Review Roundup

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In today’s round-up:

  • Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)


    Snoopy and Charlie Brown:
    The Peanuts Movie

    (2015)

    aka The Peanuts Movie

    2017 #25
    Steve Martino | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

    Charles M. Schulz’s popular comic strip hits the big screen in this likeable but hardly Pixar-level movie. Much of it plays like a series of shorts or sketches with a connected theme rather than a feature-length narrative — kind of like binge-watching a cartoon series — but they’re pleasant enough. There are some good gags (“Leo’s Toy Store by Warren Piece”), though the saccharine ending is a bit much and the pop songs are terrible. One review described Snoopy as “Peanuts’ Tyler Durden”, which is a thought that entertained me even more than the film.

    The most notable aspect is the animation style. Schulz’s strips have a distinct 2D style, but the movie is animated in 3D, presumably because you’re not allowed to make a Western kids’ movie with 2D animation anymore. Nonetheless, most of The Peanuts Movie is composed to emulate Schulz’s original strips, i.e. quite flatly — like, you know, 2D. And yet, somehow… Well, The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin summarised it well in his review: “Written down, [the animation style] just sounds chaotic, like a four-way mash-up of South Park, The Clangers, Wallace & Gromit and a flip book. But in motion, it’s a thing of serious, faux-artisanal beauty”. That might be going a bit far, but I did end up kinda liking the visuals. It’s quite a clever style for 3D, mixing in many 2D-ish touches. It should probably be a mess, but it weirdly works.

    3 out of 5

    13 Hours:
    The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    (2016)

    2017 #40
    Michael Bay | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

    The not-at-all-controversial events in the Libyan town of Benghazi on 11th September 2012 are here dramatised by that master of subtlety and understated reality, director Michael Bay, so you know you’re going to get a considered and truthful account of events.

    Yeah, most of that opening paragraph is completely facetious. Bay takes a real-life gunfight, in which a secret mercenary security team went against orders (possibly) to defend an American diplomatic compound that was under assault, and turns it into a blazing action movie that may as well be scored with the theme from Team America: World Police. If it was Bay’s goal to convey the sheer confusion on the ground in the midst of the situation, I guess he’s done a bang-up job. The problem is, that confusion extends to bits where the characters seem to have some idea what’s going on, but we’re left half in the dark.

    Having Bay be reined in after the excess of his Transformers movies is no bad thing, but being completely constrained by reality is not his strong suit either — the heightened reality of something like The Rock is where he excels.

    If you’re interested in a longer read on the film’s adherence (or otherwise) to reality, this article at Vox is interesting.

    3 out of 5

    Young Frankenstein
    (1974)

    2017 #46
    Mel Brooks | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Young Frankenstein

    I have mixed feelings about the work of Mel Brooks. I reviewed his Hitchcock spoof, High Anxiety, back in 2009 and found it wanting. I reviewed his Robin Hood spoof, Men in Tights, earlier this year and found it uncomplicated but enjoyable. When I was a kid I liked his Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, but on a slightly-more-adult rewatch I enjoyed it less. And as for Blazing Saddles, regarded by some as one of the pinnacles of screen comedy… no, I didn’t like it. At all. I so didn’t like it that I really must rewatch it to see if I can see what I didn’t see.

    Young Frankenstein was released the same year as Blazing Saddles, and is placed on a similar pedestal by many — slightly higher, on the whole (Frankenstein edges it by a few points on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic). It’s quite remarkable that Brooks managed to produce two such esteemed movies within the same year. At least I liked one of them.

    Young Frankenstein has many funny lines and moments, including a lot of familiar Brooksisms (“walk this way”) and, in the Puttin’ on the Ritz number, perhaps one of the funniest sequences ever committed to film. The films being spoofed (Universal’s classic monster movies) are evoked well, in particular with the potent black and white cinematography, but Brooks also lets things spiral off in their own direction when warranted. On the downside, I’d say it’s a little too long.

    Don’t take that criticism too seriously, though. I enjoyed it very much.

    4 out of 5

    * Hilariously, in 1987 the BBFC thought it should be rated 15. It wasn’t downgraded to the much more sensible PG until 2000. ^

  • New Tale of Zatoichi (1963)

    aka Shin Zatôichi monogatari

    2017 #75
    Tokuzô Tanaka | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    New Tale of Zatoichi

    With studio Daiei apparently realising they had a potential long-running series on their hands, blind masseur cum roving wrong-righter Ichi (Shintarô Katsu) makes his colour debut in this third film. Despite the obvious visual change, New Tale picks up on plot threads from the previous film, concluding a trilogy of sorts that spans the series’ first three instalments.

