Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

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2020 #29
Tim Miller | 128 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Spain & Hungary / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” the Terminator famously said in The Terminator, and he has been proven right — again and again. And again. This may be a franchise about time travel, but it’s us who seem to be stuck in some kind of time loop, because this is now the third attempt at creating a direct sequel to Terminator 2. For those keeping score, the first was literally titled Terminator 3; then there was TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which picked up from T2 (pretending T3 didn’t exist); and now this ignores them both. It also ignores the other attempts to keep the Terminator franchise alive: Salvation, which actually continued the storyline on from T3 (albeit with an entirely new cast); and Genisys, which attempted to be both a sequel and a reboot.

As well as being the third Terminator 3, Dark Fate is also the third attempt to start a new trilogy (Salvation and Genisys both arrived with such lofty plans), and is now the third to see those plans aborted after poor box office. Salvation made just $125.3 million at the US box office and $371.4 million worldwide — big numbers, but not when your movie cost $200 million. Hence starting again with Genisys — but that was an even bigger flop at the US box office, taking just $89.8 million. Worldwide, it took a respectable $440.6 million (more than Terminator 3, even), which, off a lower budget of $155 million, is pretty good. But US studios continue to struggle to see beyond their own borders, and so that trilogy was abandoned too.

Both of those movies tried something new for the franchise. Salvation took us into the Skynet-ruled future, something the previous movies had only had as a threat to be averted. Genisys played more with the idea of time travel, taking us back into the timeline of the first movie, but different. Now, Dark Fate explicitly wipes out previous continuity, beginning with a flashback that directly follows on from T2 but sets us on a new path, introducing new heroes and villains, alongside the return of the original Sarah Connor, Linda Hamilton (who was written out of T3 and recast in Chronicles and Genisys). Surely that would solve the box office problem? No: it took $62.3 million in the US and just $261.1 million worldwide, the worst yet by any measure.

She be back

Box office is not indicative of quality, of course, but audience reception of Dark Fate hasn’t been any better than previous attempts to continue Terminating: if you look at IMDb scores, Dark Fate has 6.2 to Genisys’s 6.3, while Salvation has 6.5. None of them are stellar, but all are solid; and, with hindsight, suggest the producers should’ve just stuck it out with one of the previous versions. Indeed, I think trying to sell Dark Fate as “another restart” probably just put more people off. The Terminator franchise has become such a tangle of forgettable messes, aborted plans, and “this is a sequel to X but not Y”-type ventures that, for your average cinema-goer, it’s easier to just ignore it than engage with what counts and what doesn’t.

All of which is to review the film’s box office performance rather than the movie itself. But I’m more or less with IMDb voters on this one: the behind-the-scenes story is almost more interesting than the film itself. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it’s little more than a serviceable sci-fi action-adventure flick, hobbled somewhat by a palpable sense of desperation to emulate the cultural impact and success of Terminator 2. That’s the real reason none of these continuations have been allowed to stick: because none of them equalled T2. Such a goal is a hiding to nothing; a fight you stand almost no chance of winning. T2 is regarded as a Great Movie; a seminal entry in the sci-fi and action genres; influential and beloved. Thinking you can equal that is like making a gangster movie with the view that “if this isn’t regarded as at least equal to The Godfather, I have failed.” You’re setting yourself up to lose. In Terminator’s case, they’ve had that loss three times in a row, with ever-diminishing financial returns, to the point where anyone setting out to make Terminator 7 is going to be looked on as mad. What do you do with it now? You can’t reboot it again! But nor can you reasonably make a sequel to any previous version. They have, literally, killed the franchise. (Well, they probably haven’t — someone will almost inevitably continue it someday — but it’s going to be harder than ever to persuade anyone to finance that.)

He be back

Perhaps some form of spin-off will be seen as the next thing to try, but — spoilers! — that’s basically what Dark Fate tries to kickstart. Sure, Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are here, and the events of T2 are directly referenced and continued; but Skynet is no more and there’s a new war to fight. On the bright side, with a new future, a new threat, and an apparent aim to transition from old characters to new ones, it doesn’t feel stuck on the merry-go-round like the previous sequels did. It’s at least trying to move on in a (slightly) new direction, rather than just rehash the familiar. The problem (and it has been a big problem for some fans) is that by abandoning certain key tenets of the franchise (John Connor being the ‘Chosen One’; Skynet), it doesn’t feel so much like Terminator 3 as Terminator: The Next Generation. But, hey, that worked for Star Trek! After so many sequels that tried to find new angles to rework familiar bits and bobs, isn’t it about time someone tried something new, even if it’s in a very similar mould to what came before?

Well, it’s a moot point now, because Dark Fate Part 2 ain’t happening. We can only take some small measure of solace in the fact that it isn’t as open-ended as Genisys was; and that, whatever any other filmmaker tries and fails to achieve with this franchise, we’ll always have Terminator and T2.

3 out of 5

Terminator: Dark Fate is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Bill & Ted’s Double-Bill

As Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) slightly belatedly face the music in UK cinemas, now seemed a good time to review their first excellent adventure and second bogus journey

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
(1989)

2020 #91
Stephen Herek | 90 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

I’ve written before about how my childhood film viewing involved a lot of catching up on the family-friendly blockbusters of the ’80s — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, etc — but Bill & Ted was one of the ones that passed me by. Maybe if I’d seen it at the time I’d now put it on a pedestal with those others; or maybe I missed it back then because it simply isn’t as good.

The titular duo are a pair of slackers and aspiring rock musicians, but they’re struggling to complete a high school History presentation and, if they fail, they’ll be separated forever. Fortunately, help arrives in the form of Rufus (George Carlin), a time traveller from the year 2688, when mankind lives in a utopian society thanks to the music of Bill and Ted — but only if they pass this project. So he lends them his phone-booth-shaped time machine, and off they go into the past to roundup some real historical figures.

Where Back to the Future was a sci-fi/comedy that took its sci-fi relatively seriously (applying proper scientific theories of time travel’s possible effects to provide jeopardy for our hero), Bill & Ted is an outright comedy. It revels in its silliness, which makes for fun, laidback viewing, but it’s at the expense of any tension or suspense in the plot. Ostensibly they must race against the clock to get their presentation together (thanks to some half-arsed gubbins about time still progressing in the present even while they’re gadding about in a time machine), and the phone booth gets broken and stuff like that, but it never really feels like there’s a hurry, or that things might not work out. I mean, it’s a daft comedy, so of course we know they’re going to pull it off, but the film seems to use that inevitability as an excuse to not even try.

