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.

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The Hangover Parts II & III

In today’s roundup:

  • The Hangover Part II (2011)
  • The Hangover Part III (2013)


    The Hangover Part II
    (2011)

    2018 #56
    Todd Phillips | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / R

    The Hangover Part II

    The Hangover was a surprisingly big hit back in 2009 (was it really so long ago?), so naturally it spawned a sequel. That went down less well, mired in criticisms of just being a rehash of the original. I don’t know what people expected, really — The Hangover was sold on its high-concept setup, so naturally they repeat that for the sequel.

    For those who don’t remember said setup, it’s a bunch of mates gathering for a bachelor party, only they wake up the next morning with no memories of the night before, surrounded by evidence that a bunch of crazy random stuff has happened, and one of their party missing — in the first film it’s the groom, which naturally has potential to upend the wedding; in this one it’s the bride’s brother, which is almost as bad. So they must retrace their steps to find the missing person, along the way learning what the hell they got up to the night before.

    The devil, then, is in the detail. The big change is that the first film was set in Las Vegas and this one is in Bangkok. Other than that… look, I’m not going to list specifics, because what would be the point? But as I say, it’s the same broad outline, only with different specific events. I suppose I can see why some might feel they’d seen all that before, but when so many movies have the same plot without even meaning to, can we really begrudge a sequel for sticking to the same shape and structure as its forebear?

    Monk-eying around

    I wonder if part of the reason some people were so disappointed was their heightened expectations. The first was a very popular film, so I guess its fans expected a lot of a sequel. Receiving something that was almost a copy must’ve felt inferior. Personally, I only thought the original was okay — quite amusing, for what it was. I thought the sequel was at least equally as good. If anything, being free of expectations, I enjoyed Part II more. Thinking back on it, I didn’t actually laugh that often… but, somehow, I didn’t mind. So I guess I… kind of like the characters? And so hanging out with them for another couple of hours… was enough? Well, I didn’t expect to have that reaction.

    Anyway, clearly fans of The Hangover need to approach this rehash sequel with caution; and if you hated Part I then Part II is samey enough that you don’t want to bother. But if, like me, you enjoyed the original well enough but that was all, this follow-up might surprise you.

    3 out of 5

    The Hangover Part III
    (2013)

    2018 #102
    Todd Phillips | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Hangover Part III

    Clearly the people in charge of the Hangover series took on board criticism that Part II just rehashed Part I’s plot, because Part III takes the same characters and spins them off onto a wholly different narrative. There isn’t even a hangover involved. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either: based on ratings found across the web, it’s the least popular of the trilogy.

    Picking up after the events of the second film, it begins with Chow escaping from prison, leading a former criminal rival to force the Wolf Pack to track him down. Cue the gang finding themselves involved in a heist in Tijuana, before events take them back to Vegas to bring the series full circle. In the most fundamental change to the series’ MO, these events unfold linearly, meaning it ditches the piecing-the-night-together element of the previous two films. You can see why they tried to put the same characters through a new crazy adventure, but it’s missing something without that mystery structure.

    Even worse, it’s just not as funny and the story isn’t as engaging. Some people say it’s completely humourless, which I think is a bit harsh, but it’s also a more serious film than it should be. The stakes are too high, and the need to construct a story that progresses sequentially leads to a focus on plot. Say what you will about the repeated structure in the first two films, but it allowed for the insertion of almost any random situation that seemed funny — what occurred the night before only has to just about hang together, because the guys are re-encountering their adventures out of order and without all the facts. Here, with the characters sober and the story unfurling in chronological order, there must be clear cause-and-effect from one scene to the next. That seems to have hampered the writers’ funny-bones. It almost becomes a comedic crime thriller rather than just a comedy — albeit a ludicrous, derivative one — which feels like it’s missing the point.

    A model heist

    It’s also too long, especially when it moves onto an epilogue that seems to keep reaching an endpoint only for there to be another scene. Eventually there’s a montage of clips from all the previous films, which seems to be under the impression this was some epic saga and something more significant than it actually is. And then, to rub salt in the wound, there’s a mid-credits scene that suggests a better Hangover movie than the one we just watched.

    Apparently the lead cast members all took convincing to return for this film, eventually being swayed by a $15 million payday (plus gross points). I mean, fair play, I’d appear in worse movies than this if I was being offered $15 million. At least it’s kind of alright, depending on how forgiving you’re feeling, with a few funny lines and bits; but it is also definitely the weakest and least memorable of the trilogy.