    Two strands from Ichi’s past come forth to challenge him this time: as he’s hunted by the brother of a villain he killed in the previous film, Ichi runs into the master who trained him to be a sword fighter, Banno (Seizaburô Kawazu). Desperate for money, Banno has fallen in with a criminal gang, while also trying to marry his younger sister, Yayoi (Mikiko Tsubouchi), to a respectable samurai — but Yayoi has feelings for Ichi.

    Where the first Zatoichi sequel was faster and more action orientated, New Tale takes a slower, character-driven tone. Ichi is pulled in multiple emotional directions, most of which he keeps stoically buried, but we can still interpret them from Katsu’s nuanced performance. The most forefront theme is violence and the honour of it: Ichi vows to renounce those ways to marry Yayoi, while Banno is betraying them with his greedy actions — and naturally those two are going to come into conflict. It makes for a sombre film, that doesn’t come to a happy conclusion.

    Family dynamics

    Although this is the first colour Zatoichi, director Tokuzô Tanaka keeps the palette muted throughout, but this is particularly obvious at the end: after Ichi gives in to his old ways, the final shot is practically in black and white, like the previous two films — perhaps a visual indicator of our hero’s return to, or acceptance of, his previous position. Although this dull colour scheme means New Tale isn’t the most vibrantly exciting film visually, it’s compositionally strong, making appropriate use of the wide frame. It’s interesting to note that Tanaka was previously an assistant director on such acclaimed masterpieces as Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Sanshô Dayû, so I guess he picked up a thing or two.

    As Ichi hits the road again at the end (I don’t think it counts as a spoiler that he doesn’t ultimately settle down), it feels a little like an origin story has been completed, setting Ichi off on a path ready for standalone adventures. That said, according to the liner notes that accompany Criterion’s Blu-ray release, audiences “became increasingly starved” for details of Ichi’s past as the series went on, so I guess some people weren’t satiated.

    I don’t think New Tale is quite the equal of the first film, which seems the purest execution of the character as yet, but its thoughtfulness in engaging with the emotional effects of a violent life mark it out as a step above the second movie.

    4 out of 5

    Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

    2017 #72
    Anna Foerster | 91 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Underworld: Blood Wars

    Kate Beckinsale is back in skintight leather for……

    I’m sorry, my mind wandered off then. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… skintight leather……

    Sorry, happened again. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… her role as a werewolf-killing vampire for the fifth entry in the Underworld series, which seems to be as undying as its star creatures.

    Picking up a little while after the last one left off, the war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) is now back in full swing, and both sides are hunting Selene (Beckinsale). Her own kind want her for previous crimes (see: the first two films), while the Lycans are after her daughter (see: the last film) to give them an advantage in the war. Fearing for their safety, the vampires invite Selene back into the fold to train a new generation of combatants, but there are sneakier plans afoot…

    Kate Beckinsale in leather. Nuff said.

    The first Underworld marked out somewhat-new territory when it hit screens in 2003 by taking fantasy/horror elements like vampire covens and werewolves and placing them in a modern urban environment, fighting more with guns than swords and teeth. It certainly wasn’t wholly original — Blade had already done a similar concept and visually it owed a lot to The Matrix — but it was fresh enough. Since then the series has increasingly strayed away from that: the second film brought more traditional-style Eastern European countryside, the third was a medieval prequel, and the fourth was… kind of nothing-y, really.

    Now, they seem to have made something of an effort to get back to the ‘world’ of the first film, with extravagant vampire covens and underground Lycan forces, while also growing the series’ mythology by introducing us to new areas of vampiredom, primarily a Nordic coven. This move also brings with it a degree of politicking among the vampires, which is kind of what I imagine a millennia-old secret society would be like. I mean, don’t expect House of Cards — it’s done at the level of the action B-movie this series is — but it’s kinda fun. To achieve this it’s had to ignore an awful lot of the last film — not entirely, by any means, as it’s quite heavily based in some leftover plot points — but other parts have been completely glossed over. This lax attitude to continuity could be irritating, but a counterargument might go that isn’t it better to ditch stuff that isn’t really working in favour of stuff that’s more entertaining?

    Vampire politics

    Part of the entertainment comes from characters talking rather than just fighting, and we’re treated to some magnificently cheesy, overworked dialogue. Some of these scenes are edited within an inch of their life, lines almost tripping over each other as they’re rushed on to the screen. By rights that should be a problem, yet in something as fabulously trashy as Underworld it feels more expedient — they’re getting on with it, rather than being ponderous about the mythology, like much fantasy is wont to do. I kinda like it for that. Alternatively, there’s one bit where the main characters seem to express themselves in a quick-cut series of heavy breaths and grunts. It’s either terrible or genius, or possibly both.