If I seem overly critical, it’s only because expectations are high. The film has a marked cult following, and the fact there’s another 1980s comedy about a time travelling high schooler is an unavoidable point of comparison. It’s not Bill & Ted’s fault that Back to the Future is a fundamentally perfect movie, whereas this is just an easygoing 90 minutes of frivolity. It’s not all it could be, but it’s likeable enough to squeak up to 4 stars.

4 out of 5

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
(1991)

2020 #96
Pete Hewitt | 94 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

In the run up to Face the Music, I’ve observed a trend on Twitter for people, who consider themselves connoisseurs, to declare Bogus Journey better than Excellent Adventure. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but that’s one I definitely disagree with. So too, I guess, would Excellent Adventure director Stephen Herek, who declined to return for this sequel because he thought it was “almost a parody of a movie that was already a parody”.

Originally titled Bill & Ted Go to Hell (until that was vetoed by typically puritanical Yanks), the plot sees Bill and Ted, um, go to Hell. They’re killed by evil robot replicas of themselves, sent back in time by a future terrorist who wants to disrupt the utopia they created. While the robot doubles set about destroying their reputations, the real Bill and Ted are stuck in the afterlife, where they must convince Death (William Sadler) to restore them to life.

Apparently the first idea for the sequel was to have our slacker heroes struggling with an English assignment, which would lead to them entering classic works of literature. That storyline appeals to me (well, I do have an English degree), but it does sound like a mere do-over of the first movie’s plot. It’s to Bogus Journey’s credit that it’s not merely a rehash, but it doesn’t feel like there was a solid concept to go in its place. Excellent Adventure had a driving idea (“use time travel to do a History project”), but Bogus Journey feels like the result of a forced search for something else to do with the same characters. Heck, it even switches genres, from sci-fi to fantasy. That kinda doesn’t matter when they’re just silly comedies, but it didn’t sit right with me.

Perhaps that’s simply because I didn’t think it worked. The whole film is much scrappier and less inspired than the first. There are good bits — Sadler is quite fun as the Grim Reaper, and some of the Hell stuff is inventive — but it’s mostly a whole load of mediocrity, lacking the spark that enlivened the original. The climax even reminded me of a Doctor Who spoof, The Curse of Fatal Death. Okay, that came eight years after this, but it did the same gag better.

Bogus Journey is definitely barmy, like they were allowed to do whatever they wanted and went crazy with it. I kind of admire that, even as I didn’t think the result was particularly entertaining. In fact, I found it annoying rather than funny.

2 out of 5

Bill & Ted Face the Music is in UK cinemas from today.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

2018 #228
Frank Pavich | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | France & USA / English, French, German & Spanish | 12A / PG-13

Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1974, director Alejandro Jodorowsky was hot off a pair of psychedelic projects — “acid Western” El Topo and surrealist fantasy The Holy Mountain — that had brought some cult attention and success (El Topo was the original “midnight movie”, while The Holy Mountain was apparently second only to that year’s Bond film at the Italian box office). Consequently, his French distributor, Michel Seydoux, offered to produce whatever he wanted to do next. Jodorowsky’s answer was Dune. He’d never read it, but he had a friend who said it was fantastic.

So begins the crazy story of how a director of surrealist Mexican art-films came this close to making an epic space opera out of one of the most acclaimed science-fiction novels ever written, but, in his failure, accidentally helped give birth to Star Wars (sort of), Alien (indirectly), and possibly the entire history of screen science-fiction that did actually get made in the ensuing 40 years. Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Um, well, yeah… but that doesn’t stop some of this documentary’s contributors from asserting it, and they do kind of have evidence.

Mind you, Jodorowsky’s Dune is full of interviewees making grand assertions, not least the eponymous filmmaker himself. He unironically describes his Dune as “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. He pitches himself as a prophet, thinks of his crew as spiritual warriors, and is convinced the film was going to be a great message for humanity; that it would literally change the world. The lack of self-awareness when he considers Douglas Trumbull to be full of his own importance is palpable. Jodorowsky’s regard for himself and the project may seem deluded, but at least he was committed. They spent two-and-a-half years developing this movie, including storyboarding every shot and getting exactly the right kind of people for the cast and crew — he pursued Dalí literally around the world to persuade him to play the Emperor; he rejected Trumbull, not because of an ego clash, but because he felt he was a technician rather than a spiritual person. He’s a bit barmy, but Jodorowsky definitely believed what he was doing was some grand transcendent enterprise.

A Chris Foss spaceship design for Dune

Such an attitude might get you far with arty types, but it doesn’t wash with the moneymen of Hollywood. The film had a projected budget of $15 million, and they went to the Hollywood studios seeking the last $5 million. In hand they had a giant tome containing all the storyboards, the costume and production designs, and so on. The book convinced them — it was well planned out and reasonably costed — but this barmy director — whose only previous films were weird psychedelic experiences; whose response to “make it under two hours” was, “why? If it needs be, it’ll be 12 hours, or 20!” — he didn’t fill them with confidence. And so they didn’t get the money, and the film fell through. Well, duh. Surely they could see how that was going to go? Maybe people just weren’t as savvy in the ’70s, especially these optimistic, committed artists.

All the documentary’s interviewees act like this was a problem with Hollywood moneymen having no vision, but c’mon, it’s easy to see where they were coming from. Plus, the fact that “the book convinced them” is just the word of Seydoux. Maybe Jodorowsky’s history and attitude was just a convenient excuse, because a lot of the stuff that was designed and planned is quite out there, especially to the mind of a ’70s Hollywood suit. It brings us back to how everyone’s making grand assertions: they all acts like the film was going to be an unquestionable masterpiece, but it seems to me there’s a much higher chance it would’ve been terrible. For one thing, there’s doubt over if they even could have made it. It was an insanely ambitious project, with plans to do things George Lucas wouldn’t even attempt in the prequel trilogy, never mind what he struggled to get done in 1977. But there’s a first time for everything — 2001 still holds up, after all, and that was made seven years earlier. Still, I don’t know how successful Jodorowsky’s surrealist mindset would’ve made it as a movie — it probably would’ve been even less palatable to a mainstream audience than the Lynch version.

