Despicable Me 2 (2013)

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2018 #155
Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud | 98 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

Despicable Me 2

In this sequel to the popular animated comedy (which I wasn’t that fond of, personally), supervillain turned adoptive dad Gru (Steve Carell) is dragged back into his old world when the Anti-Villain League recruit him in order to track down the villain who stole a dangerous serum. Meanwhile, Gru’s daughters think he needs a girlfriend, and the AVL agent assigned as his partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), seems the perfect fit. Also, his yellow Minions are still around, getting up to all sorts of ker-azy antics.

That’s the concise version, anyhow. This is a film that rambles around a lot in the telling, presumably out of fear that it might ever become boring to hyperactive youngsters. Unfortunately, it almost had the opposite effect on me. The main plot just felt like a shape on which to hang the romantic and Minion subplots, but those subplots just felt like a constant distraction from the main plot. The end result is a film that’s narratively unsatisfying on all fronts.

So. Many. Minions.

Instead, entertainment value comes from individual scenes or moments. Personal preference will dictate just how entertaining those are, however. I didn’t feel there was much consistency, with the humour able to spin on a dime from being pretty amusing to falling flat. It doesn’t help that it feels way too long, overloaded with subplots that don’t go anywhere meaningful and the Minions’ sketch-like shenanigans. And there’s a lot of the Minions, clearly the breakout stars of the first movie (and hence why the series’ next film was entirely centred around them). While they amuse me on occasions, I mostly find them annoying, and am slightly baffled that anyone over the age of about six can find them significantly amusing.

But it looks pretty great in 3D, at least — turns out Gru’s long pointy nose was made for the format — and it’s quite funny and imaginative in places. Still, a good trim would’ve benefitted it enormously. Unless you do really enjoy the Minions, I guess.

3 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of spin-off Minions is on ITV today at 6:15pm.

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Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)

aka Gojira: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi

2018 #156
Hiroyuki Seshita & Kôbun Shizuno | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / English | PG

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

The 31st official Godzilla film from Japan’s Toho studio is the second part of their anime trilogy. Released theatrically in Japan, it’s a Netflix exclusive in the rest of the world — which is probably for the best, because it means we don’t have to pay money specifically for this shite.

Picking up where the previous film left off, City of the Edge of Battle is set on Earth 20,000 years in the future, where a 300-metre-tall Godzilla (the largest ever, fact fans) rules the planet. I could go into the rest of the backstory, but we’ll be here for a paragraph or two — you can either watch the first film or, better yet, save yourself a couple of hours and just don’t bother with any of it. But anyway: in this instalment, the party that have landed on Earth to defeat Godzilla discover a tribe of humans (or, possibly, just a human-like species) who have somehow survived Godzilla’s reign. They in turn lead them to the remains of Mechagodzilla, a failed project by alien chums to help defeat Godzilla. Left alone for 20 millennia, the mech’s “nanometal” has grown into an entire city, which they now hope to use to defeat Godzilla.

There are some neat sci-fi ideas in this trilogy — aside from the Battlestar Galactica-esque stuff I talked about last time, there’s some interesting notions about how the planet might’ve changed and evolved over 20,000 years without us, and a city that’s grown itself has potential — but promising concepts alone are not enough to overcome the clunky dialogue, dull visuals, unmemorable characters, turgid philosophising, and sauntering plot. And if you’re here for the eponymous big guy, once again he doesn’t even get involved until over an hour in, just in time for the final big action sequence. That’s so badly done, it requires constant narration from the human command centre to explain what’s supposed to be going on. It would make as much sense as an audio drama as it does as a film.

Look, Godzilla is in this film! (Eventually.)