    2 out of 5

    * Just as with the first film, the BBFC took issue with some of the photographs shown during the end credits, and so they were cropped to secure a 15. The version streaming on Amazon is unedited, however, meaning that technically what I watched hasn’t been passed by the BBFC. But there’s nothing there that your average fifteen-year-old hasn’t already seen on the internet anyway. ^

  • 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.

    My Cousin Rachel (2017)

    2018 #33
    Roger Michell | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    My Cousin Rachel

    Adapted from a lesser-known Daphne Du Maurier novel (previously filmed in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland, and here relocated from Cornwall to Devon to avoid comparisons to Poldark (really)), My Cousin Rachel is the story of an orphaned young man, Philip (Sam Claflin), who’s raised by his older cousin Ambrose until the latter’s health forces him to leave for Florence. There Ambrose falls in love with their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and marries her, but shortly after dies. His final letter to Philip implies Rachel may’ve had a part in his demise. When she arrives at their estate in England, Philip is determined to confront her, but soon finds himself entranced by her, as does everyone. Is she a scheming murderess intent on using her wiles to acquire the family’s estate, or did Philip’s imagination get the better of him?

    That mystery is really the heart of My Cousin Rachel, which unfurls as a classy, lightly Gothic melodrama. It’s a puzzle that’s not so much investigated as gradually hinted at, leaving the audience to make up their own mind. It certainly was successful in having me change my opinion on where it was headed multiple times. The pace is fairly leisurely, which some reviewers have found to be trying; but while it’s certainly a slow burner, for me that was part of why it worked. The passage of time and the opportunity it grants for overthinking sways Philip’s mind hither and thither, and so the film gives the viewer similar space to think, for their opinion to shift, back and forth. It makes you a part of his paranoia.

    Who's playing who?

    Rachel Weisz is typically excellent, delivering a finely balanced performance that is at once charming and suspicious — is Rachel simply quietly enigmatic, or she hiding a scheming and deadly nature? Sam Claflin is very effective as the hot-headed, easily-led young man at the centre of the story, exhibiting these characteristics which sell Philip’s flip-flopping opinions, which could otherwise have come across as inconsistent. You can believe their passion of each other — or, certainly, his for her — which leads to some earthy bits that might surprise anyone expecting a quaint Heritage melodrama. Thrusting among the flowers aside, the overall style does evoke those Sunday evening costume dramas (you can see why they were wary of a Poldark comparison), as does the pretty photography by DP Mike Eley — it’s not the most outright gorgeous film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a bit of a looker.

    My Cousin Rachel’s unhurried storytelling may put off some viewers, but if you settle into its rhythm then it’s a paranoia-fuelled guessing game that will keep you rethinking the truth up until its closing moments.

    4 out of 5

    My Cousin Rachel is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Annihilation (2018)

    2018 #45
    Alex Garland | 115 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Annihilation

    Many column inches (and even more tweets) have been penned about Paramount’s decision to relegate director Alex Garland’s second third film straight to Netflix outside the US, Canada, and China, so I presume the pros and cons of that move have been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Personally, I’m on the fence: it’s disappointing not to see intelligent sci-fi being given a shot at the box office, but I’m one of those people who’s 50/50 on whether I go to see it or just wait for disc/streaming/etc. (I’ve not even seen The Shape of Water, for example, although that’s partly due to a dearth of convenient screenings during its brief theatrical appearance. Conversely, I did go to Arrival.) Anyway, it is what it is at this point, so let’s move on to the film itself.

    Loosely based on the acclaimed novel by Jeff VanderMeer (reportedly Garland read the book once then wrote the screenplay from memory), it follows biologist, academic, and former member of the Army, Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing a year ago during a secretive mission. After he suddenly reappears, apparently with no memory of his time away but with some severe medical problems, the couple are scooped up by a military organisation investigating Area X, a top-secret quarantined zone affected by an unexplained phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Various teams have been sent inside the Shimmer, but Kane is the only person to ever return. As his health deteriorates, Lena, desperate for answers, joins the latest squad to venture inside. That’s where stuff gets crazy…

    Squad goals

    The first thing Annihilation made me think of was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. The connection was initially triggered by the score: the ambient soundtrack by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury reminded me so much of Arrival’s that I had to check this wasn’t a last work by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Once I spotted that, the other similarities in the story leapt out: they’re both thoughtful sci-fi parables about a female university lecturer being co-opted into a military operation to investigate a strange extraterrestrial presence on Earth, while also remembering her family life in flashbacks.

