Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

2017 #155
Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

Spot the period-accurate boom mic

The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

3 out of 5

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Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

aka Rurōni Kenshin: Kyôto taika-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno

2017 #149
Keishi Ōtomo | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin film was such a success that they followed it with a two-part sequel, filmed back-to-back and originally released six weeks apart over the same summer. This is the first half.

After the events of the first film, former assassin Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with his newfound friends, until he’s summoned by the government to take on a mission. Turns out one of Kenshin’s former assassin colleagues, the vicious Shishio (Battle Royale and Death Note’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), is amassing an army to take down the government that left him for dead. Well, less left him for dead, more killed him after they won the war because he was too nasty to let stick around. Previous efforts to stop Shishio have failed, so now they want Kenshin to sort him out. Our peace-loving hero initially turns the job down, but events conspire to convince him he must act, and so he sets off alone to once again face the demons of his past.

Kyoto Inferno is one of those sequels that benefits from the its predecessor establishing the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it, meaning it can launch off on its own grander scale. Partly we see this in a material sense: it looks even more expensive than the first one, right from a fabulous fire-strewn opening location, and keeps up the visual impressiveness throughout. But it’s also in the scope of the story and the way it stretches the characters, both old and new. It really puts Kenshin through the ringer, testing and questioning his beliefs and principles, and his fighting skills too. As a film it finds power in that — whereas the first movie established his persona and gave it a bit of a work out, here he’s stretched to breaking point.

Sword fights a-go-go

Despite being only the first half of a four-and-a-half-hour epic, when compared to the original film the story here feels more streamlined, focussed, and pointed. It’s not perfect in this respect — at one point Kenshin’s mate Sanosuke sets off to help him, only to disappear from the movie until he suddenly appears during the final battle — but such lapses are few and do little to impact the overall flow. As a villain, Shishio is more of a force and a challenge for our hero, not least because he has an army of henchmen, as well as a literal army, on his side. The fights are even more accomplished, spectacular, and epically staged than in the first movie, not least the huge climax that sees a pair of armies duke it out in the streets of the titular city.

Kyoto Inferno is unquestionably a first half — it ends on a handful of cliffhangers. That kind of thing sometimes irritates me, but it can work when done well, and I think this will turn out to be one of those good two-parters. It feels like a well-shaped movie in its own right, starting and paying off some of its own subplots rather than just leaving everything hanging. Some of these conclude in a way that is both an ending and indicates where the story will go next, which is a most deft bit of structure. The whole affair builds to a significant climax (the aforementioned battle) and a major turning point in the narrative, rather than just pausing events at the halfway point as lesser two-part movies do.

Shishio and his hench-friends

I enjoyed the first Rurouni Kenshin a lot, but this follow-up is even better. It expands the world of the story and deepens the characters, making for a more rounded and exciting movie. As mid-parts of trilogies (and/or first halves of two-parters) go, it’s more of a Dark Knight than a Matrix Reloaded; more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Dead Man’s Chest; more of a Two Towers than a Desolation of Smaug. Hopefully the next film can stick the landing…

5 out of 5

Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

2017 #143
Keishi Ōtomo | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Rurouni Kenshin

Based on a manga series that was previously adapted into an anime known in the West as Samurai X, this live-action adaptation was first brought to my attention by Total Film’s list of “50 amazing films you’ve probably never seen”, which cited its “stunning action sequences” and “beautifully choreographed sword-scraps”.

Set in the late 19th century, the film is the story of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), who ten years ago went by the name Battosai and was a renowned fighter in the successful rebellion that brought Japan into a modern new age. Disgusted with his actions, he vowed never to kill again, becoming a wanderer (the rurouni part of the title) helping those in need, fighting with a blunted sword. When he arrives back in Tokyo, Kenshin finds that a murderer has adopted the name Battosai, whose killings are likely connected to powerful businessman Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) to protect his illegal activities. Kenshin falls in with Kaoru (Emi Takei), the young owner of a fencing dojo under threat from Kanryu’s plans, and eventually teams up with acquaintances old and new to stop Kanryu and co.