Another way this second film suffers is that many actions are built on motivations that were established and explained in the first film, but which aren’t restated here — and they were easy to miss in the first one anyway, because it was overloaded with exposition and jargon. It should be no surprise that this sequel is no better in that regard, justifying my decision to watch it in English this time. It did seem weird to switch language part way through a trilogy, but it’s not like any of the characters were memorable enough that I associated their voices with them, so why not? Well, I always feel I should watch anime in its original Japanese, for purism’s sake, but English is just easier — especially when the amount of made-up jargon flying around made the first film something of a chore to read.

I didn’t really enjoy the first film, but generously gave it 3 stars on the basis that it wasn’t completely terrible and had some ideas with potential. This sequel squanders most of that. I still like the mythology they’ve loaded into this universe — the conflicting ideologies of the different species on the spaceship; the situation on Earth when they return (the human-like tribe; the self-built city-with-a-brain) — but it’s all bungled in the execution, coming out as gloop that is, at best, barely intelligible, and, at worst, flat out boring. And if there wasn’t already more than enough backstory, mystery, and potential conflict to be going on with (which there was), City on the Edge of Battle throws a ton more into the mix. But hey, maybe the third film will actually generate some excitement if it has to rush to wrap all that up?

2 out of 5

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is available on Netflix now. The final film is scheduled for release in Japan in November, and worldwide in early 2019.

Passengers (2016)

2017 #156
Morten Tyldum | 116 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Passengers

This review contains major spoilers.

I got the distinct impression everyone hated Passengers when it came out 18 months ago — it has a lowly 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most of the think-pieces penned in its wake seemed to be about how terrible one particular aspect was (I’ll come to that, hence the spoiler warning). It has a 7.0 on IMDb though, which might not sound great, but anything north of 7 isn’t bad on IMDb — there are plenty of popular movies languishing in the 6s. Personally, I rather enjoyed it.

Sometime in the future, shortly after mankind has begun to colonise other worlds, the spaceship Avalon is on a 120-year journey to a new planet with thousands of colonist-to-be in hibernation onboard. Just 30 years into the trip, the Avalon strikes an asteroid field, causing a malfunction that wakes up just two passengers: Jim (Chris Pratt), a mechanical engineer, and Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist. Faced with the prospect of never reaching the destination they’d set out for, the pair begin to develop a relationship.

Or so the trailer would have you believe (and this is where the spoilers come). In fact, the malfunction only awakens Jim. After a year alone on the ship, with his only company being a robot bartender called Arthur (the always excellent Michael Sheen), a suicidal Jim comes across Aurora’s pod. Smitten, he watches her video diary, struggles with the morality of awakening her… and eventually does, claiming her pod must’ve malfunctioned too. What a bastard, right? Eventually Aurora finds out and hates Jim for robbing her of the life she’d intended, but this is a romance movie so…

I C You

Obviously, this is the aspect that generated all those digital column inches. Having read some of them, I get the impression that the reason so many people were annoyed by Jim’s dick move is either, a) it wasn’t hinted at by the trailer (therefore people were too busy trying to read the film as a straight-up romance, because that’s what the ads promised, and didn’t consider the actual story it was telling), or b) people seem to really struggle with movies where the lead character makes bad decisions that are either unlikeable or amoral. That’s a general observation I have about audiences, but it seems applicable here. See the numerous “Star Lord is the real villain of Infinity War” hot takes for a similar Chris Pratt-related example.

One of the reasons people being angry about the film’s ethics bug me is that at no point does the movie try to argue that Jim waking up Aurora was a good decision — everyone knows it was a bad, selfish idea. What the film does do is try to make you see why he would make that choice (it takes him over a year to do it, remember), and then shows how everyone eventually deals with the fallout (which is just life — shit you don’t want happens and you have to find a way to handle it). In fact, buried underneath all the romancing and effects whizz-bangery of the film’s climax, maybe there are some decent life/moral lessons, about the need for forgiveness, and accepting, and making the most out of things we can’t change.

No! Bad Jim! Bad!