    Despite Paramount’s insistence that the film was too intelligent for non-US audiences (you can take a moment to laugh at that notion if you like), Annihilation is perhaps more accessible than Arrival, at least initially. Whereas Villeneuve’s film played like a character drama, Garland’s has a strong adventure-movie vein, also laced with elements of the horror genre. It’s still not a mile-a-minute thrill-ride, but, if you wanted, you could engage with it on the level of a quest through an alien event, encountering strange phenomena and creatures, with events of life-threatening jeopardy. However, for all the original sci-fi ideas, it does also touch on weightier, more human psychological issues — as the Empire review summarised it, “depression, grief and the human propensity for self-destruction.”

    All the better to eat you with

    Naturally this material is carried by the cast. Portman makes for an interesting lead. Clearly damaged by grief, she’s quite a cold figure, which may distance her from some viewers in the way it does from some of her team mates. But there’s more to it than that, and Portman delivers subtle nuances that hint at more beneath the surface. The rest of her all-female squad — played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez — all have distinct personalities, all get brief subplots and moments, and they’re mostly managed with an equal level of understatement. Perhaps the best is Thompson, whose calm, gently heartfelt performance is quietly superb, and even more striking as it marks a huge contrast to her star-making turn in Thor: Ragnarok just a few months ago. As a pair of films to be a calling-card for her skills, one could barely ask for more.

    A lot of disappointment about the lack of a theatrical release stems to not being able to see these visuals on a cinema screen; not being able to experience the audio with a cinema sound system. Well, that partly depends on your own setup at home, of course. Setting that aside, though, while there are certainly some very striking visuals, it wasn’t as consistently stunning as some reviews made it sound. I’m not saying it wouldn’t benefit from the big screen, especially if you’re particularly fond of that experience, but I didn’t feel I was missing much scale by watching at home. I felt similarly about the sound design, though I do say that as someone with a 7.1 system. For spectacle, the intricate and colourful end credits are the most striking bit — I’m certain they benefitted from my viewing the film in 4K HDR.

    Scared of the dark?

    However you get to see it, writer-director Alex Garland has crafted another sci-fi mystery/thriller that engages on multiple levels. For me it was somewhat damaged by the hype, perhaps a result of US reviewers frantically urging people to get out and see it to prove that Paramount’s lack of faith was a mistake. While I didn’t instantly love it in the same way as, say, Arrival, or Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, it’s undoubtedly a fascinating, thought-provoking slice of science-fiction — and a much-needed critical success for the “Netflix Original” brand after a couple of recent duds. I’d also say it places Garland ahead of genre contemporaries like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Okay, he’s not quite Denis Villeneuve, but he’s a lot closer than the others.

    4 out of 5

    Annihilation is available on Netflix in most of the world now.

    Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

    2017 #164
    Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

    Murder on the Orient Express

    Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

    So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

    The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

    Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

    Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

    A dangerous liaison?

    And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

    Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

    Classical elegance

    And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

    4 out of 5

    Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

    Mute (2018)

    2018 #31
    Duncan Jones | 126 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.00:1 | UK & Germany / English & German | 15

    Mute

    For those in the know, Mute was probably one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. The new film from writer-director Duncan Jones, who made waves with his excellent debut, the low-key sci-fi mystery/drama Moon, and backed it up with the strong sci-fi thriller Source Code, this was his return to that genre after an ultimately futile aside into studio blockbuster-making with Warcraft. More than that, it’s a passion project that’s been gestating for 16 years, rejected by everyone else and now only made possible by Netflix. Greatness was expected. Unfortunately, instead it’s been met with critical derision (11% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience apathy (5.4 out of 10 and dropping on IMDb; 2.2 out of 5 on Letterboxd and heading in the same direction). Empire’s review perhaps summed it up best: “a crushing disappointment… sadly, almost tragically, not worth the wait.”

