Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

Advertisements

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Revolutions

Everything that has a beginning
has an end.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 129 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 5th November 2003 (60 countries, including the UK and USA)
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $427.3 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 47 Ronin)
Laurence Fishburne (Boyz n the Hood, Mystic River)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Chocolat, Disturbia)
Hugo Weaving (Captain America: The First Avenger, Mortal Engines)

Directors
The Wachowskis (Bound, Jupiter Ascending)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer)


The Story
With Neo having rejected the destiny prescribed for him, but discovering his power is greater than previously thought possible, he sets out on a long-shot mission to save humanity, even as the machines prepare to destroy mankind’s last city.

Our Heroes
The trilogy centres on the actions of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, but in many respects they’re just part of an ensemble in this finale, with many other characters getting to be in command of screen time, including the likes of ace pilot Niobe, Neo-idoliser the Kid, and a whole bunch of citizens of Zion during the big battle.

Our Villains
The machines threaten the surviving humans, while in the Matrix the increasingly dominant Agent Smith threatens Neo’s chances to save them all.

Best Supporting Character
Amongst the many humans fighting to save Zion, perhaps the most noteworthy is the captain of the Armoured Personal Unit corps, Mifune, who’s as much of a badass as the guy he’s obviously named after.

Memorable Quote
“Everything that has a beginning has an end. I see the end coming, I see the darkness spreading. I see death.” — The Oracle

Memorable Scene
Before Reloaded there was much hype about the “Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths. Unfortunately the final result was marred by some iffy CGI and overshadowed by the freeway chase. Here, we get the sequel: the so-called “Super Burly Brawl”, in which Neo fights just one super-powered Agent Smith in what remains of the Matrix, and it’s a much more exciting, visually extraordinary climax.

Memorable Music
Don Davis’ score for the trilogy has always used a mix of electronic-y rock and more traditional orchestral music, but the epic final battle adds choral voices to the mix in a very effective way. Thankfully rejecting the idea that they sing just “oohs and aahs” or, even worse, “this is the one, see what he can do” in plain English, Davis instead had the choir sing the Pavamana Mantra, so it’s not just nice texture in the soundtrack but meaningful too.

Truly Special Effect
There’s nothing as obviously groundbreaking or original as in the other two films, but a lot of the effects still hold up exceptionally well 15 years down the line. It’s difficult to imagine how the battle of Zion (created through a mixture of live-action, miniatures, and CGI) could be achieved any better today.

Letting the Side Down
The untimely death of actress Gloria Foster, who played the Oracle in the first two films, necessitated her recasting for this final instalment. Unfortunately, her replacement just isn’t as good, seeming to struggle with her portentous dialogue.

Making of
Christopher Nolan gets a lot of credit for bringing regular films into the IMAX market (or vice versa, depending how you look at it) with actually shooting on the format for The Dark Knight (a notion copied since, obviously), but Revolutions was actually the first live-action feature film to be released in IMAX at the same time as its regular theatrical release.

Previously on…
The story began in The Matrix and continued in The Matrix Reloaded, while spin-off anime shorts The Animatrix and video game Enter the Matrix filled in some of the blanks.

Next time…
The story continued in MMORPG The Matrix Online, which ran from 2004 to 2009. Rumours of some kind of reboot or continuation flare up now and then.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
3 Saturn Award nominations (Science Fiction Film, Costumes, Special Effects)

Verdict

I used to think Revolutions was better than Reloaded, mainly because at least it brought everything to an end and didn’t have that confusing stuff with the Architect. But reflecting on the sequels now, I have to agree with the consensus that this isn’t as good — there’s nothing that matches the highway sequence for entertainment value, and, actually, the lack of overt philosophising is almost to its detriment. It does have its moments (see: Memorable Scene), and I do think it ultimately comes to powerful resolutions, but the journey to them doesn’t have the same spark.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Reloaded

Free Your Mind.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th May 2003 (US & others)
UK Release: 21st May 2003
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $742.1 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Point Break, Man of Tai Chi)
Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Contagion)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Red Planet, Unthinkable)
Hugo Weaving (Babe, Transformers)

Directors
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (Assassins, Sense8)


The Story
With just 72 hours until the machines arrive to destroy mankind’s last city, all ships are ordered to return home for its defence. But Morpheus still believes the answer to their salvation lies in the Matrix itself and what Neo is meant to do there.