Kenshin and Kaoru

I’ve never read or seen a version of Rurouni Kenshin before, so I don’t know how faithful this is as an adaption, but they’ve certainly crammed plenty of plot into its two hours. Viewers need to be a bit attentive to keep track of who’s who, and who’s working for who, and what their motivations are — for example, characters who initially appear to be villains, both because of their actions and our expectations of the story, are revealed to be good guys in short order. Having two characters called Battosai, one of whom has since changed his name but is primarily known by his old moniker to some characters, doesn’t help matters.

It’s worth the small effort though, because, a few languorous patches aside, Rurouni Kenshin is a very entertaining movie. The heroes are a likeable bunch, even if Satoh looks too fresh-faced to have been a hardened warrior a decade earlier. I guess everywhere likes their pretty-boy leads. He also carries a little too great a sense of naïveté for that persona, but maybe that’s just faithful to the character as written. At least he seems to know his way around a fight scene. On the other hand, the villainous Kanryu is a delightful addition to the proud line of scenery-munching nemeses, his quirks underlined by a jaunty theme from composer Naoki Satō. He employs a couple of physically intimidating henchman too, which naturally serves to fuel the action sequences. As promised, these are excitingly staged, full of quick choreography and slick stunts. Couple their impressiveness with the large cast and varied period locations, and it gives the whole thing a glossy, big-budget feel.

Ready for action

In the years since it appeared on Total Film’s list with the note “worth importing”, Rurouni Kenshin has become much more widely available: in the UK it’s been available to stream and buy on disc for a couple of years now, and it even made it to the US in 2016. It still deserves more attention, I’d say, especially for anyone who likes a good bit of sword-based duelling.

4 out of 5

Tomorrow and Monday: reviews of the two-part sequel.

Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

2017 #159
Tokuzô Tanaka | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi the Fugitive

His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut in this whole wide world is oil and the bond of lovers.

The fourth film in the Zatoichi series finds the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) with a bounty on his head, which only increases when he kills the first person who tries to claim it. Travelling to a nearby village to apologise to the guy’s mother, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a yakuza scheme to grab territory from a young boss. There’s also the small matter of a ronin (Jutarô Hôjô) and his companion, Ichi’s old love Otane (Masayo Banri).

That’s the straightforward version — much of the plot is an overly complex account of yakuza plotting that, frankly, I sometimes struggled to follow. Especially at the start, there are so many bosses to keep track of, with broadly similar names, all of whom are more often referred to in dialogue than established on screen. I got my head round it eventually, but it took some work. It makes stretches of the film a bit dry and awkward, however.

Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. Otane is back from films one and two, but she’s different to how Ichi remembers her. Rather than just bringing back a familiar face for the sake of it, the film uses her to make a point about how people aren’t always who we think they are — a bit like Ichi himself, in fact. I imagine this would be even more effective if I’d watched The Fugitive closer to when I watched her previous two appearances, but there’s enough information recapped within the film to get the gist. It also continues what seems to be a definite theme of the Zatoichi films (at least so far) about past people and actions coming back to haunt our hero.

The bond of lovers

However, the best part of the film is the final 20 minutes, a tour de force of emotion and action that sees Ichi surrounded and, enraged into action, taking down an army that stands between him and vengeance. Said vengeance comes in the form of a one-on-one sword duel, of course. Obviously we know our hero will triumph, but it’s still a tense scene, especially as it seems to be a rare occasion when Ichi’s been out-fought. This third act elevates the whole movie, its very existence justifying everything that came before.

Reading other reviews, I’ve seen The Fugitive described as both “one of the weaker installments in the series” and “thus far the best [of the series,] a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much.” I think this stems to which you weigh heavier between the first-rate climax (plus a few choice sequences before that) and the occasionally dry plotting earlier in the movie. For me, the way it eventually comes together and concludes makes it all worth it.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

2017 #160
Luc Besson | 137 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | France, China, Belgium, Germany, UAE, USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson returns to the sci-fi genre that he so memorably visited 20 years ago in The Fifth Element for another colourful, crazy, adventure romp. Based on the French comic book series Valerian et Laureline, it sees special agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to protect Alpha, the titular city, from forces that threaten to destroy it.