    Set in near-future Berlin, the setting is probably the best part of the film. It’s extrapolated from the present to give a very convincing world, where technology has advanced in ways that already feel just around the corner. The production design also owes a huge debt to Blade Runner, though clearly on a lower budget. That doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, just familiar. It’s not quite as nihilistic as Blade Runner, though — again, this is our world a few years hence, and there are still malls and diners and libraries and other such mundanities.

    Leo's looking

    The protagonist is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender getting by in a world not built for him: he’s Amish, meaning he avoids using most technology, and he’s mute, thanks to a childhood accident. As the story unfurls he has to engage with a bunch of tech for the first time, and when he comes up against devices that are only voice-controlled then he’s got a problem. I’m not sure if this is designed as a social commentary on how some people struggle now and it’ll be even worse in the world to come, or if it’s just a convenient way to put more obstacles in Leo’s path. I’m tempted towards the latter, but that’s okay. It seems his muteness is a barrier to some viewers, with critics describing him as a blank canvas, either unknowable or personality-free. I think that’s a bit harsh, but Leo does fall into the familiar bracket of the “strong, silent type”. He can’t express himself vocally, obviously, but rather than that leading to him letting his emotion out in other ways he seems to have repressed it. I got the impression that he was now having to deal with certain feelings, and how they’re expressed, for the very first time.

    That’d be because Leo is now in love, with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired waitress at the club he works in. Naadirah clearly has secrets, both from Leo and from us, and when she goes missing Leo has to venture into the seedy underworld of future-Berlin as he tries to track her down. If the overt Blade Runner stylings hadn’t already clued you in, this is very much a noir detective movie, full to the brim with dark people and dark deeds. It gets grim indeed at times, more thematically than visually (though there are a couple of scenes of surgery, if that’s your particular bête noire), and this is where one begins to wonder if Jones has full control over his film’s tone.

    Gone girl

    That’s not much of a problem in Leo’s storyline — I’d wager you could recut Mute to focus on him entirely and create a more straightforward future-noir tale — but rather in the concurrently-told B-plot. This side of the film focuses on Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an army surgeon who deserted and now plies his trade for gangsters, hoping to afford passage back to the US for himself and his daughter. Bill works alongside his best mate Duck (Justin Theroux), and much of their half of the film plays more like a hang-out movie, just spending time with the characters as they go about their business. As they mooch around sharing comical buddy banter, it’s a definite tonal counterpoint to Leo’s story. That’s not necessarily a problem unless you want a straight-up serious noir, but later Bill and Duck’s thread diverges into some heavy territory; stuff that some viewers would find distasteful no matter what, but which is made more so as their chirpy-funsters act is allowed to roll through it.

    For this reason I thought Mute was more effective in its first hour-or-so than in its second. Others disagree, calling it either slow or disjointed, because the links between Leo’s and Cactus Bill’s storylines are not immediately evident. I didn’t think the pace was a problem: it’s gradually drawing you into this world, setting out the mystery and then peeling back more layers as Leo begins his hunt. It’s not as dreamily atmospheric as Blade Runner 2049 in this regard, but it’s closer to that than to an action-thriller, which makes me tempted to say pace issues are a viewer problem rather than a film one. In the first half, at least, because by the second it does seem to go on a bit. As for the disconnect between the storylines, it didn’t bother me at all. Links are actually established early on, and you know these two halves are going to come together eventually — that’s how narrative structure works.

    After surgery drinks

    The idea some reviews are peddling that “maybe everyone else rejected the Mute screenplay for a reason” is disingenuous. If a decent exec wanted to make this kind of movie (i.e. a mid-budget sci-fi noir) then they definitely could have seen its potential. But few studios are interested in that kind of work anymore, for reasons that barely make sense, and so the film ended up passed to Netflix. One wonders if their hands-off approach is part of the problem. People complain about studio interference, and clearly that can scupper projects, especially ones with unique voices, but execs who are good at their jobs do improve movies. Jones has said that, after Netflix bought the project, they just gave him the money and let him make whatever; and they gave him final cut too, so when the finished film came in and they weren’t sure about it, they just went ahead and released it as-was. Maybe if someone had helped him develop the project better, had helped him even out the tone, or tighten up the pacing, we’d be looking at a great movie right now.