Dune storyboards

That said, there seems little doubt Jodorowsky was ahead of his time here. For starters, the idea of making a 12-hour film isn’t so ludicrous anymore. In the deleted scenes (there’s a hefty 46 minutes of them on the Blu-ray), he acknowledges people wouldn’t sit through that, saying he was prepared to release it in chunks if necessary — so, just like Lord of the Rings would do to huge success 25 years later? Jump forward another 20 years, and it’s even how they’re doing Dune, in two parts! Of course, it was unprecedented in 1975; and, decades later, Rings was still seen as a gamble, but it paid off and Hollywood is now littered with franchises where instalments connect up as closely as TV series. And what of TV series, where you’re also seeing 12-hour (or longer) single narratives.

Aside from general questions of form, when you look at some of Dune‘s storyboards and plans you can see mirrors to stuff that wouldn’t be done until later. This is where the claim that Jodorowsky’s work on Dune led to Star Wars, Alien, et al, comes from, because you can see parallels between what he did and what would come after. His film was never made, but they produced 20 copies of that book I mentioned, and only two are known to exists (one with Jodorowsky, one with Seydoux). The rest were left with Hollywood studios. Were they passed around behind-the-scenes? Did the likes of Lucas and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and Mike Hodges and James Cameron really see them and pilfer ideas? Or is it just coincidence — Jodorowsky thought of them first but couldn’t execute them, then others thought of them independently and pulled it off. Pick your own side.

However, the claim that Dune led almost directly to Alien is less dubious. After he rejected Trumbull, Jodorowsky saw John Carpenter’s Dark Star and was impressed enough to hunt down its visual effects guy, Dan O’Bannon. Concept artists he hired included Chris Foss (painter of sci-fi book covers, mainly spaceships); Moebius (French comic book artist, for costume designs and storyboards); and H.R. Giger (German artist, who designed the dark and twisted world of the film’s villains). Those who know their Alien history might recognise all of those names: after Dune fell through, O’Bannon went on to write Alien, and all three of those designers followed on to the project. Maybe Alien would have come together just as well without the lead-in from Dune, we’ll never know, but those connections are pretty striking.

Giger at work on Dune

Lest you feel bad for everyone just ripping Jodorowsky off, he was able to recycle some of the ideas himself. His vision for Dune was only broadly faithful (one of the better deleted scenes is about his attitude to adaptation, which it seems Frank Herbert agreed with; i.e. that it’s not about being faithful, but reimagining something as a new, different work of art), and so he had plenty of fresh ideas that, presumably, weren’t tied up in the rights to Dune. Jodorowsky and Moebius piled some of these directly into later comic book collaborations, like The Incal and The Metabarons. A good idea never dies, I guess. Well, whether they were good ideas or just good in Jodorowsky’s mind, I don’t know. It does make me interested to read those books, though.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is an interesting “what if” in the history of science-fiction cinema, and this documentary does a good job of being a making-of for a movie that was never made. (If you think this review reads like I’ve just regurgitated the entire story, I promise, there’s a lot more in the film; not to mention the unique benefits of hearing it from the horses’ mouths, rather than my abridgement for the sake of appending my own opinions.) Some critics assert the documentary does more than just recount interesting anecdotes; that it offers some kind of transcendent viewpoint about the creation of art. Maybe if you’re of a similarly spiritual disposition to Jodorowsky himself, that’s what you’ll take from it. For me, it’s most interesting as a window into what might have been. If it had been made, would Jodorowsky’s Dune occupy the place of Star Wars in our culture? Its devotees think so. I don’t, to be honest. But it’s fun to think about.

4 out of 5

The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune will be released later today.

The 100-Week Roundup X

These 100-week roundups are a clearing house for reviews I haven’t got round to writing up 100 weeks (i.e. almost two years) after I actually watched the films in question. As I mentioned in my August review, I’ve recently fallen behind even on that, so the 100-week moniker isn’t technically accurate right now. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon.

This time, we have a motley bunch from September 2018: two one-star films that made my “worst of year” list; and two four-star films, one of which made my “best of year” list. They are…

  • Lost in Space (1998)
  • Skyline (2010)
  • April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
  • I Kill Giants (2018)


    Lost in Space
    (1998)

    2018 #189
    Stephen Hopkins | 125 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Lost in Space

    I remember this reboot of the classic ’60s sci-fi series being received very poorly indeed when it came out in 1998; and so, even though I was a young sci-fi nut at the time, I didn’t bother to see it — and then spent the next 20 years not bothering to see it. But with the recent re-reboot on Netflix going down rather well, I thought maybe it was time to see for myself. I shouldn’t have bothered — it’s truly terrible.

    It gets off on the wrong foot, starting with a load of over-ambitious CGI, and that continues unabated throughout the entire movie. Anyone who moans about the quality of CGI in modern blockbusters should be made to watch this so they can understand what they’re complaining about. Maybe it looked ok back in ’98, I can’t remember (I suspect not), but watched now it looks like an old computer game, never mind an old movie.

    Poor effects can be forgiven if the film itself is any good, but the opening action scene is both fundamentally needless and stuffed to bursting with cliches, and the rest of the film is no better — just nonstop bad designs, bad dialogue, bad ideas, more bad CGI… Even the end credits are painful, playing like a spoof of the worst excesses of the ’90s, from the trippy “look what our computer graphics program can do” visuals to the dance-remix-with-dialogue-samples version of the theme.

    So, it turns out the critics at the time were right. I have seen even worse movies in my time, but there aren’t many merits here — there’s one effect that is well realised, at least. But that doesn’t come close to justifying the film, or for anyone to waste their time watching it. It really is very, very bad.

    1 out of 5

    Lost in Space featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Skyline
    (2010)

    2018 #190
    The Brothers Strause | 93 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Skyline

    In a Cloverfield-esque setup, a bunch of young people awaken from a boozy party to discover an Independence Day-esque alien invasion happening outside their window. What follows just feels like familiar parts from even more movies Frankensteined together in a failed attempt to produce something original.

