Coco (2017)

Featured

2018 #109
Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Coco

Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

The magic of music

Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

Colourful vistas

Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

Coco is a good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

4 out of 5

The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

Advertisements

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

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

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

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

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

Fisticuffs!

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

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

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

Miss Selina Kyle

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

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

The Ripper approaches...

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

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

4 out of 5

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

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

aka Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

2017 #163
Robert Wiene | 77 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Germany / silent (German) | U

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The poster child for German Expressionist cinema, as well as featuring “cinema’s first true mad doctor” and “cinema’s first unreliable narrator” (at least according to David Cairns on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray — I haven’t verified those statements for myself), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari certainly has a lot to unpack for a film that’s barely an hour-and-a-quarter long. Or does it? Because one has to wonder if there’s an element of style over substance here.

“A mystery story told in the Poe manner,” according to the original Variety review, the titular Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) is the host of a fairground attraction, and his eponymous cabinet contains Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who Caligari controls — at the fair, to answer questions from the audience; and at night, to do his evil bidding, including murder. Caligari’s activities come to the attention of young Franzis (Friedrich Feher), who attempts to uncover the truth about the doctor and expose him.

But the most famous thing about Caligari by far is not the storyline or the characters, but the visual style. Painted backdrops evoke a landscape straight out of a nightmare: jagged lines and stark monochromatic shapes (this isn’t just a film that happens to be filmed without colour, it feels black and white), the give the impression of the winding streets of a town and its locales, without actually being one. The implied structures tower over the characters, leaning in above, creating an oppressive and unnerving atmosphere, while their total lack of reality evoke theatre more than the literalism we’re now used to from film. The make-up and performances are the same: heightened; dreamlike — or nightmarish.

Impractical architecture

Which may be entirely appropriate given the film’s framing narrative, which (spoilers!) introduce an ending that’s a little bit “and it was all a dream”. Or was it? Well, that depends how you interpret what happens. The bookends were apparently added to help sell the film to the public, framing its fantastical narrative in something more grounded. The screenwriters weren’t happy — as Lotte H. Eisner writes (in the MoC booklet), “the result of these modifications was to falsify the action and ultimately to reduce it to the ravings of a madman. The film’s [screenwriters], Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had had the very different intention of unmasking the absurdity of asocial authority, represented by Dr. Caligari.” Well, the tacked-on ending doesn’t necessarily negate such an interpretation, you just need to fill in the blanks to get there yourself.

For example, there’s what Cairns calls his “Mulholland Drive theory”: that what we witness is all true, until the point that Franzis sees the asylum director is Caligari; from there until the reveal that Franzis is an asylum patient is a fantasy. Evidence in favour of this: everything goes implausibly swimmingly for our hero that section, from easily recruiting the asylum staff to finding (as Cairns puts it) “Caligari’s second cabinet, in which he keeps his entire backstory.” It’s a fun reading, even though it’s clearly a case of projecting an interpretation onto the film that wasn’t intended by the makers.

One that fits better, perhaps, is that Franzis’ flashbacks aren’t merely “the ravings of a madman”, but he’s telling the truth, and that somehow between the end of his flashbacks (which see Caligari locked up in his own asylum) and where we join the framing narrative (with Franzis locked in the asylum and Caligari in charge), the evil doctor has reasserted his authority and captured his accuser. Of course, that requires a leap — how does Caligari regain control? Why don’t we see it happen? Well, we don’t see it happen because that wasn’t what the makers intended.

Suspicious activity

And so we come back to “it was all a dream”. Maybe that’s the best explanation — the writers may’ve hated it, but in some respects it saves them from themselves: Cairns’ visual essay highlights a bunch of plot holes, inconsistencies, and confusions, not to mention issues of character motivations and actions (“in a way it makes no sense to speak of character motivation in a mad man’s fantasy”), all of which you can hand-wave away if “it was all a dream”. This is why I wondered if it was style over substance. The sets, the make-up, the performances — all fantastically atmospheric. The story, the characters, their actions — not such great shakes.

But maybe that’s okay. After all, why not? Director Robert Wiene and his crew did a fantastic job of bringing a surreal nightmare to life, and nightmares seldom feature plausible storylines.

4 out of 5

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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

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

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

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

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

MVPs not NPCs

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5

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

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

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

Avengers: Infinity War

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

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

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

Avengers (partially) assembled

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

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

Science meets magic

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

(Spoilers follow.)