    This tone is supported by some superbly hammy acting from a cast filled with faces from British TV. Sherlock’s Irene Adler, Lara Pulver, seems to be having a whale of a time as the scheming head of a vampire coven, while giving Miss Beckinsale a run for her money in the kinky outfit department. She’s accompanied by Merlin’s Arthur, Bradley James, pouting around as her frequently-insulted boy toy. Tobias Menzies (take your pick of what you consider him best-known for) does his best as the Lycan’s cunning new leader, who’s most threatening in his CGI-powered transformed state. And Charles Dance is back, exuding pure class as always, completely convincing you that he believes in all the high-fantasy drivel he has to spout.

    Irene and Arthur

    Similarly, we all know Kate Beckinsale is better than this — and if you’d forgotten, Love & Friendship should’ve reasserted it. Even here she’s called on to be more than just a shapely pair of buttocks, getting to inject Selene with some rare emotion on several occasions. She also once again kicks ass left, right, and centre. The film’s action on the whole is fairly entertaining. There’s little impressive choreography or particularly original combat concepts, but it passes muster. Even Charles Dance gets to do some swashbuckling (as he terms it in the making-of), which is only brief but also as awesome as it sounds. Another part amusingly sees two bulletproof adversaries walk slowly towards one another while emptying their guns into each other. It’s, again, simultaneously close to being both terrible and genius.

    Despite being renowned as a visually gloomy series, I thought it looked pretty nice in 3D — better than Awakening did, at any rate. Awakening was genuinely shot in 3D, whereas (based on what I could see in behind-the-scenes footage from the special features) Blood Wars appears to have been post-converted. It shows how far that technology has come that even a modestly budgeted movie like this (just $35 million) can afford post-conversion that often looks very good indeed.

    The only major disappointment I had with the film was that, thanks to it being in a rush every time it had some plot to get through, parts of it don’t quite make sense. The ending, in particular, where a voiceover monologue mentions a load of stuff we haven’t just seen happen and doesn’t quite flow. Surely they could’ve afforded an extra two minutes to connect the dots? Apparently the ending was designed to both brings things full circle and, perhaps, leave it open for a sixth instalment. Well, I would say it shortchanges the wrapping-up bit — this could be a place to conclude the series, but by not giving that sufficient weight (i.e. by rushing it), it implies a kind of “tune in next time”-ness.

    Kate Beckinsale. Leather. Nuff. Said.

    That aside, I actually massively enjoyed Blood Wars; much more than the negative reception led me to expect. Of course, the Underworld films are a fan-only experience at this point — not because of diminishing quality, as most reviews would cite, but because of how much the story is based in events from three of the previous four films. If you’ve watched any of those previous movies and not enjoyed them, it’s not worth catching up for this — it’s fundamentally “more of the same”, just done better than it’s been since the first movie.

    These days franchises can revive themselves for new viewers later in their runs — Fast Five being the best Fast & Furious movie is a case in point — but Blood Wars isn’t a Fast Five. However, as someone who would, at this point, I guess, count myself as a fan of the series, Blood Wars delivered.

    4 out of 5

    Underworld: Blood Wars is released on DVD and Blu-ray (in regular, 3D, and UHD flavours) in the UK today.

    Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

    aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

    2017 #71
    Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg | 129 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge

    Dead men may tell no tales, but lucrative franchises never die, so Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean has taken to the high seas once again. Johnny Depp is back in the role that once netted him an Oscar nomination (remember that?), the drunken pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, this time teaming up with the child of some old friends (Brenton Thwaites) and a bright young astronomer (Kaya Scodelario) for another MacGuffin hunt adventure, while again being pursued by some cursed seafarer (Javier Bardem) and a member of the British Navy (David Wenham).

    Yes, despite the unusually-long six-year gap since the previous film, and all the promotional talk of this being a fresh start for the series that tonally harks back to the standalone fun of the first movie, Salazar’s Revenge (or, if you prefer, Dead Men Tell No Tales) seems doomed to repeat bits and bobs from the series’ other instalments. It’s not a complete wash-out, however, because it at least executes some of those bits quite well. Sadly, other bits are beginning to look a little tired. Perhaps the best single adjective to describe the film’s attitude would be “muddled”. Beware, me hearties: spoilers follow.

    It seems likely that Disney do want this to be a soft reboot of the franchise — a reboot to combat the increasingly poor critical receptions that greeted the previous sequels, but a soft one so that the Depp’s popular turn can continue being a part of things. This revivalist plan presumably included looking back in time, beyond the last movie (the least popular one) to the series’ heyday. However, rather than just try to replicate the tone of the earlier movies, storyliners Jeff Nathanson and franchise veteran Terry Rossio have revived some of the old plots too. So we have a film that attempts to move forward with new young leads and a new villain, all hunting for a new MacGuffin, but with motivations bedded in plots that were ostensibly wrapped up a decade ago. They can’t even bring themselves to ignore the previous movie, despite its lack of popularity, continuing narrative threads from there as well. So much for “reboot”.