A lot of people seemed to jump on the idea the film would be better if acts one and two were flipped — if we woke up alongside Aurora, only later learning of Jim’s betrayal. It would certainly have been different. Better? I don’t know. It would shift the emphasis around a lot. Maybe it would’ve made him romancing her more palatable for those who found it objectionable to their core, because while watching it you wouldn’t know what he’d done — but it wouldn’t change what he did, just how you were presented with it. In some ways, then, the movie we have got is the more interesting version: we know what he did throughout their courtship and have to accept that fact.

Moral questionability aside, the romantic plot is actually traditionally shaped: there’s the meet-cute (it’s just a sci-fi’d-up one), the falling for each other, the disagreement and separation, and eventual reconciliation. Maybe such familiarity is fine when it’s being dressed up in shiny new sci-fi surroundings; maybe it was the problem, too: the massive betrayal at the film’s core gets in the way of a traditional happy-sappy arc; if you wanted to go all gooey over their burgeoning romance, it gets in your way. But it’s a more interesting story because of it. In real life, such a horrid act might prompt a definite “walk away and never see him again” response. Things aren’t so straightforward aboard the Avalon. If you wanted them to be… well, so did Aurora, and she didn’t have a choice either. Perhaps the film could’ve spent more time digging into the emotional impact and decision-making of that rather than faffing with a sci-fi-cum-disaster-movie action-packed climax, but when your movie’s this expensive (as much to do with the no-doubt-ginormous salaries of the two stars as it is the CGI, I expect) you need some money shots and jeopardy to draw the blokes in.

Sci-fi money shot

Taken as a sci-fi movie, I really liked it. The concepts are well considered and played out, from the big ideas of how colonisation might work to little touches of how the tech functions. Much of the ship and its interfaces are beautifully designed and realised — I don’t know how much of it was built for real, but I suspect a fair chunk of the main locations are practical, and I do love a big set. I liked Arthur too, partly because I like Michael Sheen, but also because of how he functions as a robot designed to be kind of your mate.

On the whole, I suspect the negative reaction to Passengers is more a case of mismanaged expectations for some audience members rather than it being an objectively bad movie. I guess a lot of critical viewers put themselves in Aurora’s position, but Jim’s dilemma is just as relatable — I mean, not in a literal sense (none of us are ever likely to wind up in such a situation), but in a “what would I do?” way. Clearly, everyone thinks he did the wrong thing, but can you blame him? Would you be able to withstand a life of total loneliness? Maybe you would. Maybe you think you would. Nonetheless, the romance plot is inevitable (because that’s how movie plots work, especially in expensive Hollywood blockbusters), so the time bomb of What He Did adds an uncommon frisson. And the big action climax isn’t bad for what it is.

It's full of stars!

That said, the more you think about it, the more you can dream up variations that would’ve been of even greater interest. Like, what if Jim wasn’t physically attractive? Would Aurora still have fallen in love with an ugly bloke just because he was the only fella there? Or what if he’d died, leaving her to face the same dilemma he had — would she in fact wake someone up too? But those kinds of alternatives are far too challenging for a Hollywood romantic blockbuster. Like, the only way you’d get a physically unattractive leading man would be if it was a comedy and he was funny, and then she’d fall for him in spite of his looks because he made her laugh. But hey, it’s Hollywood entertainment behaving like Hollywood entertainment — should we be surprised?

4 out of 5

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

2017 #139
Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

They're all right

The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

2 out of 5

Perfect Sense (2011)

2017 #131
David Mackenzie | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | UK, Sweden, Denmark & Ireland / English | 15 / R

Perfect Sense

It’s funny, sometimes, the journeys we take to watch a movie. I distinctly remember Ewan McGregor appearing on a chat show to promote this back in 2011. I thought it sounded like a good setup for a story, so the film’s existence lodged itself somewhere in the back of my memory. Clearly the film itself didn’t have much impact, and so, with no one talking about it, and no releases or TV screenings or whatever that were high-profile enough for me to notice, it went on the back burner. Until last year, when I noticed it was available to rent on Amazon Video.*

Anyway, the aforementioned setup is a global epidemic that causes people to have an intense emotional outburst followed by losing one of their senses — for example, the first stage is an uncontrollable bout of crying followed by losing the ability to smell. Over a short period everyone experiences the same thing, then the world learns to adapt… until it happens again, losing another sense. While this is going on, we follow the relationship of Michael (McGregor), a chef, and Susan (Eva Green), a member of a team trying to find a cure for the disease. Obviously, this provides our human connection to events, with the grand world-changing stuff providing more of a backdrop.