Valerian got a pasting from critics and was a flop at the US box office, a particular problem when it’s apparently the most expensive independent movie ever made. Fortunately for it, it did alright internationally, to the point where home video sales could still secure a sequel (Besson has already written a second and has moved on to developing a third!) While it’s far from a perfect movie, it deserves to find an audience. It’s probably a bit too barmy — a bit too European, even — for mainstream US tastes, but there’s a lot to like here for those who are so inclined.

The main selling point is the imagery. Simply put, it’s incredible. There’s so much going on, all the time. There’s background detail galore. It whizzes through worlds that could be the entire setting for some other story. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of alien species thrown around. It’s so casually inventive, as if it’s got imagination to spare. And it’s mostly vibrantly colourful too, a real comic book of a movie in the traditional sense. All that depth and detail looks particularly amazing in 3D, it must be said, especially during the action sequences that whoosh though intricate, layered environments at breakneck speed.

Valerian, without Laureline

This visual exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of the plot. The main storyline is pretty straightforward — for example, there’s a third-act twist that’s obvious from the moment the character it concerns first appears on screen — but it keeps getting distracted by total asides, as Besson meanders off course to showcase some other species or environment or set piece he and his army of designers have cooked up. If that kind of shaggy storytelling annoys you then Valerian is set to get up your nose, but if you go along for the ride then Besson’s showing off can be delightful.

Some of the other screenwriting details suffer even more, however. It almost engages in some interesting themes about colonialism and that kind of stuff, but instead more nods its head in their direction than actually says anything about them. More overtly, a lot of the dialogue is atrocious. In fact, it’s so bad that you begin to wonder if it’s deliberately ultra-mannered and you’ve just missed some kind of joke. It doesn’t help that DeHaan feels at least somewhat miscast as the cocky heroic lead. Or possibly that’s the point — that Valerian isn’t as irresistibly attractive and amazingly competent as he thinks he is. Model-turned-actress Delevingne, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.

You’ll notice that Valerian and Laureline are (a) co-leads, and (b) both in the name of the original books, and yet the female half of the duo has been ditched from the film’s title. Unfortunately, that does indicate the film’s sometimes-dated attitude towards gender politics. On the bright side, Delevingne manages to imbue Laureline with a feistiness that allows her to mostly hold her own against the men, and — despite the old-fashioned shape of a romantic subplot — Besson’s screenplay lets her be a capable agent in her own right as well. Still, Laureline vs. the Space Patriarchy would not be a wholly unapt alternative title for the film.

Laureline vs the Space Patriarchy

These less-good aspects of Valerian glare out at one rather, and make me want to declare that much of it is kind of rubbish, really… and yet I rather enjoyed the whole shebang. Perhaps it just takes a rewatch or two to settle into the film’s own particular rhythm? Even if that’s not the case, I’d still rather have the messy ambition of a Valerian than another dozen run-of-the-mill Hollywood CGI extravaganzas. Fingers crossed for those sequels.

4 out of 5

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released on disc in the UK today.

Justice League (2017)

2017 #157
Zack Snyder | 120 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English, Russian & Icelandic | 12A / PG-13

Justice League

This review contains spoilers, but only for stuff everybody knows.

DC’s answer to Avengers Assemble begins with a doom-laden cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows (a Zack Snyder music choice if ever there was one), and there’s a lot that “everybody knows” about the troubled production of this long-awaited superhero team-up. Everybody knows that the so-called DCEU was deemed to be in need of a course-correction after Batman v Superman. Everybody knows that this was to take the form of making this film tonally lighter, something Snyder and co said was always the plan. Everybody knows Snyder eventually had to leave the project for personal reasons. Everybody knows Joss Whedon was brought in as his replacement. Everybody knows that meant reshoots and an attempt to lighten the tone further. Everybody knows that was a recipe for a conflicted movie…

For those who are thinking “I didn’t know any of that” and aren’t so familiar with superhero things on the whole anyhow, Justice League is set in the aftermath of Superman’s self-sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman, which has given Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) a change of heart: he wants to make the world a better place. When he discovers than an alien invasion is imminent, he teams up with Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of metahumans (read: people with superpowers) to fight it. That team includes Barry Allen aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — and, following an opportunity to revive his cold dead corpse, Clark Kent aka Superman (Henry Cavill).