    In terms of overall quality, it’s like a direct-to-Syfy movie granted a minor-blockbuster effects budget. Goodness knows how it landed a cinema release. The directors were visual effects artists who, based on their IMDb credits, moved into directing music videos before springboarding into film directing with Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, the sequel to the much maligned AVP that, shockingly, managed to be even worse. Skyline was their second feature — and, in a seemingly-rare bit of justice for directors making shitty blockbusters, their last (they’ve gone back to effects, where they continue to have a long list of high-profile credits). They completely financed Skyline themselves, forking out just $500,000 for the shoot before spending $10 million on the effects. It couldn’t be any clearer where their priorities were…

    And it feels like a film made by VFX artists. For one thing, one of the main characters is a VFX artist. He lives in a swanky apartment, with a hot wife and a hot mistress, drives a Ferrari and owns a yacht. Either this is extremely obvious wish fulfilment, or at one point VFX guys were doing very well indeed. (Considering there was that whole thing a few years back about major VFX companies shutting down, either this was made before the bubble burst, or some were able to weather the storm to a sickening degree. Or, like I said, it’s wish fulfilment.) Aside from that, it’s like a CGI showcase. Everything’s shot handheld, all the better to show off how realistically the CGI’s been integrated. The screenplay puts in no effort, with thinly sketched characters and a flat, uninspired storyline that rips off other movies with abandon, runs on a shortage of logic, features weak world-building with inconsistent rules, and seems to just… keep… going… until, after you think it’s definitely over this time, there’s yet another scene: a mind-bendingly gross and laughable finale.

    And yet, years later, someone made a sequel! I’ve even heard it recommended (though it has a lowly 5.3 on IMDb). Someday, I’ll have to see…

    1 out of 5

    Skyline featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    April and the Extraordinary World
    (2015)

    aka Avril et le monde truqué

    2018 #191
    Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Belgium & Canada / French | PG / PG

    April and the Extraordinary World

    This French animation is an alternate-history steampunk adventure that follows orphan April (voiced by Marion Cotillard in the original audio) as she investigates a decades-long spate of missing scientists, including her own parents.

    The tone is one of pulp adventure, which is right up my street, and consequently I found the film a lot of fun. It’s a great adventure, abundant with imaginative sci-fi/fantasy ideas, engaging characters, and laced with humour. The independent French production means it’s not beholden to Hollywood homogenisation — there’s some very dark stuff in the world-building details, which contrasts somewhat with the light adventure tone of the actual plot, and some viewers may find this spread of tones problematic. More of an issue for me came when, a while in, the plot heads off into barmy sci-fi territory. No spoilers, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the original premise. But this is perhaps more an issue of expectation than actuality — it wasn’t severe enough to lose me, just take the shine off something that was otherwise headed for perfection; and, as I adjusted to where the story was going, I enjoyed it more again.

    Resolutely unproblematic is the visual style. The design and animation, inspired by the works of comic book artist Jacques Tardi, are absolutely gorgeous — like a ligne claire comic sprung to life. When US animations try to ape an artist’s style, it often winds up as a movie-ised imitation — at best you can recognise the inspiration, but it’s still been filtered and reinterpreted (cf. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). But this is like the panels just started moving, with full fluidity (none of the “jerkily moving between static poses” you sometimes get with cheaply-done modern animation). That applies to character animation as much as anything, but the wildly imaginative steampunk alternate history allows the designers and animators to really cut loose, with a fabulously invented world.

    Put alongside the likes of Long Way North and The Secret of Kells, it’s a reminder that we should look further afield than the US and Japan for great animation.

    4 out of 5

    April and the Extraordinary World placed 26th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    I Kill Giants
    (2018)

    2018 #193
    Anders Walter | 106 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | Belgium, UK, USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    I Kill Giants

    The past few years have seen a random, unexpected mini-genre pop up: dramas about Serious Issues where the protagonists also have something to do with giant monsters. I’m not talking about Pacific Rim or Godzilla, but movies where the monsters are either imaginary or in some other way analogous to the very real problems experienced by the characters. Films like A Monster Calls, about a teenage boy coping with impending bereavement, or Colossal, in which Anne Hathaway discovers she’s controlling a giant monster that keeps appearing (and which kept its big issue a secret in the marketing, so I will too). I don’t know if there’s really enough of these to call it a “genre”, but three films in as many years that fit roughly in that very specific bucket strikes me as a lot; and I watched all three in the span of a few months, just to emphasise the point.

    Anyway, the latest entry in this genre I may’ve just invented is I Kill Giants. Based on a graphic novel by Joe Kelly (who also penned this adaptation) and J.M. Ken Niimura, it’s about American schoolgirl Barbara (Madison Wolfe) who believes giants are coming to attack her hometown and she’s the only one prepared to fight them. Whether these giants are real or just an outward expression of an inner conflict is, of course, why this ties in with the other films I mentioned.

    There’s plenty of stuff I liked a lot in I Kill Giants. The female focus. The power of friendship, and of small acts of kindness. The acceptance of being a bit different and an outsider, within reason. The magical realism in its handling of the giants. Unfortunately, it takes a bit too long to get to its conclusion — it’s not exactly repetitive, but there is some running on the spot. When the finale comes, it’s an effective twist. I’d guessed many of the reveals, and I think the film definitely expects you to guess at least one (which it then wrong-foots you about). But narrative trickery isn’t really the point. It’s impossible to discuss which other film it’s most similar to without spoilers, but the other one dealt with certain stuff better due to being upfront about it, rather than lacking it all into the final ten minutes. That’s the ending’s biggest flaw: that another film did fundamentally the same thing recently and, overall, better. That’s not the film’s fault.

    Not a perfect film, then, but it has a lot to commend it. Just be aware it’s one where the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

    4 out of 5

  • Venom (2018)

    2020 #181
    Ruben Fleischer | 112 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

    Venom

    The fad for shared universes, provoked by the success of the MCU, seems to be dying off: the Dark Universe, the DC Extended Universe, Fox’s X-Men films, the MonsterVerse, sundry others most of us can’t even remember — they all either died a quick, brutal death, or circumstances have wiped them out. Even those that are ongoing have either abandoned close interconnectedness (like the DCEU) or don’t have long-term plans (the MonsterVerse, which has nothing announced beyond Godzilla vs. Kong). The MCU still seems to be going strong (although we haven’t actually had a new MCU movie in over a year now, so who knows what the future will hold?), but other than that? Everyone seems to have realised the formula is impossible (or too much hard work) to replicate.

    The exception lies in Sony’s desire to launch a superhero universe out of the one character whose rights they own: Spider-Man. It started when they abandoned Spider-Man 4 to go the reboot route with The Amazing Spider-Man, the sequel to which teased all sorts of stuff to come, some of which was announced. Those movies’ failure to live up to their titles (i.e. they were not amazing, in any respect) saw such plans cancelled, but it seems Sony don’t give up so easily — even after they loaned out Spider-Man himself to the MCU, moves to form their own universe have continued.

