) — we know they’ll never end up together, but the characters have to find that out for themselves. This time, Ichi is robbed of his possible dreams in particularly cruel fashion, as the bad guys scheme to force the good boss’ hand. Ichi finds out the truth, but by then it’s too late — all that’s left is for him to take revenge.

And that brings us to one thing everyone can agree on: that the film’s climax is spectacular. First Ichi stalks around the enemy HQ, hidden in nighttime shadows, picking off the guards in small clumps. Then he faces the army of gangsters head-on, as the sound of fireworks explode outside; then he extinguishes the candles so that his adversaries must, like him, fight in the dark; and finally the combat moves outside, the fight unfolding in an elegant bird’s-eye tracking shot, lit by the multicoloured fireworks overhead. It’s another example of great direction by Kazuo Ikehiro, who also helmed the previous film. He seems to have been reined in here — the imagery isn’t quite as consistently striking this time — but there’s loads of great stuff nonetheless, and the finale is the best of it. Derek Hill of Images describes it as a “long, messy climax [that] rewards viewers’ patience with one of the most memorably over-the-top finales that the series has produced thus far.” Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits call it, simply, “a classic.”

Colourful action

The earlier parts of Flashing Sword put Ichi in a comedic role (extended skits include a bit about him being too heavy to carry comfortably across the river, and another where he’s served spoiled rice that he proceeds to smear all over the room), but during the climax he becomes something else entirely — Walter Biggins of Quiet Bubble describes him as “a demonic avatar”; Paghat the Ratgirl reckons he “captures something of a Dark God in his physical presence and prowess.” Never is this sense clearer than when he finally comes face-to-face with the enemy boss, Yasugoro. Portrayed by Tatsuo Endo, he’s a very good villain: preening with confidence when he’s winning, a cowering coward when losing, always blighted by a stutter. As with all good villains, they bring out the truth of our hero: even as Yasugoro smashes tiles on Ichi’s head, making him bleed (gasp!), the blindswordman stays true to his word and doesn’t draw his sword… until Yasugoro draws first, and Ichi abruptly cuts him down.

As I mentioned earlier, a few of the other reviews I’ve read are a bit down on Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, though Letterboxd users do rank it in the series’ top ten best instalments (just). I’m more aligned with the latter. Although it may seem more simplistic than some of the series’ other films so far, it puts that apparent plainness to meaningful use, and boasts arguably the series’ greatest action sequence to date as a capstone.

4 out of 5

The Hurricane Heist (2018)

2018 #60
Rob Cohen | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

The Hurricane Heist

Billed as a “Sky Cinema Original Movie” here in the UK (which, I presume, is like half of Netflix’s “original” movies — i.e. they paid for exclusive rights to something already completed), The Hurricane Heist… does what it says on the tin, really: as a hurricane strikes Alabama, a gang of crooks plan to use it as cover to rob a Treasury facility and its $600 million of waiting-to-be-shredded old notes. What they didn’t count on was crack ATF agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who attempts to stop them with the help of meteorologist Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell) — who drives a tank-like hurricane-proof car — and his ex-military mechanic brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten).

Yes, a film called The Hurricane Heist has a main character called “Breeze”.

I suppose that’s indicative of the tone the film’s shooting for, really. It’s not Sharknado, but you have to hope the filmmakers knew it was cheap and cheesy as hell and wanted to play up to that. It’s only sporadically successful — much of the dialogue is just bad rather than so-bad-it’s-good, for example — but it has its moments. About halfway through there’s a sequence where Will throws scrap hubcaps into the wind so that they fly at the bad guys like spinning discs of death, at which point the film looks like it might tip from “so mediocre it’s mediocre” into “utter genius”. Sadly, it doesn’t keep that inventiveness up for more than about ten seconds, but at least it means there’s something memorable here. And while it may generally look and feel kinda cheap, there’s a massive amount of practical wind and rain being thrown around to create the storm, which is pretty effective.

The wet and the windiest

Another success comes in a couple of amusing villain deaths during the climax, but to say more would spoil things. The chief villain is played by Ralph Ineson, whose basic skill as a performer at least elevates that role somewhat. Toby Kebbell is probably better than this too, though considering some of his other choices in the past couple of years (Ben-Hur, Warcraft, Fantastic Four) maybe he’s lucky to get this now. Certainly, this is more entertaining than the ones I’ve seen of those.

If The Hurricane Heist had been made 20 years ago it probably would’ve been a major blockbuster. It certainly looks like the CGI was produced back then. Now… well, it’s gone direct to Sky Cinema, hasn’t it? Maybe it’ll find a cult following, but I’m not sure it’s quite barmy enough to achieve that so-bad-it’s-good love. It is pretty stupid and definitely cheesy, but… well, it’s not so much boring as… not exciting. Like, it’s middling. It’s okay. It’s kinda fun. You won’t remember much of it the day after, but for a bit of daft brain-off action on a lazy evening, it’s alright.

3 out of 5

The Hurricane Heist is allegedly in some UK cinemas now. It’s definitely available on Sky Cinema, and will be (presumably exclusively) until at least 5th April 2028.