Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

Featured

aka Warcraft

2017 #38
Duncan Jones | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Warcraft: The Beginning

Produced by Legendary — one of the companies behind the Dark Knight trilogy, Jurassic World, Godzilla, and many other massive hits — the only thing that’s “legendary” about the Warcraft movie is how terrible it is.

Based on the long-running video game franchise, Warcraft (optimistically retitled Warcraft: The Beginning in many territories) is, based on what I’ve read, less an adaptation of the game (which has many different incarnations anyhow) and more an expansion of its universe. Rather than take the game itself and try to mush it into the shape of a movie, as most video game adaptations are forced to do, Warcraft depicts some of the game-world’s backstory, taking care to keep events canonical. I’m sure this is brilliant for fans and players, but I wonder if it’s part of why the film feels muddled and tacky to those of us who are uninitiated. Of course, at its best such efforts can make newcomers want to learn more; but at its worst it leaves you feeling confused and shut out. Warcraft is definitely a case of the latter.

It plays like a $160 million fan film. It doesn’t bother with world-building, just throwing the viewer in at the deep end. That can work, but it needs to be carefully managed. Warcraft just ploughs ahead, going deeper and deeper. It’s been made for people who know this world, its places, its people, its concepts, its rules. The film is a prequel to something that doesn’t exist — or, rather, something that doesn’t exist as a movie. And yet, for all co-writer/director Duncan Jones’ efforts to remain faithful, apparently it’s not faithful enough for some of the hardcore. It seems the movie has wound up in a place where it’s not stuck to the backstory enough to please initiated fans, but not opened itself up enough to be accessible to newcomers either.

This could get orcward

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. Characters’ personalities change from one scene to the next, with no sense of development or connection. Many of the performances are stilted or clumsy, with a good deal of the actors feeling miscast. Scenes exist in isolation, with little sense they should follow what was before or precede what comes after. It feels like it was heavily messed around in post — not just stuff chopped out (reportedly Jones’ director’s cut was 40 minutes longer), but things moved around within the story — but then something will happen that suggests those scenes were always meant to be where they are. Whatever the cause, it makes it even harder to follow a story that already feels like it’s shutting out newcomers.

The biggest shame is that you can see glimmers of potential — mainly in the world itself, which is clearly quite thoroughly realised (presumably thanks to having been developed over many, many years of the games’ existence). But then, the story that takes place within that world isn’t an especially original or interesting one. Or, rather, I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s hard to tell what precisely is going on half the time.

A lot of the technical merits are strong, too. Almost every shot is loaded with CGI, but the vast majority of it looks pretty incredible. It’s no wonder some bits come up short, however, because the sheer volume of different locations, creatures, and spell effects is mind-boggling. Obviously some parts are going to suffer when you bite off more than you can chew. If there’s a problem here it might be that the design work is quite “high fantasy” — it’s all exaggerated and almost cartoony, as opposed to the more realistic take of something like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. That’s not to everyone’s taste; indeed, it might be part of why such fantasy tales used to be (and, often, still are) such a niche market.

Totally realistic costumes

Talking of the market, reports say Warcraft needed to gross $450m just to break even. In the US, it took $47.4m. No, I didn’t put the decimal in the wrong place. And that’s not opening weekend, that’s in total. It was a big hit in China, but that wasn’t enough: worldwide it managed just shy of $434m (which, fact fans, makes it one of only two American movies to gross over $400m without making $100m in the US (the other was Terminator Genisys)). Jones had plans for sequels (he’s shared them on Twitter, which naturally got turned into news articles, if you’re interested), but, yeah, they’re not happening. Thank goodness the Chinese didn’t give it another few million, because this project already feels like a waste of five years of the director’s promising career. You could see Jones as currently being on a similar path to that previously trodden by the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and Neill Blomkamp: a hugely successful debut followed by increasingly poor, eventually terrible films. Hopefully his next movie, Mute (available exclusively on Netflix from today), will rectify that.

2 out of 5

Warcraft: The Beginning featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

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The Duellists (1977)

2018 #26
Ridley Scott | 96 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

The Duellists

It’s 40 years this month since Ridley Scott’s debut feature appeared in British cinemas, which perhaps makes now the most appropriate time to have awarded him the BAFTA Fellowship (as he was this past weekend, of course).

Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story, The Duellists stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as a pair of soldiers in Napoleon’s army who, for reasons only properly known to one of them, end up fighting a series of duels — or, really, one duel constantly reignited — over the better part of two decades. They become renowned for it (Conrad discovered the story through a newspaper article noting the death (by natural causes) of one of the real-life pair), to the chagrin of Carradine’s reluctant duellist. He dreads every potential encounter, aware of the fight’s futility and danger, but honour keeps drawing him back.

Ultimately, honour and the futility of fighting are what The Duellists is most about, if it’s about anything — if you like, you can enjoy it as merely a series of well-staged combats between two men, each stubborn in their own different way. They also each have slightly different ideas of honour, it would seem, but they’re compatible enough that it keeps drawing them back to the fight. “Acting with honour is all well and good,” the film seems to be saying, “but look where it gets them.” It doesn’t completely ruin their lives, but it does take a serious toll. A bit of common sense goes a long way, and acting with so-called honour, which might seem to be the moral course, doesn’t actually involve a great deal of common sense.

The bad duellist

Scott also intended the pointless, never-ending fight to represent a microcosm of war. Speaking to Empire magazine, Scott described Conrad’s story as “a very nice pocket edition of the Napoleonic Wars” because it “somehow encapsulated the craziness of an argument and how at the end of a 20-year period one of them forgot the reason why they were fighting. Isn’t that familiar?” Fighting for fighting’s sake; not wanting to be the one to back down… it seems it’s human nature, just as much in a conflict between two men as in between two nations. A bit of common sense would go a long way…

The other aspect of the film most worthy of comment is its photography. Reportedly Scott set out to imitate Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released just a couple of years earlier. It’s an appropriate inspiration: both tales are set in the same era, and Lyndon looks incredible. Scott undoubtedly succeeds in his goals — both that of copying Kubirck’s visuals and that of such copying being a good idea: much of The Duellists looks gorgeous, particularly wide scenery shots. Although the cinematography is credited to Frank Tidy, Scott says he operated the camera himself for the entire shoot, so who’s to know where exactly the credit for that achievement lies.

The good duellist

Resemblances to Barry Lyndon extend beyond just the visuals, mind. As noted, it’s set in the same era, so various visual trappings are similar, from costumes to some of the locations — if not direct copies, they certainly evoke Kubrick’s film more than once. There’s also the story itself: a tale focused on just one or two characters but spanning decades, and during a particularly tumultuous and eventful period in history. As Tim Pelan puts it (in this piece at Cinephelia & Beyond), “while Barry Lyndon advances with the forward momentum of one of Napoleon’s columns in its telling of a fool’s misfortune and slow glide towards the destruction of all he worked for and holds dear, The Duellists dashes pell-mell between the very different clashes of the antagonists.” Scott’s film feels like it thinks it is, or wants to be, an epic, just like Lyndon, even though it only lasts a little over 90 minutes.

Comparisons to such a lofty cinematic success would damn a lesser film, but The Duellists is a very fine work in its own right. Despite the similarities I’ve highlighted, it’s really a very different film: Barry Lyndon has a kind of leisurely elegance, whereas The Duellists is more economical and straightforward. It’s certainly not Scott’s greatest film (his next two immediately put paid to that), but it’s perhaps his most under-appreciated one.

4 out of 5

Big Game (2014)

2017 #45
Jalmari Helander | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Finland, Germany & UK / English & Finnish | 15*

Big Game

Air Force One Has Fallen meets Hunt for the Wilderpresident in this deliberately daft action movie, which sees terrorists down Air Force One in remote Finnish forests, forcing the President (Samuel L. Jackson) to rely on the help of a local teenager (Onni Tommila) as they’re hunted by the bad guys.

I’ve read some complaints that, given the daft premise, Big Game is not a comedy. I don’t know what movie they were watching, but I thought it was pretty fun. It’s not an out-and-out parody, but surely no one involved thought they were making a serious action flick? Or maybe I’m wrong, I dunno — but whether it was me or them, one of us has misread the intended tone.