Our Heroes
Neo is just a man, but within the Matrix has abilities and power beyond any other. As he journeys deeper in the fake-world’s workings, can he free mankind? Will his love for fellow freedom fighter Trinity get in his way? Is their captain, Morpheus, misguided in his belief that Neo is The One?

Our Villains
As hordes of machines drill down to the human city of Zion, a more pressing threat is Agent Smith, who has found a way to multiply himself and is on the warpath within the Matrix, with his sights set on Neo.

Best Supporting Character
The Merovingian is a snobby Frenchman (is there any other kind, ho ho) who holds prisoner a key program our heroes need access to. First, they’ll have to endure his philosophising; after, they’ll have to fend off the men he sends to kill them.

Memorable Quote
“Now consider the alternative. What if I am right? What if the prophecy is true? What if tomorrow the war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?” — Morpheus

Memorable Scene
The freeway chase. It’s so long it almost doesn’t count as just one scene, but it’s spectacular quarter-of-an-hour long action sequence packed to bursting with impressive stunts and effects.

Technical Wizardry
See above. The logistics of filming the sequence are mind-boggling. Now they’d just throw it all together in a computer with a bit of green screen for the actors, but back in the early ’00s they built a massive stretch of freeway and filmed most of the practical stunts for real — and it’s all the better for it, of course.

Truly Special Effect
Some of the CGI is a little ropey 15 years on (though the digital body doubles looked just as bad at the time as they do now, to be honest), but all of the real-world stuff with Zion and its ships still looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Depending on your point of view, the climax is either philosophically engaging or impenetrably incomprehensible. I feel like repeat viewings and time have made it more understandable, but it’s still suffused with more big ideas than people expect to find in their blockbuster movies.

Making of
The Matrix Reloaded” is a funny title when you think about it. I mean, it’s very much “from our perspective” — in the film’s world the Matrix has never stopped running, so it’s not being reloaded; it’s an allusion to computer-y stuff and the fact this is a sequel, nothing to do with the actual content of the film. Though I guess it’s not really any weirder than just sticking “2” on the end or whatever, so…

Previously on…
In 1999, sci-fi actioner The Matrix blew everyone’s minds. In the run-up to this sequel there was also The Animatrix, a series of anime short films that explained some of the backstory to the films’ world and detailed certain events that occurred between the first film and its sequels.

Next time…
The video game Enter the Matrix occurs alongside Reloaded, featuring characters and situations from the film in a parallel storyline. It included around 45 minutes of live-action scenes shot by the Wachowskis, which has since been made available on the film’s DVD/Blu-ray/etc releases. Later the same year, The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy, while MMORPG The Matrix Online continued the story. There have also been other video games and some comic books, but for a modern media franchise it’s been quite tightly controlled beyond that.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman (for motorcycle work in the freeway chase))
3 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Fight (for the chateau hallway), Best Stunt Coordination Feature Film, Best Overall Stunt by a Woman (for a car stunt in the freeway chase))

Verdict

The Matrix sequels are generally viewed as a big disappointment, which isn’t wholly accurate or fair (for one thing, this first sequel actually has pretty solid ratings online, from both critics and viewers). It was always a big ask to follow-up a movie as original, groundbreaking, and straight-up entertaining as the first Matrix, and that the Wachowskis chose to do so by doubling down on the mythology and underpinning ideas obviously wasn’t successful with too many people. So perhaps making the plot 50% a straightforward quest-against-time narrative and 50% impenetrable philosophy lectures wasn’t the best idea, but the action sequences are still absolutely stunning. And, actually, if you bother to engage with the film on its own level, there’s some interesting stuff here.