    Cutthroat, without the island

    And yet, despite that, its consistency with previous films is sometimes poor. For example, Salazar is freed because Jack gives away his magic compass — but didn’t he do that in film two and/or three, with no such ill effects? Also, why does the compass now suddenly have the power to make you face things you dread? And how does that even work, considering other characters have had it and given it away and never had such issues? Maybe they were just hoping viewers wouldn’t remember the ins-and-outs of the plots of previous movies… though, if that’s the case, why is the story based on them?

    Unfortunately, its internal consistency isn’t much better. Like, why do ghost pirates own zombie sharks? How come Salazar can suddenly possess someone when it becomes necessary for the plot? That ability is never mentioned, it just turns up. When Carina’s navigating them to the map-island, how do they end up at a completely different place (before later just setting off again)? Maybe I missed something…

    This abundance of niggles stems from the film being overstuffed with ideas that it doesn’t invest in fully — just like the last film, which it was supposed to have learnt lessons from! One of the things that made the original Pirates movie work was its relative simplicity, which kept the story focused and driving forward. The sequels all throw in too much random stuff — see my previous paragraph, which isn’t even the half of it: I haven’t mentioned the witch, or the ruby-powered star map, or the nonsensical post-credits scene.

    Salazar, out for revenge

    It probably doesn’t help, then, that Salazar’s Revenge is the shortest Pirates film (though it doesn’t feel like it). The dearth of screen time may be why both Bardem and Wenham are ultimately wasted as the villains — they’re not working together, so the time typically afforded to the antagonist ends up split between them. Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa is back too, as much a series regular as Captain Jack now. He gets an emotional storyline that surfaces out of the blue just before the last act. It’s a nice idea, but appears too late in the game to have time to develop properly.

    And how about the flashback showing Jack defeating Salazar, which seems to stop the film dead halfway through. Why not put that sequence at the start? Then cut straight to the existing opening scene of the naval ship accidentally sailing into the Devil’s Triangle. It’d work — the viewer thinking, “oh, the navy ship is going to sink, just like Salazar did all those years ago,” but then it doesn’t and Salazar attacks. (Hey, Hollywood — employ me!) Okay, fair enough, that structure would make it awkward to place Orlando Bloom’s opening cameo, but—

    Oh, wait, that’s another thing! So, we know why Orlando Bloom only appears in bookend scenes and why Keira Knightley is reduced to a dialogue-less cameo — because Disney want this to be a fresh start with new stars — but it feels like, to do this particular story properly (trying to break the curse that’s imprisoning Bloom), they both should’ve been in it more. I mean, why isn’t the formerly strong and capable Elizabeth working with her son to free the love of her life? At least explain that, film, don’t just ignore it! Heck, tossing in even one line from Henry (“my mum’s given up hope, but I haven’t”) would’ve solved it.

    A clever woman? What is the world coming to

    As for the rest of the cast, Johnny Depp feels like he’s forgotten how to play Sparrow — it’s a pretty good imitation rather than the real thing. Kaya Scodelario plays Carina with an earnest intelligence, a trait which is exhibited dependably throughout the screenplay. That shouldn’t need to be worthy of note, but, for a female character, it is. Thwaites, on the other hand, is perfectly bland as Henry Turner, rarely even managing the enthusiasm or charming naivety suggested by that good line from the trailers (“I think I saw her ankles!”)

    On the action-adventure front, there are some good set pieces, mainly early on — the bank robbery and the halted executions, particularly the spinning guillotine, are inventively handled. Sadly, later efforts are obscured by gloomy lighting and too much whizzing around of CGI — and, once again, the overabundance of out-of-nowhere ideas (why does the ship’s figurehead suddenly come to life?!) Geoff Zanelli’s score primarily recycles Hans Zimmer’s familiar themes, which I don’t mind too much because I like them. At least it does so in a less slapdash fashion than On Stranger Tides, where the music felt plonked on at random.

    That's the second biggest pirate ship I've ever seen

    So, I’ve moaned throughout this review, and here’s the main reason for that: there’s a decent action-adventure movie hidden in Salazar’s Revenge — probably not something that would equal the first Pirates, but a good effort — but all the times when plot necessities seem to have been filled with “invent something new!” rather than “make what we’ve got work”, plus all the little inconsistencies (both internally and with previous films), really get in the way. Maybe, now that all of the leftover business from previous films is well and truly resolved, and if this makes a lot of money, we’ll get a sixth film that finally does return to the joys of the first.

    Hey, Disney: you own Lucasfilm now — how about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Secret of Monkey Island?

    3 out of 5

    Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge is in some cinemas now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is in the others.

    Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    Captain Jack is back

    Here’s the first in a sporadic new series of posts, inspired by my 100 Favourites entries, which I’ll be using to plug some of the gaps in my review archive. As a good starting example, this is the only Pirates of the Caribbean film I haven’t covered before.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 151 minutes
    BBFC: 12A
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 6th July 2006 (UK & others)
    US Release: 7th July 2006
    Budget: $225 million
    Worldwide Gross: $1.066 billion

    Stars
    Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland)
    Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings, Kingdom of Heaven)
    Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice, The Imitation Game)
    Bill Nighy (Love Actually, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

    Director
    Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Rango)

    Screenwriters
    Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, The Lone Ranger)
    Terry Rossio (Shrek, Godzilla vs. Kong)

    Based on
    Pirates of the Caribbean, a theme park ride at Disneyland.


    The Story
    On their wedding day, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are arrested for piracy. To secure a pardon, all they have to do is bring in Captain Jack Sparrow. Meanwhile, the aforementioned pirate captain is hunting for a key that he can use to unlock a chest that contains leverage he may be able to use to escape a debt to the horrifying Davy Jones…

    Our Heroes
    Jack Sparrow (or, as half the characters pronounce it, Jack Sparrah), the pirate captain who looks like a drunken fool but is actually in possession of a sharp mind. Also Will Turner, the swashbuckling ex-blacksmith determined to prevent the execution of himself and his beloved. That would be Elizabeth Swann, the governor’s daughter who is altogether more capable than would be expected of a woman from this era.

    Our Villains
    The pirate-hating East India Company is represented by the scheming Cutler Beckett, who seeks to rid the seas of pirates. To do so, he intends to control Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman. A tentacled terror, Jones seeks primarily to add more damned souls to his crew — including one Jack Sparrow…

    Best Supporting Character
    Will Turner’s father, Bootstrap Bill, was condemned to the ocean’s depths, where he ended up committing himself to servitude on Davy Jones’ ship. Well, unless Will can find a way to set him free…

    Memorable Quote
    Elizabeth Swann: “There will come a time when you have a chance to do the right thing.”
    Jack Sparrow: “I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by.”

    Memorable Scene
    A large chunk of the climax is a set of interconnected sword fights that most famously include three men duelling each other inside a runaway waterwheel. And while that’s good, my favourite bit has always been Elizabeth, Pintel and Ragetti fighting off Davy Jones’ crew while sharing two swords (and a chest) between the three of them.

    Truly Special Effect
    Davy Jones is an incredible creation, the writing mass of CGI tentacles that make up his face conveying a slimy physicality that remains impressive even as some of the film’s other computer-generated effects begin to show their age.

    Previously on…
    Inspired by a Disney theme park ride, nobody expected much of Pirates of the Caribbean — or, as it was hastily subtitled once someone at Disney realised this could be the start of a franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl. As that someone knew, it turned out to be something very special. Dead Man’s Chest retrofits it into being the first part of a trilogy.

    Next time…
    The aforementioned trilogy concludes with At World’s End, which was shot back-to-back with Dead Man’s Chest and so wraps up its many dangling plot threads. The series continued with standalone instalment On Stranger Tides, while this year’s Dead Men Tell No Tales, aka Salazar’s Revenge, looks as if it seeks to tie the whole shebang together.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
    3 Oscar nominations (Art Direction, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing)
    1 BAFTA (Special Visual Effects)
    4 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up & Hair)
    1 Saturn award (Special Effects)
    4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Bill Nighy), Costume, Make-Up)
    1 World Stunt Award (Best Fight — see “Memorable Scene”)

    Verdict

    The Pirates sequels have all come in for a lot of criticism ever since their first release. It was inevitable, really: the first is basically a perfect blockbuster action-adventure movie, something any follow-up would struggle to live up to. However, I think Dead Man’s Chest has improved with age. It lacks the freshness and elegant simplicity of its forebear, true, but it still has inventive sequences, memorable characters, impressive effects, and a generally fun tone, even as it’s setting up masses of mythology that will only be fully paid off in the next instalment. That also means it doesn’t quite function as a standalone adventure. But if you readjust your focus slightly, so that the film isn’t about beating Davy Jones, but instead about finding the chest and settling Jack’s debt to Jones, it’s more self-contained than it appears.

    The fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, under whichever subtitle they’ve chosen for your country, is in cinemas from today.

    Alien: Covenant (2017)

    2017 #69
    Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

    Alien: Covenant

    Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

    I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

    Fit to burst

    Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

    Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

    In space, no one can see you look worried...

    Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

    Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

    3 out of 5

    Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

    Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

    2017 #64
    Roland Emmerich | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    Independence Day: Resurgence

    With nostalgia-driven reboots and belated sequels all the rage these days, it was inevitable someone would eventually get round to Independence Day, the highest grossing film of 1996. Back then it took $817 million, a total most producers would be happy with even today… especially those behind Resurgence, which managed a comparatively paltry $389.6 million, leaving it in 21st place on 2016’s chart.* I guess nostalgia doesn’t win everything.