Life goes on...

It’s ironic, then — or at least counterintuitive — that there’s more emotional power in the montages about senses and what was being lost — the ideas-y stuff — than there is in the character- and relationship-based bits. Those are actually surprisingly clunky at first, with even McGregor and Green — both actors I like a good deal — struggling to make them work. Things do smooth out in that regard, but the romance plot proceeds to conform to a pretty standard shape. Was the sci-fi crisis meant to reflect the relationship, or is the relationship a down-to-earth framework on which to hang a big sci-fi story? I suspect the latter, because it’s the end-of-the-world theatrics that prove more interesting.

Those are kept grounded and plausible: despite the ever-worsening situation, people keep getting used to the new status quo and going on as normal — until the sensory deprivation goes too far to ignore, of course. There are lots of neatly observed and imagined little bits in how this unfolds, like how after taste is lost the rituals of going out to restaurants remains, with focus moved to the sounds and physical sensations of the environment and the food; and newspaper critics still review places for this, naturally. This “life goes on” thing feels very much like how we as a society genuinely react to big changes or threats.

...until it doesn't.

So, it’s not a perfect film, but Jesus, the negative reviews I sampled (chosen at ‘random’, where “random” means “the top results on Google”) were shitty pieces of criticism. Their points include things like it’s preposterous (well, the plot is propelled by an unexplained virus — it’s less preposterous than, say, Spider-Man), or the characters fall in love while the world falls apart (because no one ever seeks comfort in others during times of stress or tragedy), or the screenwriter has kind of a funny name (seriously — a supposedly professional review dedicated some of its limited word count to basically going, “lol, foreigner’s got name that looks funny!”) It annoys me that some people get paid to write bollocks like that.

As I said at the start, no one ever really talks about Perfect Sense, even after its director has gone on to bigger things (Starred Up attracted a lot of praise and Hell or High Water earnt Oscar nominations), but it’s worth a look for anyone interested in broadly-plausible end-of-the-world dramas.

4 out of 5

* Having rented it, I was surprised to see it begin with a BBC Films logo, because most BBC Films productions end up on BBC Two within a year or two. So I checked, and it turned out it had been on TV, just once, in November 2012. (You’d think they’d’ve shown it more than that in the five-and-a-half years since — I mean, they’ve shown The Ides of March six times in four years.) Worse than that, though, was when I checked my iPlayer downloads and found I had actually downloaded it, so paying for the rental was a waste of money. Well, at least it was only £1.99, and I paid with vouchers anyway. But the colour grading of the two was completely different, which was just odd. Anyway, back to the review: ^

Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo (1978)

    aka The Mystery of Mamo / Rupan Sansei / Rupan Sansei: Rupan tai Kurōn

    2018 #112
    Sôji Yoshikawa | 102 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

    Lupin the Third: The Secret of Mamo

    Best known to Western audiences thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Lupin the 3rd is more than just one film in the Studio Ghibli co-founder’s illustrious career — it’s a popular and long-running franchise in Japan, with almost innumerable iterations: starting life as a manga which has run on and off since 1967, it has so far been adapted into six TV series, seven animated films, 26 feature-length TV specials, two live-action movies, and sundry other bits and bobs. Despite all that, this is one of only three Lupin III productions that has been available in the UK since the DVD era (the others being the fourth TV series, titled The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Cagliostro, natch), though that increases by one today with the Blu-ray release of the latest complete TV series, Lupin the 3rd: Part IV.