That said, as well as the OTT ’80s-throwback action antics, there’s some solid drama to be found. Primarily that’s between the kid and his father — how the state of their relationship is revealed and changes throughout the film is neatly done, which is all the more impressive considering the dad’s only in it for a few minutes. There’s also some almost touching stuff between the kid and the President. Is this material too ‘serious’ for a movie that is otherwise pretty lightweight? Perhaps the action side should take itself more seriously to buoy up the characters’ relationship further? Or maybe the characters’ relationship should be less life-lesson-y to allow for the silly spectacle of the action?

If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise...

Maybe either way would work, but Big Game choosing to straddle the middle ground is what leads to those complaints. Personally, I enjoyed both facets, however at odds they may seem. Indeed, it’s the kind of movie I might once have given 4 stars, because I certainly enjoyed it; but I guess that the more of these lightweight-but-fun action movies you see, the more you feel like they are good fun but 3 stars is fine.

3 out of 5

* In the US there’s a PG-13 theatrical cut (running 87 minutes) and an unrated extended cut (91 minutes), i.e. this one. The BBFC classified it 12A for cinemas and 15 for home, with the former merely having a “partially obscured” use of a rude word to get the lower certificate. ^

Zatoichi on the Road (1963)

aka Zatôichi kenka-tabi / Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey

2018 #11
Kimiyoshi Yasuda | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi on the Road

In his notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the Zatoichi series, Chris D. comments that, “despite the specificity of the English title, it should be stressed that Zatoichi is always on the road.” Indeed, titling this fifth movie Zatoichi on the Road is pretty much the equivalent of calling it Just Another Zatoichi Movie. At least the literal translation, Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey, is a little more dramatic.

So is On the Road “just another Zatoichi movie”? Critics disagree with each other. The Digital Bits’ comprehensive overview of the series describes it as “easily the best entry in the series to this point”, and Weird Wild Realm’s review goes even further, calling it “one of the strongest feature film episodes about the hero of a thousand slayings”. Conversely, the Images journal considers that it “doesn’t sustain the previous entry’s brilliant mood or pacing”, and, in direct opposition to The Digital Bits, Letterboxd users rank it clearly the lowest of the first five films. Where DVD Talk reckons it has “a fantastic, layered plot”, even Chris D. says “it has a somewhat overdeveloped, convoluted story line”.

I’m definitely in the latter camp. “Easily one of the best entries in the series”? Nope. The “action starts red hot and keeps getting hotter”? Don’t be silly. That was The Digital Bits again, and they go on to describe the climax as “one of the greatest climactic battle scenes depicted on screen since Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,” which is just laughable. As Images counters, “when the action does rear its battle-weary head it’s good. It’s just not great. And after the sword-dizzy hysterics of the last film, greatness is what we hunger for.”

Zatoichi fights

As for the plot… Overdeveloped? Yes. Convoluted? Undoubtedly. And needlessly so — previous entry Zatoichi the Fugitive was hard to follow, but it felt worth it in the end. On the Road, I’m not so sure. The plot never really came together for me, leaving oh so many questions. Like, who was the old man who died at the start? Why did he care about Omitsu so much? Who was the lord who was after her? How did she end up with him and so far from her (apparently very rich and important) father? Why do that lord’s minions just disappear from the plot? Why was there that scene where one of them seems to regret their mission, only for Zatoichi to murder him in a split second right afterwards?

The whole thing winds up a lot of back-and-forthing for little reason, too often driven by coincidence (how come villainous Ohisa and Jingoro keep ending up in the same inns / eateries / etc as Zatoichi and Omitsu?) And I think it was meaning to imply that Ichi and Omitsu had a strong connection, almost like she wanted to marry him (as women have done in previous films — Ichi’s understanding of and/or attraction for women is certainly a recurrent theme). And he seems to care for her as much too (as seen in the ending where he caresses her trinket that he’s kept, for instance). But where was such deep a bond supposed to come from? It’s barely developed or explained.

Zatoichi on a road, literally

The film isn’t a total write-off, mind, with some exceptionally good individual scenes — when Ichi confronts transportation boss Tomegoro in order to rescue Omitsu; when Ichi and Omitsu connect while eating rice balls; Ichi’s cunning manipulations of two opposing gangs at the climax. The key link there is Ichi, of course, which is thanks to another strong performance by leading man Shintaro Katsu.