    One thing the two-decade delay has given us is an interesting setup for a sequel. Reflecting real life, the film begins 20 years after “The War of ’96” (i.e. the original movie). Humanity has rebuilt, integrating alien technology with our own to create more advanced aircraft and weaponry, including a moon base and defensive satellite system, all on the assumption that the aliens will come back. But they don’t and everyone lives happily ever after.

    Not really! The actual mechanics of the plot are far too fiddly to bother getting into here, but suffice to say the aliens do return, and, in typical sequel fashion, they’re bigger and badder. Facing them on humanity’s side are returning faces (Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman), returning characters with new faces (Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher), some surprising new faces (Charlotte Gainsbourg?!), and Liam Hemsworth, who somehow merits top billing. No Will Smith, because he died. Well, his character died, because Will Smith was busy doing Suicide Squad, which is basically the same thing.

    The cast who DID come back

    I jest at the Squad’s expense, but I actually enjoyed DC’s notoriously messy movie more than this. I think. (I intend to review it next week, when it’s also on Sky, so we’ll see what I say then.) You see, although from the outside it may look like Resurgence is just a rehash of the first movie, but with bigger spaceships, there are actually good ideas in here: how the world has developed since the last film, where the characters are, some new facets to our understanding of the alien race. Unfortunately, the film is in such a hurry to churn through Plot that it doesn’t take time to let any of the potentially-interesting stuff settle; doesn’t allow the space for it to be developed or appreciated. It feels wrong to complain that a blockbuster isn’t long enough, especially in this day and age, but you wish Resurgence had just given itself a little time to breathe; to properly explain why characters were doing certain things, rather than throwing in a speedy line of dialogue that there’s no time to process; to allow its set pieces to show off their scale, rather than racing from one to the next as if having as many as possible is better than making the most out of… well, any of them.

    Despite the unwavering focus on plot over everything else (it even sidelines spectacle at times, which is what big-budget disaster movies like this should be about), the headlong rush to get through the narrative means its storytelling is really sloppy. For instance, we’re reintroduced to Goldblum’s father (Judd Hirsch) trying to hawk his book to a room of uninterested pensioners; then we next see him on a boat, just in time to get caught up in the giant spaceship’s arrival. So, does he live on this boat? It doesn’t look big enough for that. So is he just hanging out there? Why? I mean, he was just at a book reading. And why does he have a boat anyway? Yet for all this rushing, the film begins to waste time on a bunch of random kids in a car, or some salvage sailors performing a job that (in story terms) doesn’t actually need doing. Clearly the script needed a good going-over by someone with an objective eye.

    Independence Day: The Next Generation

    Maybe it’s daft to focus on the quality of the screenplay in a film like Independence Day — as I said just now, its genre dictates it should be all about spectacle. But it’s the poor screenplay that undercuts those things. Not just because it has iffy dialogue or muddled character motivation (which it does), but because they’ve made the story more complicated than it needed to be and the film is desperate to tell us it as quickly as possible. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that it runs exactly two hours, because it feels like it’s been sliced as thin as possible on an individual scene level, as if they were trimming frames here and there to have it run no longer than 120 minutes.

    The big show-off scenes are further marred by variable effects. Much of the really grand stuff is decent, if hurried past, but the film is flooded with green screen work that is consistently atrocious. Like, “it was better 20 years ago”-level bad. The deleted scenes may hold the key to why this is: there’s one where a character is picked up from a bus stop on an ordinary street, except it’s been filmed on a green screen instead of on, y’know, a street. If you’re making your effects team waste time generating something you could’ve filmed by popping down the road, no wonder they don’t have time to do the tricky stuff properly.

    And, quite bizarrely, there are a couple of action bits that mirror sequences from, of all things, San Andreas. They happen back to back — intercut, in fact — which just emphasises the parallel. This signifies nothing, really, it’s just… strange.

    We're gonna need a bigger spaceship

    I really wanted to enjoy Independence Day: Resurgence, because I thought the “20 years later” ideas had promise, and also I have a soft spot for the original. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell, but mostly the cheese works thanks to an earnestness and the evocation of some degree of emotion. Plus, it achieves what it sets out to be — that is, an entertaining disaster movie cum alien invasion actioner. This follow-up wants to do the same thing on a bigger scale, and it is indeed even cheesier at times, but not in the same likeable way. If the first is a tasty chunk of mature cheddar (which, for the purposes of this analogy, we’re going to say it is) then the second is a thin slice of processed burger cheese. And, also like fake cheese, it fails to achieve even the straightforward thrills it sets out to create.

    2 out of 5

    Independence Day: Resurgence is on Sky Cinema from today.