    Instead, I don’t think the Mute we’ve got is anything like as unremittingly terrible as some reviews would have you believe, but it is a tonally strange film. I’m not sure it works as a whole, but bits really do. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of it becoming a cult classic, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll all be reevaluating it. Before its release Jones did say it would be a Marmite film — that some people would love it and others would absolutely hate it. Broad reception is undoubtedly hewing to the latter end of the spectrum; and while I’d love to be the former instead, there are too many inconsistent oddities for me to embrace it. I think it may someday be worth a revisit though, which is not something you can say about a genuinely bad film.

    3 out of 5

    Mute is available exclusively on Netflix now and forever.

    The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

    2018 #18
    Julius Onah | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Chinese

    The Cloverfield Paradox

    “Logic doesn’t apply to any of this.”

    So says Tam, played by Zhang Ziyi, about halfway through this third movie in the Cloverfield sort-of-series. She’s talking about the crazy circumstances they’ve found themselves mixed up in, but she may as well be talking about the movie itself.

    Set in the near future, the energy crisis has reached a point where it threatens the continued existence of mankind as we know it. Our last hope is an experimental particle accelerator that could provide all the energy we need, but it’s so potentially dangerous that it’s being tested in space. After almost two years of failed attempts the accelerator finally works… until it fails spectacularly, crippling the station. When the systems come back online, the crew realise they’ve lost something: the Earth. And that’s just the start of the crazy shit that’s gonna go down.

    One worried astronaut

    The Cloverfield Paradox started life as a spec script titled God Particle, which was at some point Cloverfieldised by J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. The writer who originated the project, Oren Uziel, has said that “sometimes [sci-fi] movies tend to be more concerned with whatever the obstacle is, and I’m more concerned with the characters’ relationships to each other and that obstacle I guess. So to me, when you say it’s a contained astronaut movie, I’m just curious what those astronauts are going through and what they’re experiencing and what the character story is, and what specifically the threat is is often less of a concern to me.” Oh boy, is that apparent in the finished film. Whatever else Abrams & co changed to make this a Cloverfield film (and I’ll get to that later), I guess it’s Uziel’s original work that’s responsible for the half-arsed, inconsistent, and poorly-explained threats that the astronauts must face. No spoilers, but the explanation for what’s going on (which is so obvious that I don’t think even the film itself tried to play it as a twist in the end) doesn’t even vaguely begin to explain some of the random shit that happens. Uziel just throws sci-fi or horror ideas at the screen one after the other, with no care for if it hangs together consistently. Consequently, it doesn’t.

    Unfortunately, his alleged interest in character hasn’t resulted in anything worthwhile either. At best they’re broadly defined archetypes — the Funny One; the Noble Captain; the One With A Tragedy In Her Past That We’ll Eventually Learn And It Will Affect Her Decisions; etc. At worst they’re utterly blank, with little or no time devoted to establishing or developing them. There’s a strong cast of good actors — people like Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who gets the best of a poor lot), David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris O’Dowd (who at least gets to be funny) — but they’re left to battle bravely against the mediocrity, and often terrible dialogue that comes with it, as they attempt to instil any kind of personality into their roles. They’re fighting a losing battle.

    Two worried astronauts

    Suffering most of all is Roger Davies as Michael, who’s the star of his own subplot back on Earth. Davies is probably aware this is his big break (his previous roles are mainly in things like Sky’s football soap Dream Team and Channel 5’s attempt at a soap, Family Affairs), but he’s lumbered with some of the clunkiest material of all. He struggles gamely to make Michael seem like a plausible human being while delivering first-draft-level dialogue, but I don’t think even Daniel Day Lewis could make this material work. An item of trivia on IMDb (source uncited, as usual) claims that all the Michael stuff was added later (in reshoots, I presume) to strengthen the film’s Cloverfield connection. It feels like that too: his stuff is completely divorced from the main thrust of the story aboard the space station, and it looks like it’s been achieved on as few sets with as few additional characters as possible.

    Indeed, almost everything that’s explicitly Cloverfield-y smacks of reshoots. There’s a newscast about the eponymous “Cloverfield Paradox” that’s all inserts, i.e. it’s on a screen with none of the main cast also in shot. The main characters do refer to the paradox later on, but I’m pretty sure they only ever called it “the paradox”. (Also, side note, I’m not sure anyone involved in the making of this film knows what a paradox actually is.) The space station is actually called “Cloverfield”, but that’s mainly (only?) seen on CG exterior shots and green-screened monitors. Perhaps I’m forgetting something — perhaps there was a Cloverfield reference or two in the main body of the movie — but the vast majority of them could just have been shoved in during post-production. And if they weren’t, they feel like they were.