Bumblebee (2018)

2019 #83
Travis Knight | 114 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 16:9 | USA & China / English | PG / PG-13*

Bumblebee

The live-action Transformers movies, eh? Seemingly hated by everyone, critics and fans alike, and yet combined the first five grossed almost $4.4 billion at the global box office. Nonetheless, with the fifth one being the lowest grossing so far, and Michael Bay finally making good on his oft-repeated desire to leave the series’ director’s chair, someone clearly felt it was time for a change. That brings us to Bumblebee a spin-off (it’s focused around the de factor second-in-command Transformer) cum prequel (it’s set in the ’80s, explaining some events that occurred before the 2007 movie) cum soft reboot (with redesigned characters and nothing that explicitly ties it to the Bay films, this could be the start of a whole new continuity). Did fans finally get what they want? Well, maybe, but it obviously didn’t work for the wider audience: the film took $468 million worldwide, which is good in itself but still represents almost a $140 million drop from the previous film. And it didn’t work for me, either: Bumblebee isn’t necessarily any better than the best of the Bay-era films, it’s just middling in different ways.

The film begins much like Man of Steel: launching us into a conflict between aliens on a distant planet. I criticised that film for throwing us into the deep end with a bunch of hard-sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and I find similar fault here. I guess the point is to get an Epic Action Sequence up front (unlike Man of Steel, where it’s political arguing, here it’s a full-blown battle) and to show off the new-look old-style Transformers, which have been modelled more on their appearance in the ’80s cartoon series. But it does nothing to dispel the notion that this is nothing like the Bay films — it’s just another frenzy of metal-on-metal and garbled mythology. Then Bumblebee, who’s mainly identifiable as “the yellow Transformer”, gets sent off to Earth, where he accidentally winds up in a scrap with some military types. More action, but with a slight change of pace.

Bayhem never dies

Only after all this has gone done do we finally get to the supposed point of the movie. We’re introduced to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager in 1980s California who likes listening to 1980s music and wearing 1980s clothes and doing other 1980s things because this is set in the 1980s. She’s down on her luck for various reasons, but what she really wants is a car. She finds one in a boat scrapyard (totally logical), but that turns out to be Bumblebee in disguise, and suddenly she has a giant robot for a best friend. But Captain Military Man (John Cena — I have no idea what his character name was. I could look it up, but this was more amusing), who Bumblebee fought with in that second action sequence, is on the hunt for our big yellow friend, and so are some Decepticons (the bad robots).

The “a girl and her robot” angle is what the film was sold on, combined with the ’80s setting to suggest a throwback to movies of that era, like E.T. and so on. I quite like it as a concept — it’s certainly a change of pace from the increasingly overblown city-destroying world-saving antics of the earlier films — but it’s the execution that disappointed me. It takes too long to get it up and running. Even after the palaver I’ve already described, it spins its wheels on Charlie getting Bumblebee started, on comedic interludes with her family, on establishing a wannabe-love-interest for her (a guy who both works opposite her at a fairground and is her next door neighbour, yet apparently she’s never even noticed. Incidentally, I can’t remember his character’s name either). There’s altogether too much time spent on the military and Decepticons hunting ‘Bee, too, especially considering it amounts to little that’s meaningful. I mean, specifically two Decepticons turn up on Earth, and they’re therefore the film’s primary villains, but I can’t remember their names either. Their personalities amount to “the one who plans” and “the one who just wants to shoot everything”.

A girl and her robot... which is disguised as a car

But after nearly an hour of this faff, the film gets good, with Charlie and Neighbour Boy getting up to some enjoyable ’80s kids’ movie-style antics with their friendly giant robot. But oh, then it’s time for the climax, so it’s back to explosions and indistinguishable chunks of metal hitting each other.

This is why it’s frustrating to me, because for a brief bit of time in the middle you see what I think this movie really wanted to be, and what I really wanted it to be, before it descends back into Bayhem-with-calmer-editing. Incoming director Travis Knight (whose only previous credit is the exceptional Kubo and the Two Strings) handles individual sequences well, suggesting he was a canny hire, but the film’s problem is bigger than that. The wonky pace and structure devotes time in the wrong places, leading to underdeveloped character beats (the big payoff for Charlie’s emotional subplot actually made me laugh out loud, which was not the intended effect) and taking too long to get to where it wants to be — just as it’s getting good, it has to dart off into a finale that doesn’t have enough impact, because we’re not really invested in the villains either.