The new trinity?

Justice League has certainly provoked a mixed reaction from critics and opening weekend audiences. It was always going to: Batman v Superman has been very divisive, with critics largely hating it but a dedicated fanbase to be found without too much digging. Justice League compounds that issue by trying to appease critics, risking alienating fans in the process. The end result inevitably falls somewhere between the two stools, which means there’s no predicting what any one person will make of it — following social media the past couple of days, I’ve seen every possible combination of people who loved, liked, hated, or were indifferent to previous DCEU films and now love, like, hate, or are indifferent to Justice League.

So, my personal reaction is that I enjoyed it. On the whole it’s not as thought-provoking as BvS, but is instead a fun time with some good character bits thrown in. From early reviews I feared the whole story would be choppily edited, and the opening act is indeed a bit disjointed and jumpy, but the closer it gets to the team being assembled the more it settles down. Once they’re together, it’s a fairly straightforward action-adventure movie, with the heroes in pursuit of the villain to stop his world-ending plan. Unlike BvS it’s not full of portentous (or, depending on your predilections, pretentious) themes to ponder, but it’s still a reasonably entertaining action movie.

Bruce and Diana

As for those character bits, it completes arcs for Bruce and Diana that have played out over their past couple of movies, both of them opening up to the world and their place in it. Moments that emphasise Bruce being old and tired and Diana stepping into the role of leader seem to have been added during reshoots, no doubt indicating the future direction the DCEU is now reported to go in — Affleck stepping away in the not-too-distant future; the popular Wonder Woman becoming central to the universe. (As a Batman fan, I hope this doesn’t kill off the raft of Bat-family films they’ve been planning. We’ll see.)

For the new team members, it does a solid job of introducing the Flash and making him likeable — he’s under-confident but good-hearted and funny. Fans of the currently-running TV show may find he’s “not their Flash”, and his costume is one of the worst ever designed, but I’ve never been that big a fan of the series and I can live with the costume. Cyborg gets a mini-arc that works well enough, considering he’s mainly there to be a walking talking plot resolution. Aquaman’s also OK, but a good chunk of his part feels like a tease for his solo film — which, by total coincidence, is the next DCEU movie. This all might’ve been more effective if DC had gone the Marvel route of introducing everyone in solo films first, but the film makes a fair fist of the hand it was dealt.

Flash! Ah-ah!

And as for Superman… well, that’s a whole kettle of fish. Firstly, it’s the worst-kept open secret in the history of movies. The final shot of BvS was a clear hint he’d return, so there’s that for starters. Then early promotional materials included him; behind-the-scenes photos referenced him; when reshoots rolled around, the fact they’d have to deal with Henry Cavill’s Mission: Impossible 6 moustache was big news. Despite all that, they left him off all the posters and out of every trailer. Would it have made a difference if they’d publicly acknowledged he was back? Who knows. Let’s judge what we were given.

In short, he’s not in it enough. The story of his resurrection is a decent idea, but the film has to rush and condense the arc of his return, presumably because Warner were pushing for a lighter tone and brisk running time. How his return affects him does complete the overall story that started in Man of Steel and continued through BvS — the story of how an ordinary young man with extraordinary abilities develops into the paragon of virtue that Superman is to many people. Honestly, I believe this was (more or less) Snyder and co’s plan all along, and those haters of Man of Steel and BvS who now say that “Justice League finally got Superman right” have perhaps misunderstood how something like character development works. (Should that entire character arc have been contained in the first movie? I think that’s a different argument — in our current franchise- and shared-universe-driven blockbuster era, character arcs are routinely designed to play out across a trilogy.)

There are no official photos of Superman from this movie, so here's a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman
There are no official photos of Superman from this movie,
so here’s a photo of Lois Lane looking at a photo of Superman.

Much attention has also been focussed on the ridiculousness of the moustache removal — both how funny it always was, and how poor the end result is. Honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as you may’ve heard. I’d wager most people won’t even notice, especially if they’re not looking for it. It’s the kind of thing film buffs see because they’re looking and, yeah, sometimes it’s not great. Personally, I didn’t even think it was the worst computer-generated effect in the movie. Main villain Steppenwolf looks like a character from a mid-range video game, and has about as much personality as one too. There’s terribly obvious green screen all over the place, which is undoubtedly the result of reshoots — sometimes it crops up mid-scene for no obvious reason, other than because they’ve dropped in a new line. Other effects — stuff they’ve probably been working on since principal photography — looks fine.