    Three worried astronauts

    I enjoyed the original Cloverfield and I liked the idea of them creating a franchise that was Twilight Zone-esque — movies connected by theme and style rather than plot. It seemed like a good way of getting original sci-fi movies made at a time when Hollywood only wants franchises. But we’re two sequels in now, and they were both marred by the Cloverfield elements forced upon them. And whereas 10 Cloverfield Lane was a very good movie before its tacked-on finale, The Cloverfield Paradox is pretty terrible throughout. We’re on a downward curve.

    What was once set to be the expensive big-screen older brother to Black Mirror is now cast in its shadow: they’re both debuting on Netflix, but while Charlie Brooker’s TV series benefits from months of enormous anticipation and glowing reviews, Cloverfield was dumped just a couple of hours after its first trailer premiered, presumably in the hope you’d watch it before the reviews rolled in. When you combine that with the fact it was meant to be a theatrical release but Paramount ended up flogging it to Netflix as one of their “originals”, you have to think that even the studios knew it was a dud.

    2 out of 5

    Blade Runner 2049 3D (2017)

    Rewatchathon 2018 #5
    Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK, Hungary & Canada / English, Finnish, Japanese, Hungarian, Russian, Somali & Spanish | 15 / R

    Blade Runner 2049

    With its home media release comes my second viewing of Blade Runner 2049 (my review from the first is here); and, I must confess, it kinda makes me wish I’d gone back to see it on the big screen again…

    First things first, though, what the title of this post promises: the 3D. Blade Runner 2049 was shot in 2D, but that’s commonplace for 3D releases nowadays — post-conversion has reached the point where its quality and, I presume, cost effectiveness means that it’s seen as the preferable option by studios (who’d’ve predicted that in the format’s early days? Some people still blame the bad post-conversion jobs on films like Clash of the Titans for damaging 3D’s prospects as a popular format). In the case of this film, however, I presume it was an artistic decision as much as a practical one: cinematographer Roger Deakins is, I believe, no fan of 3D. Indeed, he’s publicly expressed that his preferred version of Blade Runner 2049 is the 2D one — and the regular 2D version at that, not the one specially formatted for IMAX. Nonetheless, he also personally supervised the film’s conversion to 3D. I guess that’s some kind of dedication.

    Distance

    It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, then, that this is not a film designed to show off in 3D — but that’s not to say it’s bad. Rather, what it most often offers is a subtle, believable delineation of space. Confined rooms and the distance between objects within them all feels very real, very plausible. In some respects that just ties into the film’s overall style: it’s a beautifully shot movie, no doubt (give Deakins the bloody Oscar!), but only occasionally does it do that in a heightened way. Think of the scenes in K’s apartment, for instance, or his boss’ office, or several other locations along those lines. They look very naturalistic, which is surely part of the point.

    Now, there are other times when the added emphasis of depth highlights things — Wallace’s little drone whatsits make their presence more known, for example; how see-through Joi is at times becomes more apparent (the fact the background is ‘peeking through’ her is understandably clearer when you’re able to sense how far away that background is). At other times, wide-open scenery stretches for into the distance. One of the most visually standout locations was the old furnace that K’s memories lead him to — the size of the space, plus all the levels of pipes and gantries, makes for a lot of depth markers.

    Another was the office / seclusion chamber of the memory-maker — another large space, albeit empty this time, but I thought its isolating size felt clearer in 3D. That’s the kind of thing that can make quantifying the effect of 3D hard, especially for laypeople: sometimes it’s creating an effect that you don’t immediately notice (because it’s not poking you in the face or whatever), but if you directly compared it to a 2D version you’d see what it’s adding. I’m not going to argue Blade Runner 2049 is a demonstration piece for that particular quality, but one wonders how often it’s a factor.

    K's journey

    Setting the 3D aside, this was (as I said at the start) the second time I’d watched the film, and I found it to be almost a weird experience. Blade Runner 2049 is not a film that’s just about the answers to its own mysteries; but, nonetheless, knowing those answers, and knowing where the story was going and how long it was going to take to get there, made the second viewing a very different experience to the first. For one thing, it doesn’t feel like such a long film at all — it’s in no hurry, but the pace is measured, everything happens for a reason, unfurls with the space it needs. (I’d still be fascinated to see the reported four-hour cut though, or at least the deleted scenes from it.) Knowing the answers also refocuses your attention. K’s often-silent reactions to what he uncovers are a big part of the film, and that feels different when you know how things will pan out versus when you’re discovering them alongside him.