    Which is what brings us to Venom. For those not in the know, he started life as a Spider-Man villain (if you’re not a comic book reader, you’re most likely to know him from his appearance in Spider-Man 3, a move forced by the studio that contributed to the film’s relative failure), but he later became an anti-hero in his own right, which positions him quite nicely for Sony’s first actually-filmed-and-released foray into a shared Spidey universe. (A lot of the other Spider-Man characters they own the rights to are villains, though after the success of Joker I guess they’ll feel emboldened to attempt villain-centred films.) And, to the surprise of some, Venom earnt over $850 million at the global box office, making it the 7th highest grossing film of 2018. Sony’s Spider-Man-universe-without-Spider-Man is definitely underway (there’s a sequel due next year, alongside other Spidey-related films both ready for release and in active development).

    Venomous

    But enough about future plans, because perhaps one reason Venom has been such a success at launching a new universe is that it didn’t try too hard. Unlike The Mummy or Batman v Superman, this isn’t a film bogged down with characters and references designed to tee-up future spin-offs. It’s an entirely standalone adventure, in which struggling journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) bonds with an alien symbiote that can take over his body and do powerful things. The alien is one of several brought to Earth by the explorations of Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In the mould of many an overconfident movie scientist before him, Drake hasn’t bargained on the aliens having their own agenda — to invade Earth and eat the populace, i.e. us. But for some reason Brock’s alien, Venom, takes a liking to the planet and vows to protect it.

    It takes the movie quite a while to get to that point, mind. Sorry if you were wary of spoilers, but, I mean, it’s hardly a surprise that (a) a race of aliens that look like Venom are going to turn out to have vicious motives, and (b) the titular character is going to turn out to be a good guy who wants to save us. There’s certainly a place for slow-burn movies that take their time to get to the point or to reveal the monster, but I’m not sure a summer superhero blockbuster is one of them. While Venom isn’t exactly boring until Venom turns up, it does feel like we’re going through motions until we get to what we’ve come for, i.e. a crazy powerful alien kicking ass and biting off heads.

    It feels further unbalanced because Venom is actually quite short. You might’ve clocked the 112 minute (aka 1 hour 52 minutes) running time and thought that sounded pretty reasonable (even if nowadays most blockbusters are well over 2 hours), but the actual content of the movie runs only a little over an hour-and-a-half, topped up by a long credits scroll and a lengthy post-credit promo clip for Into the Spider-Verse. (I can see why they included that in cinemas, but leaving it in the home release feels unnecessary. Apparently it’s cut from some digital versions.) According to IMDb, Hardy has said that half-an-hour or so was cut from the film, including his favourite sequences. Why those cuts were made and what exactly went, I don’t know, but even in the released version it feels like they could’ve slimmed down the first 50 minutes and put in more of Venom himself.

    Note the lack of Venom

    Partly this is the plot suffering from having to be an origin story, with all the usual issues that brings: a lot of time spent on setup; a villain who’s sidelined for the bigger point of Eddie and Venom finally coming together. Once it reaches that point, it’s allowed to indulge in the barminess of the character and the situation a little. All while playing safely within a PG-13 box, of course. Venom is kind of a ’90s teenager’s idea of what it means to be edgy and dark, and by staying faithful to that the film version consequently feels quite like an early-’00s superhero movie. There’s even an Eminem theme song. It reminds you how far superhero movies have come, though. I mean, they were hardly held in the highest esteem back then (aside from breakout examples, like the first couple of X-Men and Spider-Man movies), and it’s not just time that has changed attitudes but also developments in how they present themselves. But now, that it’s a bit of a throwback is part of Venom‘s charm — or another reason to dismiss it, if there’s no nostalgia in that for you.

    Certainly, the cast are all better than this. Sometimes that elevates it — Hardy is having a ball talking to himself and doing random shit like climbing in lobster tanks — but other times it feels like people are here for a payday. Riz Ahmed’s character arc is gradually whittled down to nothing, replaced by a CGI monster. And what made four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams decide this was a part worth her time? (Turns out the answer is “the chance to work with Tom Hardy.” But I’m sure the cheque didn’t hurt either.) Hardy has spoken a few times about how he wanted to make a movie his son could actually see. A superhero movie seems a good shout for that but I don’t know that Venom was the right pick. The film is clearly aiming for a PG-13 (there’s only one “fuck”; it’s not particularly gory), but the horror sequences and violence were enough to push it up to a 15 over here. And that’s probably fair — there are twisted and broken bodies (even if they then fix themselves), and several instances of biting off heads (it’s not shown in graphic detail, but we’re fully aware that’s what’s happening).

    Real mature

    All things considered, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Venom. It’s kind of fun, in a juvenile way (juvenile like teenagers who think violence and edgy dialogue is “grown up”). But it’s also kind of rubbish in places, in part because it can be so juvenile (juvenile like… yeah, same again). There’s a chance it’ll tee-up a superior sequel — with the origin stuff out of the way, hopefully we can expect a more original storyline; and, as it was such a hit, maybe that’ll allow the filmmakers leeway to go even barmier. For one thing, a brief sequel tease suggests Woody Harrelson is all ready to Woody Harrelson it up. Until then, I guess this’ll do as a crazy placeholder.

    3 out of 5

    Venom is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

    Split Second (1992)

    2020 #135
    Tony Maylam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

    Split Second

    I confess, I hadn’t even heard of Split Second before a remastered Blu-ray release was announced a couple of months ago (more details about that at the end). A sci-fi/action/horror hybrid starring Rutger Hauer is the kind of thing that sounds interesting to me, but the fact I’d never come across it before seemed like a red flag. Fortunately, it’s on Prime Video, so I didn’t have to make a blind buy, and this is a recommendable course of action for anyone similarly unacquainted with the film. I did go on to purchase the Blu-ray, but I can see why others would not. Split Second isn’t exactly in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it has a distinctive quality that will not be to everyone’s taste.

    Set in the future-year 2008, when London has been flooded thanks to global warming and pollution has turned day into night, Hauer chomps cigars, chocolate, and scenery as Harley Stone, a badass rogue cop on the hunt for the serial killer who murdered his partner three years ago. Assigned to keep him in check is rookie cop Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan), and together the pair realise their quarry may not be altogether human…

    And if you’re wondering what the film’s title has to do with any of this… yeah, bugger all. One of the working titles was Black Tide, which suits the film so much better. I mean, it’s still not wholly fitting — the global warming/pollution stuff is dystopian-future scene-setting without any true bearing on the actual plot — but at least it evokes the tone and style of the film more than “Split Second”, which sounds like a Steven Segal movie.