On the whole On the Road is enjoyable enough as a middle-of-the-road Zatoichi adventure, with the less thrilling aspects counterbalanced by the really good bits I just mentioned. I’ve mostly focused on the negative here because I bridled at the idea, espoused by some I’ve quoted, that this is definitively a great instalment in the series. It’s not.

3 out of 5

Fast & Furious 8 (2017)

aka The Fate of the Furious

2018 #21
F. Gary Gray | 136 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, China & Japan / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 8

Anyone who’s watched a Fast & Furious movie will know that the most important thing to our heroes is not fast cars but family. Family, family, family — they don’t half go on about it. But what might make one of the team betray their all-important figurative family? Well, that’s what the series’ eighth instalment sets out to ask, as patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) is forcibly recruited by terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), and government agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) counter-recruits Dom’s family to track him down and stop Cipher’s evil plan.

You may remember that, once upon a time, these films were about street racers who occasionally carried out on-the-road heists, all the better to keep the focus on the cars. Those days are long gone, despite an opening sequence here that tries to pretend that’s still part of the game. No, nowadays we’re in the “international spy actioner” genre, and our former street racers have somehow become highly capable agents… whose primary tools/weapons are still vehicles. It’s utterly ridiculous… but, thank goodness, everyone involved seems to know that.

Well, most people do. I reckon Vin Diesel might think it’s a serious movie about the emotional turmoil of being kidnapped by a global cyberterrorist who lives on a plane and can remotely hijack a city-load of cars and is threatening your family unless you help her steal a nuclear submarine. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

A lot of men would betray their family for Charlize Theron, to be fair

So, yeah, the story is thoroughly daft. But it exists primarily to connect up action sequences, and in a movie like this I’m fine with that — I’m here to watch people do cool shit in cars, hopefully with some funny bits around that action, not to be wowed by an intricate plot or ponder meaningful character development. On the things I expect, then, FF8 more or less delivers. I mean, the series has always been renowned for using CGI to augment its car chases, which is less thrilling than doing stunts for real, but it really blurs the line nowadays: you might think dozens of cars falling from a multi-storey car park is all CGI, but you’d be wrong.

Any time almost anyone besides Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) or Deckard (Jason Statham) has their mouth open, FF8 is pretty dumb; but when those two are talking, especially when they’re bickering with each other, it’s often pretty funny (they’re definitely in on the joke). And when the action’s a-go-go, the film’s either solidly pulse-racing or, actually, being kinda witty — there’s a prison riot, for example, that is, appropriately enough, a riot. Though it’s as nothing to Statham engaging in a protracted gunfight-cum-punch-up against a bunch of goons while carrying a baby.

Bromance

Fast & Furious 8 isn’t strictly a comedy, but a sense of humour is required to enjoy it. There’s no way to take this palaver seriously, and fortunately the filmmakers have embraced that. It’s deliberately OTT, dedicated to being entertaining for almost every minute of its running time. Taken as just that, it’s a lot of fun. Also, probably the series’ best instalment since the fifth.

4 out of 5

Fast & Furious 8 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Black Panther (2018)

Featured

2018 #23
Ryan Coogler | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Xhosa & Korean | 12A / PG-13

Black Panther

Black Panther is not the first superhero movie to star a person of colour in the leading role — not by a long, long shot. But it does look set to be the most successful. In part that’s down to its association with the MCU (the last time one of their movies grossed under $500 million was the first Captain America, 13 movies ago), but it’s also due to a general underrepresentation of non-white heroes right now — Black Panther may not be the first, but it may be the most mainstream. It also won’t hurt that it’s a very good action-adventure movie in its own right, and one that feels especially fresh thanks to tapping into an under-utilised cultural milieu.

Picking up shortly after the events that brought the title character into the MCU (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), the film begins with T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), returning home to be crowned king of his country, Wakanda. A scientifically advanced African nation, with incredible technology fuelled by its deep reserves of the extraordinary metal vibranium, Wakanda has kept its abilities hidden from the rest of the world, who believe it’s a third world country of farmers. However, T’Challa must face forces from within and without who think Wakanda should play a greater role on the global stage — in particular long-time enemy of the state Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and his new partner in crime Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who wants to rule Wakanda and then the world.