    The Secret of Mamo (more commonly known in English as The Mystery of Mamo, or in Japan as Lupin vs. the Clone) was the first big-screen outing for Lupin III. It was produced while the second TV series was being broadcast, with the intention of making a film that was more similar to the original manga, something Japanese censorship standards prevented the TV series from being. So, the tone is kids’ comedic adventure, but there’s nudity, moderately graphic violence, and a scene of sexy torture. Well, it’s not that graphic really… though it depends on your position on these things, I guess. Anyway, I’m certainly surprised the Americans let it pass as a PG-13, just because of the nudity. She may be a cartoon, but it’s not subtle.

    Car chase!

    Anyhow, the plot sees master thief Lupin III, along with his regular sidekicks Jigen and Goemon, pilfering the Philosopher’s Stone (I guess Americans would need to call it the Sorcerers Stone) at the request of his on-off love interest Fujiko Mine, who actually wants it for the mysterious Mamo. His nefarious schemes draw Lupin and co into a web that sees them pursued not only by Mamo’s forces, but also the Americans, and Lupin’s regular nemesis, Interpol Inspector Zenigata.

    One of the major inspirations behind Lupin the 3rd’s creation was James Bond, and so, appropriately enough, this is a globetrotting adventure that takes in Transylvania, Egypt, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Similarly, it also showcases some great action scenes, particularly an extended car chase through Paris and then the mountains. Unlike Bond, there’s a definite cartoonishness to many of the antics, and the third act takes a turn into outright science-fiction that gets a bit crazy. It’s also not entirely similar to The Castle of Cagliostro, therefore, showing how much Miyazaki brought his own tone and style to that film.

    That said, I thought the lead characters’ relationships felt clearer from the start here than they did in Cagliostro, which very much felt like a sequel or spin-off where you were meant to know who everyone was (as I noted in my review). It could just be I’m a little more familiar with them all now, but perhaps the film was indeed made to be more newcomer-friendly — it was the first movie, after all; though it is spun off from a TV series… Well, it’s quite neatly done, nonetheless — this isn’t “Lupin III Begins” with them all meeting for the first time, nor is there a viewer-surrogate being introduced to them all, but it handles how and when each character arrives into the narrative in such a way that it’s kept fairly clear how they relate to one another. It’s subtly done, so, as I say, it could be serendipitous or my own improved awareness.

    The mysterious Mamo

    It’s also perhaps worthy of note that the film is available with four different English dubs. The 2013 US DVD from Discotek Media includes them all, so lucky you if you have that. Everywhere online will tell you that Manga UK’s 2008 DVD includes the dub Manga produced in 1996, which seems logical, but, being the inquisitive soul that I am, I read up on it myself, and I’m 99% certain it’s actually the 2003 Geneon dub. According to Wikipedia, the Geneon dub “took a liberal approach with translating the Japanese dialogue,” so I compared the dub to the subtitles included for the Japanese audio, and they were totally different. You can see why anime fans hate it when discs only include “dubtitles”. Maybe I should’ve watched it in its original language…

    Anyway, the film itself is a very fun adventure, with an entertaining anarchism as well as exciting action and mostly amusing humour. Ever since I watched Cagliostro I’ve been meaning to watch some more Lupin the 3rd because I always hoped I’d enjoy it, and so far I’m being proven right. At least I’ve got the two Blu-ray-released TV series to tuck into next, but I’d like to see more of the extensive back catalogue make it to the UK. I guess that probably depends on how the Part IV release sells…

    4 out of 5

    Lupin the 3rd: Part IV is released on Blu-ray in the UK today by All the Anime.