    * For what it’s worth, if it had equalled the $817 million then it would’ve been 8th on 2016’s chart, beating the likes of Fantastic Beasts and Deadpool. ^

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

    2017 #59
    James Gunn | 136 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

    The franchise that some thought might kill the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which actually turned out to be one of its most popular successes, is back for the difficult second album. And difficult it is, because Guardians 2 takes a lot of what made that first movie work and ramps it up to 11, consequently slipping over into bouts of self-indulgence.

    The story picks up on a thread left conspicuously hanging at the end of the first movie: who is Peter’s father, and why did he have the Ravagers kidnap Peter from Earth? Vol. 2 digs into those answers pretty quickly, because it has somewhere else to go with them… but that would be spoiler territory. So while Peter (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and the ever-hilarious Drax (Dave Bautista) toddle off to learn about daddy-o, the rest of the gang — Rocket (motion capture of Sean Gunn, voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, allegedly) — get caught up in a mutiny involving Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). All while the lot of them are being chased by a race of gold-skinned perfectionists led by the priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) who the Guardians conned.

    Returning writer-director James Gunn gets things off to a strong start, diving straight into answers, humour, an entertaining title sequence, a couple of action scenes, more humour, and more answers. But after this strong and pacy opening salvo, the film seems to flounder a little. Not fatally so, but it gradually becomes apparent that the middle is going on far too long. Your mileage will vary on how draggy this is — some people seem to have absolutely hated it; I thought much of it was amiable enough, but it goes nowhere fast and that eventually becomes wearing.

    You've got the power to know you're indestructible...

    Part of the problem lies in splitting our heroes up into two groups with two stories. It may have been inspired by The Empire Strikes Back (or that may just have been a parallel some critics have spotted, I’m not sure), and it’s not a fundamentally flawed structural choice, but here it doesn’t really work. Part of the problem is that the gang works best when sparking off each other. Heck, the film even goes to pains to set up a joshing rivalry between Peter and Rocket, then splits them up! Story-wise, the issue is twofold: the A plot is a slow one that spins its wheels because it has too little story-fuel to drive the whole movie; but the B plot feels grafted on to give half the cast something to do, as well as provide a little action and humour while the other plot is tackling the emotional heft.

    That said, uncommonly for a modern blockbuster, it’s the emotional side the film gets most right. While the plot dawdles, the action is adequate, and the comedy is hit and miss (more the former than the latter, to be fair, but there’s a definite case of “throw everything and see what sticks”), there are several characters who get strong, believable, rounded emotional arcs. The obvious one is Peter finding out about his parentage, but my favourite was where the film goes with Nebula and the relationship with her adopted sister, Gamora. There’s also a comparatively meaty subplot for Yondu, meaning it’s mostly the supporting characters who fare best with the material rather than the heroes — aside from Peter and (to a lesser extent) Gamora, the primary function of Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot is to be humour generators. They are funny, though.

    Funny.

    In the director’s chair, Gunn continues to dole out even more of what people praised about the first movie. You liked the retro-cool soundtrack? OK, how about a new track every time there’s a lull in the action! The use of the music feels sloppy, often just plonked there to cover a gap, with no discernible thematic relevance. It’s doubling down on something people latched onto the first time, but it feels slapdash. The one instance that almost works is Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, which has a setup and a pay-off, but they’re not quite properly connected.

    Also overdone is the slow motion walking. Remember that shot in the first film of the Guardians walking into battle in slow-mo looking badass, that was then humorously undercut when they started, like, yawning and stuff? James Gunn does, and he liked it so much that he uses it again several times here. Apart from he seems to have forgotten the second part of the scene that made it funny rather than cheesy. Cool people walking in slow motion seems to be one of those cinematic devices that doesn’t really date, especially when used sparingly, so I could let it go once, but here it reaches the point of “oh my God, another slow-mo walking shot?!”

    This indulgence in everything people liked before extends right to the very end of the movie — literally. The end credits are a lively affair in and of themselves, but they’re further interrupted by a total of five additional scenes. Five. They’re mostly inconsequential (don’t go expecting any hints towards Infinity War), but they’re worth sticking around for because a couple are quite amusing.

    More guardians, more... galaxy? I dunno.

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an uneven film, which manages to be entertaining as a whole thanks to its likeable and funny characters — even if the best gags have all been played in the trailers (and some of them played better in trailers, too), it’s trying so hard (so, so hard) to be a good time that much of it works. It’s strongest at the beginning and the end, which almost makes you overlook that it gets a bit thumb-twiddly in the middle, with one plot more of a short story than a movie and the other feeling a little like a waste of time. However, the surprising focus on and awareness of the characters’ psychological lives makes up for that somewhat — oddly, Marvel’s most comedy-driven and alien-starring movie may also feature their most effective understanding and representation of characters’ emotions.