The name's Panther. Black Panther.

A villain who wants to rule the world? Black Panther doesn’t spell out his goal quite that bluntly, I don’t think, but that’s what it is. It’s just one of several clues that this is, in many ways, a James Bond movie… only one where James Bond is a black African king with superpowers. The film’s whole structure is more Bond than Marvel, though: most obvious is the gadget-explaining Q scene, but then it becomes a globetrotting adventure (the film sets significant sequences in California, Nigeria, London, and Busan (though they don’t get there by train, thankfully)), complete with undercover operatives, a casino, car chases, and a plot with significant geopolitical elements. I’m not claiming you can map this one-for-one onto the Bond template, but the inspiration (consciously or not on the part of the filmmakers) is certainly there. One Letterboxd user described it as “The Lion King meets Skyfall”, which might sound pithy but is also surprisingly accurate — and Skyfall in particular, not just any old Bond film; but there we’d be getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that for you to think about yourself after you’ve seen the movie.

An even more significant influence, for numerous reasons, is African culture. Much has been made of the film having a predominantly black cast (aside from (to use an already well-worn joke) a couple of ‘Tolkien’ white guys), but it fully embraces that too. It isn’t nominally set in Africa with faces that happen to be of a different colour to the blockbuster norm — African traditions, designs, and ways of life have been woven throughout the film. Are they real ones the filmmakers co-opted or were they just inspired by the iconography of the continent? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t think so. It’s a different flavour on the blockbuster stage, and that adds freshness to just about everything.

African culture, real or imagined

For one, it helps the film to look beautiful. It’s colourful without being cartoonish, the vibrant palette coming through via costumes and locations in a very real way. Design is naturally a big part of this — make-up; costumes; however the production design department breaks down across locations, sets, props, etc, etc. They were obviously able to cut loose, finding inspiration from different places to usual (i.e. Africa) and imagining a whole alternate world, similar to ours but a bit more Sci-Fi.

There’s the light, too — this is frequently a gorgeously shot film. Not just the quality captured by DP Rachel Morrison (who made headlines recently when she was Oscar nominated for Mudbound), but also the shot choices and editing — it’s filmic, whereas too many Marvel movies look like TV but with a humungous effects budget. Director Ryan Coogler stages the action well too. Across the board, the visuals don’t feel so generically “Marvel”, while also not forcing themselves so far outside the house style that it doesn’t feel like A Marvel Movie. Put another way, it’s probably not that radical, but it is fine-tuned.

The music is oftentimes striking as well, with Ludwig Göransson’s score and various songs* mixing different styles for a heady but effective blend. In fact, the music occasionally achieves a feel or atmosphere that I don’t think Marvel’s usually-generic soundtracks have reached before, and not necessarily ones you’d expect.

Suited up

The film is rich and fresh in plenty of other ways too. The story is loaded with varied thematic concerns: there’s politics, both on the world stage and internal; the battle between tradition vs modernity; the pros and cons of both isolationism and being open to the world; issues of colonialism and its aftereffects (and the morality of a possible reversal thereof)… Obviously race is a factor as well, but in specific ways rather than some kind of generic “hey, look, black people can do this too!” I feel like there are many different things to read into and out of this film — numerous facets that could be focused on either singularly or in various combinations — and that, actually, the film would reward such a close reading, rather than falling apart when put under a microscope.

Yet another thing it juggles well in this mix are the characters and the performances behind them. There are a lot of people to get to know here, but they’re all so effectively sketched that most are interesting, likeable, or memorable (or all three) within just a few moments. The film may be called Black Panther and he may be the central hero, but he’s not the only strong, capable, heroic figure here — far from it. Indeed, another aspect that will surely generate plenty of discussion is the film’s strong female roles. The Q figure, currently at the forefront of all Wakanda’s incredible technology, is T’Challa’s younger sister (Letitia Wright); the army (or security service? I’ll confess to not being 100% on Wakanda’s military structure) is made up of women, led (of course) by a female general (Danai Gurira); their best spy is also a woman (Lupita Nyong’o); and the Queen Mother (Angela Bassett) is a powerful figurehead who gives strong advice.