    Stone Dick

    It’s almost hard to describe what that tone and style is, mind. It starts out almost like budget Blade Runner — it’s the future (so we’re told); it’s night; it’s raining; a hardbitten cop visits a seedy nightclub; etc. But then we get Stone’s first line of dialogue, which comes after a guard dog barks at him. He flashes his warrant card — at the dog — and says “police, dickhead.” To the dog. It’s hilariously terrible and awesome in one fell swoop. Hauer doesn’t give it an overtly comical delivery, and so you can’t quite tell if Stone is deadpanning or genuinely offering this information… to a dog.

    This kind of almost-a-comedy-but-not-actually tone pops up increasingly as the film goes on, as if it was shot in order and the cast gradually realised how ridiculous it all was. By the time you get to the point where a deranged Durkin is demanding bigger guns, you’ll be cackling. Or you’ll be thinking “what is this godawful crap?!”, which goes back to my initial point: some people will delight in it all, while others will feel they’ve wasted their time on a low-budget no-mark that should’ve been left forgotten in the early ’90s.

    I’m the former. You couldn’t reasonably call this a great movie — parts do border on “so bad it’s good”, and there’s much joy from the cast clearly realising it’s ludicrous. Plus, there’s a sense it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. It jumps from genre to genre as it goes on, and even the final monster (designed by Stephen Norrington, who’d go on to direct Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) looks to be a mishmash born of uncertain direction, part hell-demon, part tech nightmare (is that a motorcycle helmet?!) But good golly does that crazy mix make for some barmy fun.

    Watery London

    I tell you what, though: the underlying concept isn’t bad. This is exactly the kind of movie I think someone should actually spend the money and effort to remake: something with decent ideas and intentions, but which didn’t come off on the first go. Iron out the plot (mixing genres is fine; jumping between them feels “made up as we went along”), smooth out the tone (keep the deadpan humour, up the thrills and scares), and give it a decent budget (this one has a rough-around-the-edges feel), and you could have something special. Especially if you retitle it Black Tide.

    3 out of 5

    Split Second is released on Blu-ray by 101 Films in the UK today. A matching edition will be released in the US on August 11th. It’s also currently available on Amazon Prime Video in both the UK and the US.

    The 100-Week Roundup VIII

    As I mentioned last time, these films are technically from the same week as that last bunch, but seven films seemed a lot for one post. Plus, although they were all watched in the same week, they were watched in different months: the last four were my final films from July 2018, whereas these three are some of my first from August 2018.

    In this roundup…

  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
  • The Quiet Earth (1985)


    Beneath the Planet of the Apes
    (1970)

    2018 #174
    Ted Post | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / G

    Beneath the Planet of the Apes

    Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the sequel no one wanted to make, including the studio — quite a different attitude to today, eh? But Fox were in financial troubles. For his part, Heston managed to negotiate a reduced role and suggested an ending that would kill off the potential for any more sequels. Well, that worked

    Picking up where the first film left off, it sees Heston’s character, Taylor, disappear mysteriously. After a second Earth spaceship crashes on the planet, its only survivor teams up with Taylor’s girl, Nova, to find him, which leads them to encounter a society hiding (you guessed it) beneath the planet of the apes.

    Overall, this feels like trashier sci-fi/adventure than the first one, with a certain B-movie aesthetic to the underground mutants, and a first half that’s just a bunch of running around. Yet, despite that, there are some powerful ideas and solid social commentary here, mainly about blind faith and the terror of military leadership. Plus, the mutants’ use of telepathy as a weapon is quite clever, and their unmasked designs are suitably eerie rather than just ugly. It also has one of the most brutal and bleakest endings ever seen in a Hollywood blockbuster — or probably outside of one, come to that.

    The violence in the final act was originally cut in the UK, and when it was finally released uncut on video some 17 years later, it earnt a 15, a rating its retained ever since. In the US, it’s always been rated G. Those Americans and their insouciant attitude to violence…

    Obviously I watched this two years ago, and at the time I assigned this three-star rating. But I will say that I remember it more fondly than that. As noted above, it takes a while to get going, and it doesn’t have the same classy aspirations as the first film, but its unrepentant fatalism is almost admirable.

    3 out of 5

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
    (2016)

    2018 #175
    Burr Steers | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

    Here’s another one I found more enjoyable than I feel I should have.

    For starters, it’s wild this ever actually got made. I mean, the title is an amusing idea — it’s basically a five-word gag, isn’t it? — but ponder for a moment how that’s going to play out as a full narrative. To live up to its title, it has to make an effort to follow the plot of the novel, and there lies the rub: no one wanting a zombie movie really wants to sit through a Regency romance, and no one wanting a Regency romance really wants it sullied by zombie-based action and gore. Well, inevitably someone will fall into that Venn diagram, but, as someone who’ll quite happily watch either of those genres in isolation, even I struggled to find the idea of such a mash-up too appealing. It needs a clever hand on the tiller to negotiate those treacherous waters, and I’m not sure the director of 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud was that person.

    But, as I said at the start, I did find it surprisingly watchable. It does have a certain amount of wit and fun with the concept, like turning arguments about accomplishment into ones about fighting style. Sometimes the zombies and fights are tacked on to the existing story, but sometimes the narrative is neatly remixed to include the zombie threat. And like any true action movie, scenes of high emotion are settled not with words but with a good dust-up. There’s a solid cast too, including Lily James (always a bonus) and reliable stalwarts like Charles Dance, although, as Darcy, Sam Riley sounds like he’s battling a nasty throat infection. But Sally Phillips is basically a perfect Mrs Bennet for this or any other version, and the same could be said of Douglas Booth as Bingley, or Matt Smith, on fine comedic form as Mr Collins.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Knickers

    It does drop the ball sometimes. The climax doesn’t put enough effort into eliciting tension (it’s like they ran out of money or time or effort: “can the heroes make to the bridge in ti— oh, they just did”); at least one apparent subplot doesn’t go anywhere at all; and a mid-credits scene suggesting the story isn’t over feels lame. It definitely pulls some punches in aid of landing a PG-13 rating in the US, which is unfortunate — it’s a mad concept; it needs to do it properly, go all out and get an R. (I’d still say it’s perhaps a bit too gruesome for PG-13, which is why it landed a 15 over here.)

    I still think the director is the problem. A surer hand would’ve made more of the verbal sparring during the physical sparring; would’ve sold the tension of the action. Apparently David O. Russell was original set to direct, which is mad — can you imagine choosing to follow awards-winners like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle with this? Apparently other directors “considered” included Matt Reeves, Neil Marshall, and Lord & Miller. Presumably they turned it down rather than any producer thinking Burr Steers was a better pick — Lord & Miller, in particular, probably would’ve nailed the tone. But, all things considered, what we got could’ve been a lot worse.