Talking of what the movie “should’ve been”, a word on the certification. Bumblebee was originally given a 12A by the BBFC, just like every other modern blockbuster, but there was some kerfuffle in Australia that led to it being cut down under, and it seems that version was tamer enough to get a PG in the UK, so that’s the one that was released here (and, I think, everywhere outside the US). It loses about six seconds of injury and violence, apparently. There was a time earlier this century when anything below PG-13 was a bad thing, because they thought teens/adults would write the film off as being kids’ fare. Maybe that’s changed. Maybe it just doesn’t apply in the UK. Maybe they thought being a PG wouldn’t put grownups off (as an adult, who looks at the certificate, especially for the sixth movie in a well-established franchise?) but would allow more kids in. Who knows. It is what it is. I’m not sure it’s worth caring about.

This cute dog is also in it a bit

Also, another thing about differing releases: I wish they’d put it out on 3D Blu-ray somewhere, so that I could’ve bought that version. As noted at the start, I watched the 4K UHD disc, and the (upscaled) picture was fine but not spectacular (aside from one or two bits, and the usual benefits of HDR), but there were whole chunks I feel would’ve benefited from 3D. The Bay movies certainly did. I know those of us who enjoy the format are more in the minority than ever, but it seems that interest remains in some markets (looking at other titles that didn’t get a 3D release in the US and UK but did elsewhere, countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, and India seem to be among the lucky ones), so I don’t know why this hasn’t turned up in any of them.

Anyway. If Bumblebee managed its structure and pace better it’d be a lot more fun. I feel like, even with just the material that made it to the final cut, you could do a radical re-edit and turn it into a much better movie — ditch the Cybertron crap, cut way back on the baddies hunting for ‘Bee, get the relationship between Charlie and ‘Bee up and running faster, then focus on their teenage hijinks. Instead, someone thought it would be neat to bookend the film’s heart with a bunch of Bay-esque whooshbangery, and it gets in the way.

3 out of 5

Bumblebee is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

The Meg (2018)

2019 #77
Jon Turteltaub | 113 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Meg

Jason Statham vs. a giant prehistoric shark — what more do you need to know?

Okay, well, despite the obvious pulp-blockbuster nature of this premise, it’s actually based on a novel, which was originally published in 1997 and so I guess arrived in a wave of post-Jurassic Park interest in man vs. prehistoric creatures thrillers. Well, Jurassic Park and the other obvious comparison, Jaws, were also both adapted from novels, so perhaps it’s not so weird after all. I’d never heard of the book before, but apparently it has a dedicated fanbase (there are multiple sequels), who were disappointed with this film because it makes some radical changes to the source material. Clearly, I’m not the right person to make that comparison.

Judged as a film in its own right, then, I thought it was a ton of fun. You know what you’re getting into with that pitch, and doubly so if you’ve watched the trailer. This isn’t some thought-provoking docu-drama about “what if we really discovered a prehistoric creature still lived?” This isn’t even Jaws, a relatively grounded adventure movie about normal people defeating a larger-than-average killer shark. This is a movie about a super-high-tech underwater research facility that accidentally unleashes a prehistoric monster and then all the scientists and submariners and whatnot on board have to track it down and stop it. This is a move about Jason Statham fighting a giant shark.

Stath vs shark

All of that said, some people have criticised the movie for not being quite as daft or out there as they wanted from a B-movie-inspired effects spectacular. I guess that’s a real “your mileage will vary” situation. Personally, I had a lot of fun with it. It keeps things more grounded than the utter batshit craziness of, say, Sharknado, but it’s clearly still allowing itself to have fun with the situations and concepts. It also doesn’t feel too samey, which considering there are only so many ways to interact with a giant shark is some kind of achievement.

Other criticisms I’ve read include that it’s too slow to get going, focusing on undersea rescues rather than getting straight to Stath-on-shark action. Again, this was something I actually liked about the film — that it allowed at least some time to build the Meg up as a mysterious unseen force (and, in the grand scheme of things, not that much time — this isn’t Jaws). It also gave the film a certain scope and scale. It’s not like this shark rocks up and they defeat it in an afternoon — the plot spread out over a couple of days, at least. I don’t know, there’s just something I like about that pacing.

Also, the film is a Chinese co-production, and so features many major and minor Chinese characters, and the climax is set in the vicinity of a Chinese beach. I’ve seen people criticise this aspect of the film because… um… Yeah, not liking that aspect smacks of racism, let’s be honest. I’m not saying everyone who dislikes The Meg is a racist — that would be stupid — but some reviews I’ve seen come with this slightly weird sense that part of the reason they dislike it is because it’s 50% (if that) a Chinese blockbuster.