Naturally the effects drive all of the action, for good or ill. Some have said these sequences are entirely forgettable, which I think is unfair. There’s nothing truly exceptional, but how many movies do manage that nowadays? I’d say what Snyder offers up is at least as memorable as your typical MCU movie, which is presumably what critics are negatively comparing this to. The everyone-on-Superman punch-up is probably the high-point, with an effective callback to “do you bleed?” and a striking moment when Superman looks at the Flash (that sounds completely underwhelming out of context…) I also thought the desperate escape with the Mother Box on Secret Lady Island was a strong sequence. The big tunnel fight has its moments, but needed more room to breathe and a clearer sense of geography. The climax is a great big CGI tumult, which clearly aims for epic but is mostly just noise — again, with one or two flourishes.

AQUAman

Another late-in-the-day replacement was Danny Elfman on music duties. It’s proven controversial — turns out there are a lot of fans of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s work on the previous Snyder DCEU films. Personally, I think Elfman’s score largely works — its numerous callbacks to classic themes are better than Zimmer’s musicless thrumming. There’s a massive thrill in hearing Elfman’s iconic Batman theme again, and John Williams’ even-more-iconic Superman theme. In his work on Man of Steel and BvS, Zimmer never produced anything even close to that memorable. Elfman’s style works other places too: an early scene where a bunch of criminals take a museum hostage immediately brought to mind the feel of Tim Burton’s Batman for me, mainly thanks to Elfman’s score. That’s no bad thing in my book.

The biggest point of discussion swirling around the film this weekend, in many circles at least, has been “which bits were Snyder and which were Whedon?” According to one of the producers, the final movie is 80-85% what Snyder shot during principal photographer, making 15-20% what Whedon added during reshoots. Not a huge amount, but also not inconsiderable. Personally, while I felt some Whedon additions were glaringly obvious, it also felt to me like a shot or line here and there rather than whole chunks of the movie. I think they’ve done a better job of integrating it than some have given them credit for. I put this down to some people thinking any humourous line must be a Whedon addition, but we know that isn’t the case — they were showing off lighter stuff during press set visits and in the initial footage previewed at conventions, both of which were long before Whedon became involved in re-writes, never mind reshoots. The lighter tone was intended from the off, Whedon just added even more of it.

Born 'borg

For those interested, someone who worked on the film has posted a very long list of changes, attributing various bits to Snyder and others to Whedon. There’s also this tweet, which says Snyder’s original cut went down badly with WB execs (hence why Whedon was sought out) and that the vast majority of Superman’s role was reshot to change it entirely — supposedly all that remains of Snyder’s Superman are his action beats (though Whedon added some more), the final scene with Bruce (“I bought the bank”), and maybe one or two other individual shots. This, then, would be Whedon’s biggest contribution to the film. Some love him for it, others not so much. There seems little doubt this is a lighter, more fun Superman. I liked him, though it can’t hurt that I have a bit of a soft spot for Henry Cavill.

Generally speaking I’m a fan of Whedon — I grew up with Buffy; I’m certainly a Browncoat — but I think his additions (assuming those accounts are accurate) are a mixed blessing. Most vital is all the character stuff he’s slotted in, some of which really adds to the movie — Batman’s pep talk to the Flash about “save just one person” was a highlight, I think. The jokey dialogue sometimes lands, sometimes feels forced — the obvious insert of Batman complaining “something’s definitely bleeding” feels incongruous. I’ve seen some complain that he added too many pervy shots of Diana’s ass in that short skirt or those tight trousers, but then whenever I noticed such shots they were in footage that’s been attributed to Snyder, so who knows.

Well if you wear a skirt that short what do you expect to happen?