    But don’t worry, there are still jokes about poo and penises.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now. Except Japan. Sorry, Japan.

    I am Baby Groot.

    Review Round-up

    Over the last ten-and-a-bit years I’ve prided myself on reviewing every new film I see. Well, at the start it was less pride and more just how I did things (and most of those early ‘reviews’ were only a couple of sentences long), but as I’ve maintained it for so long I’ve come to pride myself on it. However, of late my backlog has reached ridiculous proportions, and is only expanding.

    But I’m not giving up just yet, dear reader — hence this round-up. There are some films I just don’t have a great deal to say about, where all I’ve really got are a few notes rather than a fully worked-up review. So as in days of old (i.e. 2007), I’ll quickly dash off my brief thoughts and a score. Hopefully this will become an irregular series that churns through some of my backlog.

    In today’s round-up:

  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
  • Under the Shadow (2016)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)
  • Dazed and Confused (1993)


    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
    (1965)

    2016 #167
    Martin Ritt | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    John le Carré’s famed story of crosses, double crosses, triple crosses… probably quadruple crosses… heck, maybe even quintuple crosses — why not?

    The storytelling is very slow and measured, which I would guess is not to all tastes — obviously not for those who only like their spies with the action and flair of Bond, but even by Le Carré standards it’s somewhat slight. That’s not to say it’s not captivating, but it lacks the sheer volume of plot that can, say, fuel a seven-episode adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite how the forthcoming miniseries from the makers of The Night Manager intends to be more than a TV movie… well, we’ll see.

    There’s also some gorgeous black and white photography, with the opening sequence at Check Point Charlie looking particularly glorious.

    5 out of 5

    Under the Shadow
    (2016)

    2017 #12
    Babak Anvari | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / Persian | 15 / PG-13

    Under the Shadow

    Be afraid if your doll is took — it could be the Iranian Babadook.

    Honestly, for all the creepy quality on display in this UK-funded Iran-set psychological horror, I don’t think labelling it as something of a mirror to The Babadook is unfair. It’s about a lone mother (Narges Rashidi) struggling with an awkward child (Avin Manshadi) while a malevolent supernatural entity that may be real or may just be in her head attempts to invade their home. Where the Australian horror movie invented the mythology for its creature afresh, Under the Shadow draws from Persian folklore — so, same difference to us Western viewers. The devil is in the details, then, which are fine enough to keep the film ticking over and regularly scaring you, be it with jumps or general unease.

    The Babadook may have done it better, and certainly did it first, but Under the Shadow remains an effective chiller.

    4 out of 5

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
    Out of the Shadows

    (2016)

    2017 #29
    Dave Green | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Hong Kong, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    This first (and last? We’ll see) sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Michael Bay Turtles ends with a cover of the theme from the original animated series, just in case you weren’t clear by then that it’s aspiring to be a live-action version of that particular cartoon.

    For one thing, there are appearances by a lot of popular characters who are primarily associated with that iteration of the franchise. For another, parts of the film have a very “rules of Saturday morning cartoons” feel — people thrown from a plane are immediately shown to be opening parachutes; all of the villains survive to fight another day; that kind of thing. They’ve clearly made an effort to make it lighter and funnier than its big-screen predecessor. The downside: they’ve gone a bit too far. The tone of the screenplay is “kids’ movie”, which isn’t a problem in itself, but Out of the Shadows retains the dark and realistic visual aesthetic of the first movie, plus enough violence and swears to get the PG-13 all blockbusters require, which means the overall effect is a little muddled.

    While it’s not a wholly consistent film, it does work to entertain, with funny-ish lines and kinetic CGI-fuelled action scenes. I must confess to ultimately enjoying it a fair bit… but bear in mind I was a big fan of the cartoon when I was five or six, so it did gently tickle my nostalgia soft spot.

    3 out of 5

    Dazed and Confused
    (1993)

    2017 #53
    Richard Linklater | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Dazed and Confused

    Writer-director Richard Linklater has said that with Dazed and Confused he wanted to make an anti John Hughes movie; one that showed teenage life was mundane and uneventful. So here’s a movie about what it’s like to hang out, driving around aimlessly doing nothing. Turns out it’s pretty mundane and uneventful. And most of the characters behave like dicks half the time, which isn’t exactly conducive to a good time.

    Despite that, some people love this movie; it’s often cited as being nostalgic. Well, I can’t say it worked that way for me. Indeed, I’m kinda glad I didn’t know those people in school…

    3 out of 5

  • The Magnificent Seven (2016)

    2017 #57
    Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Magnificent Seven

    Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

    The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

    What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve Martin, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

    The magnificent action

    Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

    The diverse seven

    I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

    Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

    4 out of 5

    The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.