    Men in Black 3 (2012)

    2017 #167
    Barry Sonnenfeld | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Men in Black 3

    Maybe it’s something to do with my age, but when Men in Black II came out it felt like a bit of a belated sequel to the mega-hit Men in Black — it had been five years, after all, which is quite a long time for a comedy sequel. Well, Men in Black 3 was another ten years after that… As it turns out, MIB2 is a kind of typical first sequel: memorable-but-small characters get massively increased roles; things are referenced just for the sake of referencing them; jokes are repeated or amped up. MIB3 is more like the typical belated sequel: it stands somewhat divorced from the first two, with the minor stuff all gone, and some more significant changes necessitated by the passing of time.

    What hasn’t changed are the leads, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) — although the latter’s about to, because when an alien criminal he locked up in the ’60s escapes from prison and travels back in time, K is wiped from existence. As the only one who can remember K, it’s up to J to also travel back to the ’60s, rescue the younger K (Josh Brolin), and also save the Earth.

    MIB3’s biggest problem is that it’s not funny enough. The first two were sci-fi comedies with the emphasis on the comedy, whereas this is more of a light sci-fi adventure. In some respects it tries to substitute emotional weight for the lack of laughs, aiming for a pay-off that’s designed to put a cap on the whole trilogy. It kind of works, I suppose, but it also feels like a bit of an ill fit. It’s nice that the film’s trying something different, I suppose, but I’d rather the tone was closer to the other movies — more humour, tighter pacing. Director Barry Sonnenfeld used to have an obsession with making his movies shorter (I remember he once said he’d be the only director where a “director’s cut” would actually mean a truncated version of the movie). I don’t know if he’d given up on that notion by 2012, but trimming ten minutes out of this likely wouldn’t hurt.

    Someone forgot the dress code...

    The best bit is definitely Brolin as Young K, doing a bang-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones while also adding enough to make the part his own. As for the rest of the new cast members, Emma Thompson’s role is fine if you consider her appearance no more than a cameo, but Alice Eve is underused as her younger self. Jemaine Clement chews the scenery double-time as the villain, while the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg has a fun supporting role as a character who can see all possible futures.

    MIB3 is not as weak as the much-maligned first sequel (which I don’t hate as much as some, but it isn’t great), but it can’t equal the freshness of the original, either. Little surprise it didn’t lead to a full-blown revival of the franchise… though, as it still did well at the box office and the series’ popularity endures, it’s also no surprise we’ll be getting a spin-off-ish fourth movie next summer.

    3 out of 5

    Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

    2018 #119
    Ron Howard | 135 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Solo: A Star Wars Story

    The fourth movie in the modern age of the Star Wars franchise hit headlines for all the wrong reasons last weekend, as its opening box office frame failed to live up to expectations by quite some margin. As I pointed out on Twitter, by most standards Solo had an excellent debut; but by Star Wars standards, yeah, it was well short. Why did this happen? Theories abound. Did the manbabies’ “Boycott Solo” campaign succeed? Doubtful. Do audiences have “franchise fatigue”, with Solo debuting just five months after The Last Jedi? Possibly, though it doesn’t hurt Marvel films. Were audiences worn out from big blockbusters, after Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 preceded this in quite a short space of time? Could be. Did the stories of behind-the-scenes strife reach mainstream awareness and put people off? Perhaps. Is it just that people simply aren’t interested in a standalone “Young Han Solo” movie?

    None of those sound like a definitive explanation. I guess it was a combination. And I’d like to say it’s a shame because Solo deserves to find a wide audience, but… well, maybe it’s already found the audience it deserves. It’s a decent space adventure flick, but I was sadly a bit underwhelmed by it. Frankly, I wish I liked it more than I did. Not just because I want to like every movie, but because I feel like this should’ve been a movie I really enjoyed — a fun sci-fi/heist/Western adventure kinda deal — but I didn’t love it. I thought it was mostly kinda fine.

    Space Western

    There’s not a thing in it I’d single out as poor: the actors are fine (in the trickiest role, Alden Ehrenreich makes for a decent Han Solo), the script is fine (I’d’ve liked more humour — what’s the betting that was toned done after Lord and Miller were fired?), the action scenes are fine (the train heist from the trailer is the best one, though even that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi), the design work is fine (as well as familiar Star Wars stuff, there’s some striking new characters and vehicles)… If there’s one thing I’d criticise it’s possibly the cinematography, because half the film seemed too damned dark, but that might’ve just been the projection (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had that complaint about this cinema). Other than that, it looked… fine.