    3 out of 5

    The Quiet Earth
    (1985)

    2018 #178
    Geoffrey Murphy | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15 / R

    The Quiet Earth

    Here we reach the first real hurdle in these two-year-old roundups, because it turns out I made no notes whatsoever after viewing The Quiet Earth. I did note down some quotes from the booklet essay accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release, but it seems a bit rich just to list those excerpts.

    What I can tell you is that The Quiet Earth is a science-fiction film about a scientist who wakes up one morning to find everyone else has disappeared — not fled, not died, just gone. What unfolds from there is a mix of mystery (what happened?) and a kind of existential character examination, both of this man and of ourselves — what would you do if you were the only person on Earth? Only, it doesn’t play quite as heavily as that makes it sound. There are more plot developments, but to say too much would spoil the discovery. And it is a film worth discovering. As Amy Simmons puts it in the aforementioned essay, it’s a “deeply relevant work which reflects darkly upon our age of estrangement and isolation. […] Shifting in tone from horror to comedy to pathos and back again, the film’s great strength is in the themes it explores and satirises — namely nuclear fears, technophobia, and cultural and geographical isolation — which are even more urgent now than when the film premiered in 1985.”

    I’m doing it a disservice with this pathetic little ‘review’, but hopefully someday I’ll revisit it and come up with something more insightful.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VII

    If I were being slavishly accurate about weeks, there should be seven films in this roundup. But that seemed a bit much, so — as the next one of these wasn’t due until the end of the month — I’ve split it in two.

    In this roundup, the final films I watched in July 2018.…

  • The Garden of Words (2013)
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
  • Paul (2011)
  • The Way of the Gun (2000)


    The Garden of Words
    (2013)

    aka Koto no ha no niwa

    2018 #170
    Makoto Shinkai | 46 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    The Garden of Words

    If the only anime director’s name you know is Hayao Miyazaki, you could do worse than familiarise yourself with Makoto Shinkai, director of recent popular hits Your Name and Weathering with You. He’d already been gaining attention with the films he made before those, which include short feature The Garden of Words.

    It revolves around two individuals: a 15-year-old schoolboy who aspires to be a shoemaker, and a 27-year-old woman. They meet one day in a park during a rainstorm and develop a connection. According to Shinkai, the film is a love story between two people “who feel lonely or incomplete in their social relations, but who don’t feel that they need to fix this loneliness.” That’s an interesting perspective, because while there’s undoubtedly a significant element of loneliness in the film, it’s accompanied by an element of depression; that these two characters seem unfilled. Without wanting to spoil anything, it seems to be the connection between the two that ‘saves’ them and elevates their lives — i.e. they did need to fix their loneliness. Perhaps it’s a disconnect between intention and execution that led me note that “where it ends up going isn’t as good as where it begins”. Nonetheless, the characters are engaging, and their emotional turmoil and connection are affecting. It also leaves room for personal interpretation with an open ending — it does reach a conclusion of sorts, but there’s clearly space the viewer to imagine what comes next.

    The animation is simply stunning — both beautiful in itself, and in its technical accomplishment. For that reason, if given the choice, it might be tempting to opt for an English dub, but I’d advise to stick with the original Japanese. I’ve written before about how I’m regularly conflicted when watching anime about whether to go for the original Japanese or an English dub, and I do often I go for the latter — I must admit I’m swayed by the recognisable voice casts on Ghibli films, for example; and, generally speaking, it allows you to appreciate the visuals more when you’re not having to read a lot of subtitles. Nonetheless, this time I chose the Japanese audio, and I’m glad I did: it’s subtle and calm, like the film itself, and the quietness and gentle pace mean there’s not an overabundance of distracting reading (unlike in Your Name, for example). I popped on a bit of the American dub afterwards and it felt all wrong by comparison — somehow brash and decidedly inauthentic. On the bright side, either track sounds luscious in 5.1, with the rain falling all around you, which serves to really immerse the viewer in the situation alongside the characters.

    4 out of 5

    The Secret in Their Eyes
    (2009)

    aka El secreto de sus ojos

    2018 #171
    Juan José Campanella | 129 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Argentina & Spain / Spanish | 18 / R

    The Secret in Their Eyes

    A surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010 (it beat A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery, two very different love stories, and a musing on the nature of justice, especially within a corrupt system.

    Primarily, it’s a procedural thriller about a decades-old unsolved case that one of the original investigators is revisiting in the hopes of finding closure. As that, I thought the film was probably a bit too long — despite some solid thematic weight, the unnecessarily slow pace at times make it feel a smidge self-important for what is fundamentally a crime thriller. That said, those other facets that have been added to supplement the storyline — the romance side; the passage of time (how do people deal with such life-changing events over the ensuing decades?) — do bring something to the film, elevating it beyond standard police procedural fare.

    Even as ‘just’ that, it pulls off some spectacular feats: the famous single-take at the football match really is an all-timer, and the final twist is unexpected and a perfect capper. I was this close to giving it full marks, and maybe when I revisit it someday I will.

    4 out of 5

    Paul
    Extended Edition
    (2011)

    2018 #172
    Greg Mottle | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Klingon | 15

    Paul

    On a post-ComicCon road trip around the US’s UFO heartland, a pair of British geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) bump into an actual alien, the eponymous Paul (Seth Rogen), who’s on the run from a government facility. Cue a kind of “E.T. for grownups” as the trio — and a widening assortment of supporting characters — endeavour to evade the authorities and get Paul home.

    Mistaken by some for the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (thanks to it starring Pegg and Frost, but it’s missing the vital ingredient of director Edgar Wright, who was committed to Scott Pilgrim), Paul lacks the sharpness of that trilogy at its best. However, it’s full of likeability — in the characters, and of course the humour — to the point where it actually manages to get a bit emotional at the end. It’s also chock full of references and quotes for fellow geeks to spot, some of which are incredibly well-timed to have fantastic impact.

    As for the extended cut, there’s a comparison here. As usual, the theatrical cut was R-rated in the US but the extended one is unrated there, but (also as usually) I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t pass at R. The running time difference is about five-and-a-half minutes, but there are 41 differences crammed into that time. It seems like some fairly memorable jokes were cut and others added back — nothing earth shattering, but enough to call the extended cut the preferable one.