    Finally, swinging back round to the purely visual again, watching this particular movie at home came as a reminder of why the big screen can still matter. Deakins’ magnificent photography still looks incredible, of course, but those horizon-stretched vistas, or the tall city streets with their looming holographic advertisements, don’t have quite the same impact when they’re not being shown at more-or-less life size. I bet the IMAX version was a wonder…

    5 out of 5

    Blade Runner 2049 is released on DVD, Blu-ray, limited edition Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, limited edition 3D Blu-ray Steelbook, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, HMV-exclusive 3D & 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Steelbook, and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray gift set (not to mention being available from all good digital retailers) in the UK today.

    Get Out (2017)

    2017 #104
    Jordan Peele | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Get Out

    Writer-director Jordan Peele’s timely horror (or, according to some people, horror-comedy — I’ll come to that) has topped various “best of year” critics polls, including those in Sight & Sound and Empire magazines, and is now part of the awards season conversation, having been nominated for Best Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is many people’s pick for an Oscar nod too. It’s a good film… but is it that good?

    It’s the story of a guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), going to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The only complication is that Chris is black and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white. But it’s okay, her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are very liberal and keen to be welcoming to their daughter’s fella, even though they’ve accidentally arrived the same weekend as a large gathering of the family’s friends. And there’s something strange going on with their black housemaid and gardener too…

    Get Out unfurls with a slow-burn tension, where you can’t be sure that Chris isn’t just being paranoid. Well, we can be sure, because we know we’re watching a horror movie. In terms of that genre, it’s effectively creepy without indulging in many outright scares — it foregrounds an encroaching sense of unease rather than pure terror. It’s as much about the mystery of what’s going on, and in that regard it’s neatly littered with clues that either you can piece together or, with hindsight (or a second viewing), marvel at all the little blatant hints you missed.

    Everybody loves Chris

    The aspect that’s attracted so much praise beyond the usual genre constraints is its commentary on contemporary race-related issues. What it has to say is clear without being batter-you-round-the-head obvious. It satirises the casual racism of white, liberal, “woke” (as I believe the kids are saying nowadays) people, with a particular view on something akin to cultural appropriation — the point where white acceptance or praise of black people and their culture runs into being racism, just not of the ‘traditional’ sort. It’s more nuanced and current than your old-fashioned KKK-ing.

    It’s also where we run into the “comedy-horror” point. We usually think that satire = comedy, but Get Out demonstrates it doesn’t have to; or, at least, not in an overt, laugh-a-minute kind of way. I don’t think the comedy-horror label is accurate because, while it’s undoubtedly satirical, it’s not outright comedic. There’s a funny character/subplot about the antics of Chris’ friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but as he’s not actually very funny I don’t think that lends much credence to the idea this is a comedy. There’s the odd other laugh here and there, but no more than you’d expect from any movie that wasn’t concerned with being po-faced for every single second. In other words, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead.

    Everything's FINE

    As a film it’s mostly well made, with good performances in particular from Kaluuya, Whitford, and Betty Gabriel as the family’s maid. The most effective moment comes at the end, an aspect that was changed after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which now effectively plays on the audience’s expectations for what’s about to happen. That said, while there’s the odd moment like that to praise Peele’s direction, I didn’t think it was especially striking on the whole. The film’s certainly not without glaring faults, like the grating ‘comedy’ character I already mentioned, or a deluge of exposition at the start of act three that’s disappointingly clunky.

    This is why I’m not convinced by Get Out’s presence in those best-of-year conversations. Personally, I think it’s merely the timeliness of what it has to say that has put it in that position — perhaps, if we’re being cynical, even just white critics/voters being keen to signal their approval of its message. Or maybe the way it encapsulates and comments on things that are very pertinent in society right now is merit enough? Whether it’s the year’s best film or not, it deserves to be seen, not only for its commentary on contemporary issues, but simply as an entertaining horror-mystery.

    4 out of 5

    Get Out is available on Sky Cinema from today.