Sisters, doing it for themselves

The film doesn’t make a big to-do about all this — it doesn’t boast about how well these women are doing, or have people try to “put them in their place” only for them to overcome it — it just gets on with them being awesome. Obviously the race aspect is going to be the most talked about thing here, at least initially, but I’d wager Black Panther is second only to Wonder Woman in its foregrounding of exceptionally capable female characters in the superhero genre… and, considering how many of them there are in this, one might argue it surpasses even that. Although the lead’s still a bloke, so…

Said bloke is an interesting lead character. He’s often quite quiet and thoughtful, very different to the wisecracking action men who typically lead Marvel movies. I’d guess he’s going to get on well with Captain America come Infinity War because they both have that stoic intelligence. It means that Chadwick Boseman doesn’t have the easy likeability of jokes to fall back on, as has so benefited… well, all those other Marvel leading men. But quiet strength is its own reward, if slightly slower burning, and T’Challa is ultimately a very engaging hero. On the other side of the equation, Michael B. Jordan’s villain is one of Marvel’s rare strong ones — in fairness, something they seem to have been improving since everyone pointed it out. While Erik is unquestionably a bad guy doing bad things, he has an understandable motivation, and Jordan even makes you feel for him a bit by the end.

He just can't wait to be king

Marvel Studios have often talked about trying to mix other genres into each of their movies, to try to add some much-needed variety to the familiar superhero movie formula. On the whole I’d say the effect is minimal — I’m always minded of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they tried to push as a ’70s-style political thriller, but which I thought was still very much a superhero movie with a dash of political thriller in the mix. Although maybe that’s enough. Anyway, Black Panther is once again undoubtedly a superhero movie in more than just the literal sense that it’s adapted from a comic book about a superhero, but this particular mix of varied influences — some familiar (it’s not the first movie to imitate Bond), others less so (African culture in an action-adventure blockbuster) — does make it feel genuinely different to the norm.

I know some people say this every time the studio releases a new movie, but it probably is Marvel’s best film to date. Nonetheless, I was going to give it 4 stars again; but the more I think about it, the more I feel like it’s time to break my duck and make this the first Marvel movie I’ve given:

5 out of 5

Black Panther is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

* I’m sure there was a “songs by” credit, but I can’t remember the name and it doesn’t seem to be in any of the credits lists online. ^

Comedy Review Roundup

In today’s roundup:

  • This is the End (2013)
  • The Heat (2013)
  • In the Loop (2009)


    This is the End
    (2013)

    2017 #109
    Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    This is the End

    Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride star as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride (respectively) in a movie about the apocalypse written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

    And it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect a movie about the apocalypse starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, and written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, would be like — for good or ill. Personally, I laughed and enjoyed myself more than I expected to, even if it is resolutely silly and frequently crude just for the sake of it.

    4 out of 5

    The Heat
    (2013)

    2017 #144
    Paul Feig | 112 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Heat

    Having been surprisingly entertained by Bridesmaids, Spy, and the new Ghostbusters, I thought I might as well tick off the last film-directed-by-Paul-Feig-since-anyone-noticed-he-made-films (he also helmed a couple of movies in the ’00s that no one mentions).

    It’s a female-led (obviously) version of the familiar buddy movie template, starring Melissa McCarthy (obviously) as an uncouth cop who must team up with a strait-laced FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) to bring down a drug lord.

    As I suspected, it’s the least likeable of those four Feig/McCarthy collaborations, although it manages to tick along at a level of passable amusement with occasional outbursts of good lines or routines. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hadn’t first seen and enjoyed at least a couple of their other movies, but there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

    3 out of 5

    In the Loop
    (2009)

    2017 #147
    Armando Iannucci | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

    In the Loop

    Acclaimed political sitcom The Thick of It steps onto the global stage in this comedy, which sets its satirical sights on UK-US relations and the countries’ intervention in the Middle East.