Who fancies Chinese for dinner?

At the end of the day, I come back to what I said at the start: it’s a movie about a giant prehistoric shark being unleashed and attacking humans, and Jason Statham has to fight it. That’s all. It delivered on that in spades for me and I had a great time with it. And I guess tied to that pulpiness, if you have the option and enjoy the effect, I thought it looked fantastic in 3D.

4 out of 5

The Meg is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Snowpiercer (2013)

2018 #251
Bong Joon Ho | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | South Korea & Czech Republic / English & Korean | 15 / R

Snowpiercer

Before we knew about Harvey Weinstein’s real, vile crimes, his offences against cinema were already widely discussed. From manipulating the Oscars to re-editing foreign films himself before distribution, he’d managed to become powerful often at the expense of films themselves. Snowpiercer was another example: having acquired distribution rights while the movie was in production, Weinstein later insisted on severe cuts (reportedly 20 minutes) and changes (adding opening and closing monologues), but co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho refused. It was eventually released in the US uncut, but only on a limited number of screens, and the planned worldwide distribution either didn’t happen or was curtailed — I don’t know about other countries where Weinstein had the rights, but there was no UK release at all. But the downfall of Weinstein has seen the rights to various films shopped to other distributors, and so Snowpiercer finally made it onto Amazon Video in the UK last November, and as of this week is available to Netflix subscribers. For my part, I heard the good reviews back on its US release and, with no sign of it coming to the UK, imported the US Blu-ray when it came out in 2014; but, me being me, I only actually got round to watching it last year.

Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in the far future, after an apocalyptic event has left the world an arctic wasteland. What survives of humanity all live on the titular train, which constantly circles the planet. The rich people live in luxury at the front; the poor people live in squalor at the back. Numerous attempted uprisings by the lower class have failed, but, with nothing to lose but their shitty lives, they’re going to try again.

The War Doctor, Captain America, and Billy Elliot step aboard a train...

Yeah, it’s a pretty out-there, not-at-all-plausible premise, but just go with it and the film has rewards aplenty. If you want to get intellectual, the train’s societal structure and how it’s maintained offers an allegorical commentary about class divides and the interdependence of the oppressed and the oppressors. But if that sounds a bit heavy, the film wraps it up in a pulse-pounding action thriller, dressed up further with mysterious backstories ripe for exposing and an array of memorable performances, not least Tilda Swinton as a toothy commandant. So, it’s by turns seriously thought-provoking, outrageously hysterical, and wondrously exciting — there are several superbly staged action sequences as our heroes literally battle their way up the train.

It may’ve taken an unconscionably long time to reach our shores — but hey, what could be more British than a mega-train only turning up after a mega-delay? Unlike our shoddy rail service, however, Snowpiercer proves worth the wait

5 out of 5

Snowpiercer is available on Netflix UK now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018. I watched it as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

2019 #67
Anthony & Joe Russo | 181 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Avengers: Endgame

A trilogy each of Iron Mans, Captain Americas, and Thors; a pair of Ant-Mans and two volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy; an Incredible Hulk, a Doctor Strange, a Black Panther, a Spider-Man, and a Captain Marvel; plus, of course, a trio of previous Avengers — they’ve all been leading us here, the culmination of 11 years and 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an unparalleled achievement in moviemaking; a combination of blockbuster scope with TV-esque serial storytelling that is so 21st century. Within its three hours and one minute running time, Endgame encompasses and represents almost all of the tendencies of other MCU movies — for both good and ill. This is not a perfect movie, and this will not be a 5-star review, which I’m saying upfront because massive spoilers may follow. There’s not much to discuss about the film if we limit ourselves to what’s been revealed in trailers and promos, because they’ve purposely kept almost the entire movie a secret, so I’m just going to talk freely.

If you’ve seen the movie then a plot recap is unnecessary. But in case you just don’t care and have decided to read on regardless: Endgame picks up days/weeks after the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War (maybe I missed or misunderstood something, but I swear one character said it had been 23 days then later someone said it had been two days). The surviving Avengers, plus newly-summoned addition Captain Marvel, manage to track down super-villain Thanos and set off to retrieve the Infinity Stones and use them to bring back the 50% of the universe’s population he turned to dust. Unfortunately, Thanos has destroyed the stones. All hope is lost. Cue title card: five years later.