    Thing is, “fine” only gets you so far. Solo never really makes you laugh, never really makes you excited, never really makes you feel anything — it just sort of toddles along fairly pleasantly. In fact, I’d also say it’s less than the sum of its parts, because some of those bits that are “just fine” are almost more than that. And maybe, if the whole film was working, those bits would play well. But… it’s just not quite there. The neatest thing about the entire film is how it solves the problem with the famous line from A New Hope about how the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs” — parsec being a unit of distance, not (as the quote makes it sound) time. I mean, I’m not sure that justifies an entire movie…

    Lando, baby

    The thing that most annoys me about Solo’s mediumness, and its relatively poor box office, is that it’s left very, very open for a sequel. Without spoiling anything, we can more-or-less extrapolate how Han and Chewie get from here to a cantina in Mos Eisley, but there are other plot bits left dangling. It’s been fairly well reported that the cast are signed up for three films, and I guess Lucasfilm really meant that, rather than locking them in just in case. And the reason it annoys me is because I want to know what happens next, but with the stink of failure that now surrounds Solo (a drum the media have been only too keen to beat, for no reason other than clickbait) I’m not sure Disney will be too keen on taking that punt.

    On the bright side, the Star Wars franchise currently has an admirable predilection for tying its whole canon together. It happened in Rogue One, with Forest Whitaker’s character having originally appeared in The Clone Wars, and it happens here too, with a cameo that is gonna confuse anyone who’s only watched the films and not paid any heed to other media — I shall say no more, but I imagine casual fans were left scratching their heads. So, if we don’t get Solo 2, I guess certain people will pop up in some animated series or comic book or something. Which I probably won’t get round to watching or reading. Hey-ho.

    Falcon-flying fun

    Maybe the “it’s fun!” tweets and reviews I read before seeing Solo undermined it for me, because I was expecting it to be fun, fun, fun, but instead thought it was just fine, fine, fine. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more when I watch it again on Blu-ray. At least it’ll have the extra pizzazz of 3D for me then. Anyway, this rating feels harsh, but, considering my reservations, the next one up seems generous. It’s another three-and-a-half-star film, but, as ever, I only deal in absolutes here.

    3 out of 5

    Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas everywhere, for the time being.

    Deadpool 2 (2018)

    2018 #120
    David Leitch | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Deadpool 2

    The quickest way to review Deadpool 2 is simply to say it’s like the first one, but more — in a good way.

    A slightly longer (and possibly confusing unless you read it slowly) way to review it would be to say that I enjoyed it less than I enjoyed the first one the first time I saw it, but I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the first one the second time I saw it. To clarify: when I first watched Deadpool, I loved it, and gave it five stars (just about). When I rewatched it two years later in preparation for the sequel, I was less bowled over. I think a lot of its initial effectiveness was due to the freshness of its whole schtick, which has naturally gone away on a rewatch (not helped by the saturation of it in DP2’s marketing campaign). In particular, I was surprised how sparse I found the humour to be on that rewatch. Maybe that prepared me for this one: the gags aren’t literally non-stop — it sometimes pauses to attempt emotion or to convey plot — but when they do come they’re thick and fast, so much that I’m sure some will get missed (there are too many to remember specific examples, but there was stuff I thought was very funny that didn’t get much of a reaction in my screening. Or it could just be only me that liked those gags, of course.)