    Despite the change in format and (intended) screen size, In the Loop manages to be as hilarious as the show it’s spun off from — not always a given when TV successes make the leap to the big screen. In part that’s the advantage of a 237-page script and 4½-hour first cut being honed to little more than an hour-and-a-half, but it’s also thanks to the skilled cast. The star of the show is, as ever, Peter Capaldi as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. Most of the rest of the UK cast carry over from The Thick of It (albeit in new roles) so are well versed in writer-director Armando Iannucci’s style of satire, but proving equally up to the task are a compliment of US additions headlined by James Gandolfini.

    It’s not perfect — there were a couple of subplots I could’ve done without (I’m not a big fan of Steve Coogan so wouldn’t’ve missed his near-extraneous storyline) — but they’re minor inconveniences among the barrage of hilarity.

    5 out of 5

  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

    2018 #15
    Guy Ritchie | 126 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

    After years of making fundamentally similar movies, director Guy Ritchie found renewed success reinventing Sherlock Holmes for Warner Bros. I presume that’s directly responsible for the studio tapping him to kickstart this long-gestating project: a series of films inspired by the legends of King Arthur. Unfortunately for them, plans for a six-film series were scuppered when this initial entry went down like a lead balloon with critics and consequently was a box office flop. Nonetheless, some people who I think are worth listening to reckoned it was actually pretty good. Turns out… eh…

    Set in a vaguely-defined historical Britain (the capital is called Londinium, but the king resides at Camelot, which is… somewhere else…?), Legend of the Sword begins with King Uther (Eric Bana) being deposed by his scheming brother Vortigern (Jude Law), with only his young son Arthur escaping. Arthur grows up in a brothel and on the streets, going from a weedy kid to… some kind of, like, gang boss type figure, I guess? Basically, we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory: lads up to criminal hijinks with a London accent, only now in medieval costumes. Anyway, long story short, Excalibur — the eponymous sword — reveals itself stuck in a stone, every young man is forced to try to pull it out, which obviously Arthur succeeds at, marking him out for death by Vortigern but also as the true king to those who remain loyal to Uther, who now have a Robin Hood-esque underground army — and so they begin a Robin Hood-esque campaign against Vortigern. Seriously, it wouldn’t take too many tweaks to make this as passable a Robin Hood film as it is a King Arthur one.

    King Arthur and his merry men

    So, to no one’s great surprise, if you’re looking for a broadly faithful adaptation of Arthurian legend then you’re out of luck here. There are obviously famous bits of the legend thrown in — the aforementioned Excalibur and its stone; the Lady of the Lake pops up too; and… um… other than that it’s pretty much just people’s names, really. I don’t know how much critics were hoping to see a more recognisably Arthurian tale, but I have to wonder if this massive deviance from the well-known stories of the eponymous hero is at least partly responsible for the film’s poor reception.

    Part of why I wonder this is that, if you approach Legend of the Sword less as a King Arthur film and more as a Guy Ritchie-flavoured fantasy movie, there are bits of it I think are really, really good. Some of it’s great, even, like an efficient and exciting montage that shows Arthur growing from child to adult. Or any other time there’s a montage, really — that’s the best one, but others are equally as effective. Second best, for instance, is one where Arthur has to go on a quest in some alternate dark dimension or something, battling giant bats and other such nasties. That’d be the whole of act two in other films, or at least a significant action sequence, but its basic content is all so rote — so Ritchie instead burns through it in a montage, which feels like a nod and a wink to the audience: “you know how this goes”. Editor James Herbert certainly gives his skills a workout making these sequences fast, clear, and cinematically thrilling.

    He's gonna need a montage

    Of course, if you really dislike Ritchie’s trademark style then him slapping it on the fantasy genre isn’t necessarily going to enrapture you. Reportedly the project was pitched to the studio and cast as “Lord of the Rings meets Snatch” and they’ve pretty much delivered on that promise, transposing Ritchie’s modern London laddish schtick onto medieval Londinium plebs. Personally, although I’ve somewhat tired of his recognisable approach in a contemporary setting, the temporal disjunct was a fresh enough variation for me, breathing new life into both Ritchie’s MO and fantasy tropes.