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

Thor and Rabbit, off on a whirlwind adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanos

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

5 out of 5

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

The Dark Tower (2017)

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

The Dark Tower

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

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

Strut

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

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

Slinging guns

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

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

3 out of 5

The Dark Tower is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5

Shrek 2 (2004)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek 2

Not so far, far away…

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 93 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 19th May 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 2nd July 2004
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $919.8 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, The Love Guru)
Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop, Norbit)
Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels, The Holiday)
Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, The Skin I Live In)
John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Fish Called Wanda)
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins, The Princess Diaries)
Jennifer Saunders (Muppet Treasure Island, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie)
Rupert Everett (An Ideal Husband, St. Trinian’s)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)
Kelly Asbury (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs Aliens, Sausage Party)

Screenwriters
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Pip)
Joe Stillman (Shrek, Planet 51)
J. David Stem (The Rugrats Movie, The Smurfs)
David N. Weiss (All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Smurfs 2)

Story by
Andrew Adamson (Shrek the Third, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig — even more loosely than last time, though.


The Story
Newlyweds Shrek and Fiona travel to meet her parents, the King and Queen of Far Far Away. They’re less than pleased about their daughter marrying an ogre, especially as the King made a deal with Fairy Godmother for her son, Prince Charming, to be Fiona’s husband — and she insists that bargain be fulfilled.

Our Heroes
Shrek and Donkey, off another whirlwind adventure! After Shrek has a lover’s tiff with his new bride, he sets off to try to make himself what he thinks she wants: human.

Our Villain
Fairy Godmother might seem sweet and helpful, but she actually runs a factory with oppressed workers (they don’t even have dental!) and is manipulating the King so her son can become his heir.

Best Supporting Character
When Fairy Godmother orders the King to deal with Shrek, he seeks out a renowned ogre hunter: Puss in Boots. He may look like an adorable little kitty, but he’s a devil with a sword.

Memorable Quote
“It looks like we’re up chocolate creek without a Popsicle stick!” — Gingerbread Man

Memorable Scene
As a party begins at which Prince Charming will kiss Fiona and make her fall in love with him, Fairy Godmother entertains the guests with a rendition of Holding Out for a Hero — as Shrek and friends storm the castle to rescue his wife.

Memorable Music
The use of pop songs was a defining characteristic of the first Shrek, so naturally that continues here. However, there are also a lot more diegetic songs this time: Jennifer Saunders gets two musical numbers as Fairy Godmother (one an amusing riff on typical Disney numbers, the other mentioned above), plus Tom Waits and Nick Cave both sing (as the same character). The film also includes two really good covers of Holding Out for a Hero (the second, by Frou Frou, plays over the credits), which is some kind of achievement.

Making of / Letting the Side Down
For the UK release, two minor roles were redubbed: Doris the Ugly Stepsister, voiced by chat show host Larry King originally, was replaced by chat show host Jonathan Ross; and the red carpet announcer, voiced by Joan Rivers in the US, was replaced by Kate Thornton, who also must’ve done red carpet stuff at some point, I dunno. I guess it seemed like a fun idea at the time — the idea, presumably, was to localise famous voices with ones that would be better-known in other countries — but they shouldn’t’ve bothered: it’s just distracting, and neither replacement gives a very convincing performance. I think this was the first time such voice localisation had been done, and it seemed to kick off a minor fad for it. I thought it had gone away, but they recently defaced Kung Fu Panda 3 with a similar trick.

Previously on…
Shrek 2 picks up pretty closely from the end of Shrek — you probably need to see that to make full sense of this one.

Next time…
A further two sequels followed, plus a spin-off movie (which has its own spin-offs, including a six-season TV series). There’s also a 4D theme park attraction (which uses a plot that was rejected for Shrek 2) and numerous TV specials. There are always rumours of the franchise getting resurrected, too.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Animated Film, Original Song (Accidentally in Love))
2 Saturn Award nominations (Animated Film, DVD Special Edition)
7 Annie Award nominations (Animated Feature, Animated Effects, Directing, Music, Storyboarding, Voice Acting (Antonio Banderas), Writing)
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (again!)