Thanos no more

Okay, we’ll return to the plot in a minute, because this is the first structural oddity of the film. This opening salvo — made up of a pre-Marvel logo sequence in which we learn what happened to Hawkeye and his family, a pre-titles sequence which sets up the plan to beat Thanos, and the pre-timejump action I just described — is almost a self-contained unit dealing with the hangover from the last film. It wouldn’t fit as a closing act to Infinity War — that movie ended at the perfect point in the story — but nor does it really belong at the start of Endgame, which begins properly after the “five years later” card. I have mixed feelings about it, because I like that we see both the heroes’ immediate attempts to rectify the situation, but also that they can’t, so we get to see how they’ve coped (or failed to) over the ensuing years. But, structurally, it felt a little clunky to me; a bit of business from the previous movie that has to be wrapped up before this one can start. I’m not sure what the solution is. If movies still bothered with opening credits, something as simple as separating it all off as a pre-titles sequence might’ve been the answer.

Anyway, back to the plot. It’s five years later and the world is still coming to terms with the snap. There are too many characters in too many different places to recap what everyone’s up to — that’s part of why this film has a three-hour running time, because there’s simply so much to tackle. But in many ways this is the best part of the movie, especially if you’re invested in these characters rather than just here for action or spectacle. It’s a bit grim, obviously — no one’s going to be cheery about half the world being wiped out — but it digs into the differing reactions this would provoke in ways that are character-specific and mostly plausible. I say “mostly” because, when Hulk (or whatever he is now) turns up, I didn’t quite follow the logic of why he’d turned himself into this Banner/Hulk hybrid. Still, seeing how the characters come to terms with their new reality is an effectively thoughtful way to start off.

Crying Cap

But that’s not going to fuel a superhero blockbuster, is it? Here the little mid-credit scene from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes into play. Marvel have always used their credit stings to connect up the films, but has it ever been so vital as this? They’re normally little teases, basically trailers to remind you which film is next, but what happens in that Ant-Man 2 scene is vital to the plot of Endgame. Basically, Scott has been stuck in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, but this provides them with an opportunity: it might be possible to use it for time travel, allowing them to go back in time and undo Thanos’ actions. Or something. Endgame’s relationship with time travel is… variable. Time travel movies are always complicated, and because it’s not a thing that’s really possible they get to set their own rules for how it works. The problem is, Endgame isn’t very clear what those rules are. It makes a great show of saying “it’s not like in the movies” and reeling off a slew of pop culture references (Back to the Future is mentioned more than once), but then it struggles to clearly define how it does work in this movie. And once the characters set off into the past, any explanations it did give seem to go out the window.

It’s in this long middle act that Endgame was most often problematic for me. Act one is largely committed to being solemn, and act three is largely committed to being Epic, so it’s in the middle that the film shoots for the MCU’s trademark “light and breezy” tone. Unfortunately, sometimes this is so shoehorned in that it rubs against the serious stuff, resulting in a tonal mishmash. I’ve frequently advocated for movies that mix seriousness and comedy side-by-side, because real life often does the same, but there are points where Endgame undercuts its own stakes or undermines its characters for the sake of a one-liner or a comedy bit, rather than embracing the seriousness of the situation and letting comedy evolve naturally when it’s warranted.

There can be only one...

Conversely, some of the humour is accidental. One of the more egregious examples for me is when Black Widow and Hawkeye are faced with the Soul Stone dilemma: one of them has to die as a sacrifice for the stone to be released to the other. They both decide to sacrifice themselves, which leads to a protracted series of attempts to stop the other from committing suicide first. The constant back and forth of who had the upper hand gets almost to the point where it’s comical — I began to wonder if it was meant to be a comedy bit. But then, just as it was reaching the height of absurdity where I was about to conclude I should be laughing rather than just thinking “this is silly now”, it abruptly stops when one of them ‘wins’ and we get a Tragic Death Scene. It’s clearly meant to be a shocking, affecting moment of heroic sacrifice; instead, I found it a jumble of intentions that neutered any genuine feelings.