    Unfortunately, for all the verve of his own style that Ritchie injects, there are also bits that typify CGI-blockbuster blandness — the final fight is a nothingy blur. The speedy, montage-driven style also allows for only so much character development. What time there is gets focused on Arthur and Vortigern, which I suppose is appropriate enough, with a large supporting cast fighting over the scraps. It seems obvious to me that a mysterious female character known only as “The Mage” was meant to be revealed as Guinevere (a conceit broadly nicked from the Jerry Bruckheimer King Arthur, I think), and indeed that was apparently nixed in post-production. I guess they thought they could bump it to one of the five sequels… which now aren’t happening.

    Come and 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough

    My final three-star rating is maybe a bit harsh, but then maybe I’ve been too generous with my fours lately (or always). If Legend of the Sword had been able to carry through on the impetus of its best bits then it may even have been looking at a full five stars, they’re that good, but it doesn’t come together as a whole. It’s not the failure mass opinion painted it as, but it’s not quite a success either — it’s an interesting “good try”.

    3 out of 5

    King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

    aka Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

    2018 #13
    Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | PG

    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters

    Two of Japan’s most successful cultural exports meet for the first time here as the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, gets the anime treatment. Originally conceived as a TV series, the box office success of Shin Godzilla prompted studio Toho to restructure the project as a trilogy of movies and release them theatrically (in Japan, anyway — the rest of the world gets them via Netflix). Part 2 is due later in 2018 and Part 3 in early 2019.

    The standard plot of a Godzilla movie, as I understand it, is a giant monster (aka kaiju) turns up, stomps all over some cities, then we find a way to destroy it; or, if it’s one of the ones where Godzilla is a good guy, he fights it and, presumably, wins. Planet of the Monsters uses its animated form to do something new with the concept. The opening credits montage informs us that, in the final years of the 20th century, kaiju suddenly sprung up all over the planet and mankind were unable to defeat them. Fortunately some aliens rocked up and offered to help by evacuating what was left of humanity. Twenty years later this mission to the stars is proving a failure, with minimal chance of finding a habitable planet and the survivors decimated by diminishing supplies. The best course of action is deemed to be a return to Earth — it’s estimated thousands of years will have passed there (thanks to relativity) and the hope is the monsters will have died; and if not, hotshot young captain Haruo Sakai has come up with a new plan to defeat Godzilla once and for all.

    Good God

    If that reads like a lot of setup, it’s because Planet of the Monsters contains a lot of setup. It takes about half the movie before they’re back on Earth and… well, technically this is a spoiler, but if you’re intending to watch the movie it might help you manage expectations: Godzilla doesn’t properly show up until the final half-hour. This has led some reviewers to accuse the movie of being slow and light on what we came to see, i.e. giant monster action. They have something of a point. However, contrary to most opinions I’ve read, I actually enjoyed the early space-bound stages of the movie better.

    It feels like the makers had a ton of interesting ideas about the politics and social situation aboard the evacuation ship, especially with multiple races and some kind of alien religion involved too, but there’s no time to really explore or develop those facets. Maybe they planned to get into that in the series. Either way, I find it funny that others have criticised that part for being slow and talky while I felt it had to race past a lot of potentially-interesting stuff to keep the plot moving. I guess I just ought to go watch Battlestar Galactica again, because it’s broadly similar territory.

    Back to Earth

    But, as I said before, there’s a rub: this setup provokes interest as a Galactica-style sci-fi, but as a Godzilla movie? There’s far too little of the big guy. And when he does turn up for the big climactic action sequence, that was the bit I found kinda dull. There’s a lot of whizzing around on hoverbike-things and blowing up forests and whatnot — plenty of sound and fury, but signifying what? And then… well, still avoiding spoilers, but there’s a twist in the final few minutes that renders this whole film prologue. Perhaps that should leave us hopeful for the next two? Perhaps this is all effective world-building for where things will go in the sequels? Conversely, it could be revealed as unnecessary background info once all the monster smashing starts. Only time (and the next two films) will tell…

    3 out of 5

    The Mummy (2017)

    2017 #82
    Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

    The Mummy

    As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

    You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

    Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

    This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

    However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

    But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

    “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

    Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

    And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

    Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

    Mummy mia, here they go again

    When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

    2 out of 5