Verdict

Having said Shrek has aged and dated, I think Shrek 2 has fared better. Arguably the first one has more pure originality, giving birth to an irreverent fairytale meta-verse, but Shrek 2 expands on those building blocks and plays with the ideas. There are lots of fun movie spoofs (though many are from the same era, so their effectiveness could partly be nostalgia), the climax is a legitimately good action sequence (see Memorable Scene), and there’s even a decent thematic throughline about what you’re prepared to do or give up for the one you love. Plus the animation looks a lot more polished — three years makes a huge difference in computer animation, especially in the early noughties. The first one has its moments, for sure, and perhaps some of them are better or more memorable too, but as an overall film I prefer the sequel.

Shrek (2001)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Shrek

The greatest fairy tale never told.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 16th May 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 29th June 2001
Budget: $60 million
Worldwide Gross: $484.4 million

Stars
Mike Myers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Cat in the Hat)
Eddie Murphy (Coming to America, Dreamgirls)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, Gangs of New York)
John Lithgow (Cliffhanger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Directors
Andrew Adamson (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away)
Vicky Jenson (Shark Tale, Post Grad)

Screenwriters
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
Joe Stillman (Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Gulliver’s Travels)
Roger S.H. Schulman (Balto, Mulan II)

Based on
Shrek!, a picture book by William Steig.


The Story
When his swamp is overrun with fairytale creatures, ogre Shrek sets off to confront the man responsible, Lord Farquaad. To get his land back, Shrek must rescue the Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded castle, so that Farquaad can marry her. But all is not as it appears…

Our Hero
Shrek is a grumpy Scottish-accented ogre who just wants to be left alone in his swamp, but events conspire to get in his way. Of course, as things transpire, he really has a heart of gold.

Our Villain
Men of his stature are in short supply, though there are those who think little of him — it’s Lord Farquaad, who wants Fiona to be his bride primarily so he can become king.

Best Supporting Character
Shrek’s new best friend (whether he likes it or not), wise-cracking ass Donkey, gets many of the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Gingerbread Man: “Do you know… the Muffin Man?”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man.”
Lord Farquaad: “Yes, I know the Muffin Man. Who lives on Drury Lane?”
Gingerbread Man: “Well, she’s married to the Muffin Man…”
Lord Farquaad: “The Muffin Man?”
Gingerbread Man: “The Muffin Man!
Lord Farquaad: “She’s married to the Muffin Man…”

Memorable Scene
As Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey travel back to Lord Farquaad, they’re jumped upon by Robin Hood (who, for no apparent reason, has a French accent) and his Merry Men, attempting to rescue Fiona by, in part, singing a merry song. But she doesn’t want rescuing and so goes all Matrix on their merry arses.

Memorable Music
As part of its generally irreverent take on myths and fairytales, Shrek is laden with contemporary popular music. It was all very modern at the time, but, 17 years on, it’s obviously dated itself, sounding distinctly early-millennium-y now.

Technical Wizardry
The overall animation quality may be looking a bit dated now, but Shrek hails from the era when every major new computer-animated movie was breaking ground in the field, in one way or another. In Shrek‘s case, it was the ability to realistically animate hair and grass.

Next time…
To date there have been three sequel movies, a spin-off movie (which then has its own world of attendant spin-offs, including a six-season TV series), a 4D theme park attraction (which was included in 3D on some DVD releases of the film), plus numerous TV specials and the like, as well as a stage musical version. There are constant rumours of the franchise getting a big-screen continuation, too.

Awards
1 Oscar (Animated Feature)
1 Oscar nomination (Adapted Screenplay)
1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)
5 BAFTA nominations (Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Music, Sound, Special Visual Effects)
1 BAFTA Children’s Award (Film)
1 Saturn Award (DVD Special Edition)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Writing, Music)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Theatrical Feature, Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Writing in an Animated Feature, Voice Acting by a Male Performer in an Animated Feature (Eddie Murphy), Individual Achievement for Effects Animation, Individual Achievement for Music Score an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature, Individual Achievement for Storyboarding in an Animated Feature)
4 Annie Award nominations (Individual Achievement for Character Animation (x3), Individual Achievement for Production Design in an Animated Feature)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
Nominated for the Palme d’Or (seriously)

Verdict

DreamWorks’ irreverent riff on fairytale animations was a breath of fresh air back in 2001, allowing them to net the first Best Animated Feature Oscar ahead of Disney or Pixar. A decade and a half of imitators have taken the shine off that somewhat, as have advances in technology (old CGI ages worse than old cel animation), but it remains an amusing and quotable film, with a surprisingly strong moral message at its heart.

The Boss Baby (2017)

2018 #12
Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

Sibling rivalry

For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

Parents are so gullible

Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

3 out of 5

Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.