Another moment that’s well-meaning but fumbled comes during the big climax, when all the Lady Superheroes unite to do something. It’s a moment of such brazen, uncalled-for “feminism” that it feels like pandering, and that’s a bad thing. I’m searching for a better word to use in that last sentence, because overall feminism is a good thing, but this particular moment is so out-of-nowhere, so fundamentally meaningless (there’s no need for it to be just the women involved), that it’s egregious. When crybaby fanboy trolls scream about unnecessarily forcing political correctness onto genre movies, they’re unerringly wrong… except this time they’ll be right, because that’s exactly how this plays. There’s a broadly similar moment in Infinity War, when a couple of the female heroes defeat whichever of Thanos’ sidekicks is the female one, and I thought that worked, partly because no one made a big deal of it. Here, it’s clear they’re making a point. I’m not sure what the exact goal of it was — to say “women are as capable as men”; to say “look how many female heroes we have now”; or something else — but there are better, subtler ways to make that same point.

Nebulous plotting

Where Infinity War found room for almost all of the MCU’s ongoing franchises and characters (an impressive feat), Endgame cements its finale status by re-centring us on the original lineup from the initial Avengers team-up… er, plus a couple of other characters, who are important to varying degrees for various reasons. It’s that kind of “it’s almost this… but not quite” construction of content and/or theme that belies a certain lack of focus or forethought. If this is a last hurrah for the original team, why is Ant-Man vital to the story even being possible? Why does Nebula get one of the most significant subplots, intimately connected to her character arc from Guardians Vol.1 and 2? Why is brand-new (to the movies) character Captain Marvel repeatedly required to come in and save the day?

This extends to the time travel too: when they go back, it’s into the timelines of specific movies, but why those movies were chosen isn’t always clear. Avengers Assemble? Makes sense — it was where the crazy project of the MCU proved it was working, making that film both the end of the beginning and a beginning in itself. Guardians of the Galaxy? I mean, I guess — it’s where Marvel proved they could turn even the most obscure property into a massive, popular hit; plus it’s where a lot of the Thanos storyline really got going. Thor: The Dark World? …wait, what? Seriously?! Yes, perhaps the greatest trick Marvel have ever pulled is making Thor 2 — one of their least well regarded films — a moderately essential component of this finale. You need to have seen that movie to fully understand what’s going on here, and now you can’t really skip it in your rewatches either.

Thor after being told which movie he had to revisit

Talking of connectivity, Infinity War surprised by being a standalone movie, not just a Part 1. Okay, it was a standalone movie which ended with our heroes losing, which you could call a cliffhanger, but if you look at it from the other side — i.e. with Thanos as the main character — it’s a whole, completed, no-more-story-to-tell tale. Therefore it’s a fresh surprise (kinda) that Endgame is very much a Part 2 — and also, in fact, a Part 22 — freely nodding to and paying off stuff from previous movies on the assumption you’ll know what it’s referencing, more like the last instalment of a serial than a standalone film. Anyone who’s skipped a film or two (or three or four, etc) on the way to Endgame is likely to miss all the nuances, at the very least, and perhaps be left with more serious questions too. Newcomers definitely need not apply. But if there’s anyone who’s a fan of part of the MCU but not all of it, they’ll need to find their way into and through Endgame one way or another, because a whole bunch of stuff is wrapped up for good here; some heroes won’t be getting another standalone movie to put a button on their story.

I feel like this review has focused on the negatives and debatable drawbacks of Endgame, but that’s partly because a lot of the discussion right now seems unrelentingly praiseful. I mean, as I type this the film is ranked as the 5th best of all time on IMDb, a position it’s actually risen to over the past 24 hours (it debuted around 19th). I didn’t think it was perfect, or quite as good as that (for comparison: I thought Infinity War was more consistent and successful as a movie, and IMDb raters have currently ranked that 61st), but I did enjoy it overall. I don’t think it needed to be as long as it is (at times it meanders through scenes or comedic bits rather than getting on with things), but it doesn’t drag or bore. It’s a bit of an irreconcilable dichotomy that I think both it didn’t feel excruciatingly long and also that they should’ve tightened it up and brought the running time down.

The end for Tony?