Everything to do with the Russian family was certainly Whedon, which I’d rather suspected. I mean, there are civilians there to add stakes to the final battle, so that it’s not just the villain being villainous in the middle of nowhere, but why is it that just one family lives there? Because they were added during reshoots and there was probably neither time nor money for crowds of people, that’s why. Their subplot could’ve been integrated better (it felt like they kept just popping up for no reason), but I liked the eventual pay-off with the Flash and Superman saving them — the Flash saving one carload while Supes flies past with an entire building is the kind of humour I think works in this film.

Justice League is a different movie for Whedon’s involvement, that seems unquestionable. Is it better or worse? That’s partly a matter of personal taste. As my taste stretches to include both directors’ works, I can see positives and negatives every which way. My ideal cut of the movie would likely keep some of Whedon’s additions but lose others, as well as reinsert some Snyder stuff they cut. There’s no pleasing everyone, eh? (If you want to see some of what was definitely cut, there are various shots in the trailers, and someone’s leaked eight short clips from Snyder’s version — mostly of unfinished CGI, but one reveals what Iris West’s role was. (If those clips are even still there by the time you read this, of course…))

The Batman

Finally, the post credits scenes. It’s obvious that the first is a Whedon addition (confirmed by the above breakdown) — it’s just a little coda that doesn’t add anything other than some fun. The second scene, however, is an odd one, because it feels like it’s teasing a movie that’s been uncertain for a long time. If it’s setting up The Batman (because Deathstroke was meant to be that film’s villain), well, we know director Matt Reeves is massively reshaping whatever Affleck had planned, quite possibly ditching Deathstroke altogether. If it’s setting up Justice League 2 (because Lex Luthor’s back with a team-building plan of his own), well, who knows if that’s even happening anymore? It was originally planned this movie would be Justice League Part 1 and be closely followed by Justice League Part 2 — presumably that’s why Steppenwolf is the villain, because he was meant to lead into Darkseid (it’s long been reported that a cliffhanger ending to set up just that was cut by Whedon) — but I believe Part 2 has gone MIA from the schedule, and with Affleck now making definitive noises about wanting out of the franchise… Well, who knows what’ll happen.

Back in the present day, Justice League is set to underperform at the box office this weekend: predictions have been revised ever downwards over the past few days, to the point where it’s now at under $100 million — which is kinda funny because it feels like everyone’s talking about it. I guess that’s the difference between “film Twitter” and movie blogs compared to regular folks. Movie Nerds v Regular People: Box Office of Justice, or something. Funny thing is, for all the hatred these DC movies have attracted, they don’t half get people talking. As I saw someone point out on Twitter the other day, you may not’ve liked Batman v Superman, but it’s more than 18 months later and you’re still talking about it. I can’t even remember which Marvel movie was out 18 months ago without looking it up. This is no doubt a simplification — not everyone’s still arguing about BvS, and one of the reasons Marvel movies don’t stick so long is that they produce so darn many of them — but I do think Marvel films give you fun for a couple of hours, and you can call them to mind again if prompted, while DC films stick around, turning over in your mind, love it or hate it. At least for some of us, anyway.

All in

With Justice League, there’s the added complications of its multiple directors and fraught production. Should we judge a film for what it could have been or for what it is? The latter, surely. The former is definitely an intriguing proposition, but not what’s in front of us (and, as the likes of Blade Runner, Alien³, and Superman II have shown, maybe one day we’ll get a chance to judge that movie anyway). Nonetheless, how much should we take into account the behind-the-scenes issues? Should we just pretend they don’t exist? I guess for a lot of regular moviegoers this isn’t even an issue, but for many of us film-fan types it’s hard to put aside the knowledge that this movie was the product of two directors with very different styles and very different production timeframes.

I don’t have any easy answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Justice League is far from perfect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Justice League is in cinemas everywhere now.

Wonder Woman (2017)

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

Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undercover woman

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

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

Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

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

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

4 out of 5

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

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)

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

Batman vs. Two-Face

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

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

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

Why you two-faced...

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

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

Best buds, supposedly

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

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

2 out of 5

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

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

Assassin's Creed

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

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

Academy Award Nominee Michael Fassbender

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

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

Running and jumping

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

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

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

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

2 out of 5

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

Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

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

Transformers: Age of Extinction

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

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

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

Here come the Transformers... again

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

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

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

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

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

SPLOSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

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

3 out of 5

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