    So, although DP2 couldn’t equal the sheer newness of watching DP1 for the first time, it’s refined the formula in such a way that I do think it’s a more enjoyable film. Maybe “refined” isn’t always the right word — in some cases it’s just chucked in even more stuff — but I think other elements have been honed. For example, the first film’s plot was a no-great-shakes origin story on which to hang gags and action. The sequel’s plot is still only scrappily adhered to, with the point once again being to deliver humour, but it does have a stronger throughline overall. Partly that comes from the villain, Josh Brolin’s Cable, who has a clear goal that conflicts with what Deadpool’s up to. Partly it comes from some thematic stuff about fatherhood and family. I’m not saying DP2’s overburdened in this department — it’s still an action-comedy — but I couldn’t tell you what the first film was about, thematically, and this one it’s made very evident.

    That Deadpool, he'll say anything

    That said, sometimes it’s bit heavy-handed. I can see what they were going for by giving the film a heart and some emotion — it builds off the first film, for one thing, where Vanessa was such a motivator for Wade; and they’re trying to add depth and texture to the film — but… it doesn’t work when it’s given too much focus. Everything else in the film is a pisstake turned up to eleven, and the fourth-wall breaking means Deadpool can make a gag about cliches or crappy writing even as the film ploughs ahead and does it anyway. So why isn’t he making gags whenever the film pauses for an emotional heart-to-heart type scene? Why does that sappiness flow on (and on) untouched? Okay, maybe the character cares too much to be wisecracking at those moments… but do we? Does the soppiness fit with the foul-mouthed, gore-splattered irreverence that characterises the rest of the movie? I’m not sure it does.

    Other things they’ve oomphed up, but to appropriate effect, included references to the X-Men and the actions scenes. In the case of the former, I was surprised how many X-references there were in the first film, but DP2 has even more, including a superb one-shot cameo and a surprise appearance by a character who’s been in a ‘real’ X-Men film but here is done more faithfully. As to the latter, the first film had some fun action beats, but here you can feel the benefit of hiring John Wick/Atomic Blonde director (and former stunt coordinator) David Leitch — everything is slicker, quicker, and bigger. Again, it’s more, but in a good way. Humour aside, if you just wanted a straightforward action flick, I think it would satisfy on that level too.

    Cable, ready for action

    As for its level as a satire of superhero movies, some people have criticised the way it calls out genre tropes but then does them anyway, like Deadpool exclaiming “CGI fight!” right before there’s a CGI fight. But I think that’s almost the point. It’s not trying to deconstruct the genre, just poke fun at it with self-awareness while still being very much a part of it. Would it be cleverer if it went a step further and actually subverted stuff more often? Maybe. Probably. But there is humour in the self-awareness, even if it’s an easier kind for the filmmakers to fall back on — they don’t have to avoid cliches, so long as they humorously point out they’re indulging in them.

    Ironically, there are two or three occasions where Deadpool specifically makes a joke along the lines of “well that’s just lazy writing”, which were particularly amusing to me because (as I recall) they were at moments where the writing didn’t need to do more than it did. By which I mean, the writers could’ve been “not lazy” and dressed those moments up, but, functionally, they didn’t need to; so it’s not really lazy writing, just not needlessly tarted up writing… if that makes sense. It’s like movies with MacGuffins: usually they invest time explaining what the MacGuffin is and why it matters, but functionally it could be anything, all that matters is everyone wants it. Deadpool 2 doesn’t have a MacGuffin, but if it did it would be called “MacGuffin” and it would be explained simply as “a thing everyone wants” and Deadpool would say “well that’s just lazy writing”. (Flip side to all this: I can’t recall the exact circumstances of all the “lazy writing” jokes, so I’m prepared to accept they might not actually fit this theory.)

    X gon' give it to ya

    All of that said, Deadpool 2’s primary goal is plain, clear, and simple: it wants to entertain you by almost any means necessary, be that elaborate action sequences, almost non-stop gags, cultural references, deep-cut comic book Easter eggs, or even changing history (er, kinda). Mostly, it works — it wants to be fun and, if you’re on its wavelength, it is. Sometimes, more is more.

    4 out of 5

    Deadpool 2 is in cinemas everywhere, still.