Still, that runtime means they felt there was space for more than just action sequences. Allowing the film to focus on the emotions of the characters (at least some of the time) is suitable payoff for the investment people have in them. Indeed, as I said earlier, in many ways the first act is the film’s best stuff. This isn’t just an empty effects spectacle. But when it is a spectacle, it can be spectacular. Okay, the climax, where two sizeable armies rush at each other on a brown battlefield under a grey sky, degenerates into a massive free-for-all of whooshing pixels where it’s frequently hard to discern exactly what’s going on and who’s doing what to who (it actually reminded me of Aquaman, only with less colour. I’m sure such a comparison to a DC movie will be sacrilege to some Marvel fans, but it’s the truth). But within and around that there are still things that are a thrill, not least the big moment when the previously-dusted heroes turn up en masse in the nick of time. And when all is said and done, the end credits offer a special acknowledgement of the main Avengers who started it all, which was quite possibly my favourite bit of the whole movie.

There are no mid- or post-credit scenes, making this only the second MCU movie without them. (The first was The Incredible Hulk, which basically had its post-credit scene before the credits started. I’m sure they’d’ve placed that scene differently if they’d known it would become a trademark of the franchise.) It’s an appropriate decision: we know this isn’t the end (the next Spider-Man movie is out in a couple of months; many more officially-unannounced Marvel films are on the horizon after that), but this is supposed to serve as an ending nonetheless, and so letting it actually end, rather than attaching a tease for the future, is welcome. Though, really, how much of an ending is it? Yeah, it officially closes off the first era of MCU films, but a bunch of those characters are continuing into the future, and even some of the ones primarily associated with the first era — characters who died here — are coming back in prequels and the like.

Goodbye to MCU

However, the lack of credits scenes did allow me to enjoy some schadenfreude: I knew going in there were no scenes, but that there was a “meaningful sound effect” at the end of the credits. I had nowhere else to be, so I stayed to see what it was. Everyone else who stayed, however, was chattering about what the end credits scene might show. The credit roll came to an end, everyone went quiet in anticipation, that “meaningful sound effect” played, and I started getting ready to leave while all around me stared at a black screen while the cinema’s filler muzak played, thinking they were witnessing the beginning of another scene. It took them a good 30 seconds to twig. (Maybe I should’ve said something… maybe the usher stood at the front of the auditorium should’ve said something… maybe he and I are both just horrible people…)

That literally brings me to the end of Endgame. There’s much more that could be said about it, and will be said about it. For me, an interesting thing now will be to see what is its long-term reception. As I said, right now it’s riding high on a wave of audience euphoria, but it’s only just come out: most of the people who’ve seen it already are the really keen ones; the diehard fans. What will wider audiences think? What will the diehards think when they get a chance to revisit it, removed from the heat of initial emotion? Will the consensus remain that Avengers: Endgame ranks in the echelons of the very greatest movies of all time, or will cooler heads prevail?

4 out of 5

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia) now.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018)

2018 #246
Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

I don’t think I’d even heard of the Teen Titans Go! animated series until promotion for this big screen version started. Best I could tell, a lot of entitled fanboys hate it — it’s too childish and comical, whereas they’d prefer the ‘grown-up’ seriousness of cancelled animated series Teen Titans — and consequently weren’t at all impressed by it getting the honour of film adaptation. Whatever — I thought the trailer looked funny, and, fortunately, the end product lives up to it.

The Teen Titans are a superhero team made up of erstwhile Batman sidekick Robin, half-robot Cyborg (who, in other iterations, is a member of a certain major-league superhero team), shapeshifter Beast Boy, half-demon sorceress Raven, and alien princess Starfire. After they’re criticised for not having their own movie, the Titans set out to get one made. First step: get an arch-nemesis, for which they target Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke.

Although ostensibly a children’s series, and therefore presumably a children’s movie, Teen Titans Go is actually full of gags and references aimed at older viewers, without resorting to cheap double entendres or the like designed to fly over kids’ heads, but instead focusing on the wider universe of superhero movies — it has less respect for the fourth wall than a Deadpool movie. It’s often genuinely witty, and burns through plot and jokes at a joyously fast pace (possibly a legacy of its short TV episodes). It also might be the first time I’ve ever seen a fart gag and thought, “that’s actually quite funny and kinda clever (for a fart gag).” That’s a special kind of achievement in itself.

4 out of 5

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

It placed 23rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.