    4 out of 5

    The Way of the Gun
    (2000)

    2018 #173
    Christopher McQuarrie | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Way of the Gun

    The debut directorial feature from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who made his name penning the likes of The Usual Suspects and more recently has found success as the regular writer-director of the Mission: Impossible movies), is one of those ’90s crime comedy-dramas — you know, the kind of thing we describe as “Tarantino-esque”, for good reason. It has its fans, but McQuarrie tends to refer to it disparagingly on social media, no doubt in part because it landed him in “director jail” for over a decade. Personally, I agree with McQuarrie (I usually do): it’s not a failure, but it’s not much of a success either.

    My main problem with it is that it’s over-long and over-complicated. Both of those are thanks to too many characters with too many motivations. It’s possible to get your head round it all in the end, but there’s a stretch in the middle where it feels like work. But rather than slow things down and spell it out, it might be better if it moved through them all quicker — at least then it would be pacy. It’s also rather dully shot by Dick Pope, who was later Oscar-nominated for the likes of The Illusionist and Mr. Turner, but has plied most of his trade in the grounded world of Mike Leigh movies, which perhaps explains that. There are still two or three good shots, plus a neat oner that indicates the direction McQ’s style would head.

    There are flashes of McQuarrie’s brilliance elsewhere too, including some nice bits of dialogue and a couple of good sequences. The action scenes, in particular, demonstrate he had a strong skill there from the start. They feel very grounded and real — just the way the characters move; that they’re constantly reloading; how it ends when everyone’s out of bullets. McQuarrie’s brother, a Navy SEAL, was the technical advisor for these scenes, which explains their accuracy. The final shoot-out, with all of that going on, is the best bit of the movie. Well, at least it ends on a high.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VI

    Here’s another quartet of reviews from my July 2018 viewing, with an all-star cast both behind the camera (Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott) and in front of it (Keanu Reeves, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, etc).

    In this week’s roundup…

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Wind River (2017)
  • Body of Lies (2008)


    The Day the Earth Stood Still
    (2008)

    2018 #163
    Scott Derrickson | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

    The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic, starring Keanu Reeves as an alien who has come to “save the Earth”.

    The original might be best remembered for its message about mankind. The do-over doesn’t so much attempt serious “humanity are the problem” moralising as just nod in that general direction. Instead, it conforms to the Hollywood-remake stereotype of simplification, using the plot as an excuse for a CGI destructathon. Even as that it’s a bit of a damp squib, with no genuinely impressive sequences; some of the CGI is pretty crap, even, like the first appearance of the giant robot GORT.

    I know we all love him now because he seems like a genuinely wonderful guy in real life and the John Wick movies are cool, but, still, the role of an emotionally cold alien pretending to be human but struggling to understand what truly makes us ‘us’ is a perfect fit for Keanu Reeves and his usual acting style. Jaden Smith is equally perfect casting as an irritating brat of a kid. Jennifer Connelly struggles gamely to be the heart of the film, and there are small or cameo roles for the likes of Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, and John Cleese, none of whom can really elevate the basic material they’re given.

    All in all, it’s inoffensively bland, with some light sci-fi ideas, a bit of loose moralising, and a bunch of pixels whooshing about. Perhaps with a better creative team — or without the demands of a studio blockbuster budget — it could’ve been more; something genuinely thought-provoking about the value (or otherwise) of humanity. But it isn’t.

    3 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket
    (1987)

    2018 #165
    Stanley Kubrick | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    Full Metal Jacket

    Kubrick’s anti-war war movie, about the dehumanisation of abusive army training, the virtue and success of kindness, and how combat can erode and destroy the soul. It’s “a Vietnam movie”, but Kubrick wasn’t interested in Nam per se, rather “the phenomenon of war” and what happens to young men when you turn them into killing machines.

    It’s a film of two halves: first, the training; then, the war. The first half is the better known one, and some people will tell you it goes downhill when they leave training. That first part is indeed horrid but effective and meaningful, but I thought the second half lived up to its impact too.

    A film about war’s effect on people requires strong performances, and fortunately it has those. Most famous is R. Lee Ermey’s nasty drill instructor — an unquestionably accurate portrayal of the real thing, because Ermey used to be one. He was originally hired as a consultant, but decided he wanted the role and convinced Kubrick to cast him, then rewrote his dialogue — the obscenity-strewn insults are all Ermey’s own. But for my money the best performance in the movie comes from Vincent D’Onofrio. Apparently he got the part just because he was a friend of Matthew Modine — it was his first film role — but he’s fantastic. And nowadays best known as a gun-happy right-wing nut-job on Twitter, Adam Baldwin is very convincing as, er, a gun-happy right-wing nut-job.

    Naturally, Kubrick’s work is as on-point as ever. A climactic action scene pits the entire troop against just one sniper, which is both thrilling and horrifyingly brutal. The film’s final death is excruciatingly drawn out, to really convey its emotional toll. Douglas Milsome’s photography frequently looks stunning as well. The fire-lit final act is as visually gorgeous as it is suspenseful and gruelling.

    To paraphrase a commentator in the Between Good and Evil documentary, Kubrick “takes the sympathetic characters and breaks them down so that, by the end, there’s no one left to root for, and the sympathy you feel is not for the character, but for what they’d lost.” And another notes how much you can see Iraq in the film, as if Kubrick was predicting the future of urban warfare too. Or, another way of looking at it: how little changes; how few lessons we learn.

    5 out of 5

    Full Metal Jacket was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    It placed 8th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Wind River
    (2017)

    2018 #166
    Taylor Sheridan | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Wind River

    A veteran hunter helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Wyoming Native American reservation.IMDb

    What follows is a neo-Western crime thriller, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan. As a genre piece, it’s most noteworthy for how well it handles the reveal of whodunnit. Just as you think the film’s getting to the point where they find who did it, but it’s only a suspicion and they’re going to have to go off and prove it, the film takes a hard left in a different direction that’s perfectly handled. To quote from a comment on iCheckMovies, the way it goes about this “seemed truly unique to this genre. The closest comparison I can think of is from Se7en, when [Se7en spoilers!] Kevin Spacey just turns up and hands himself in, completely out of the blue. It unexpectedly shattered the cat and mouse formula that people expected it to follow.” By dispensing with narrative oneupmanship (i.e. trying really, really hard to pull a twist out of thin air, as most mystery/thrillers do), it lets “the story unfold into more of a tragedy than the standard mystery or thriller you might expect it to be.”

    Talking of other reviews, some people are heavily critical of the film having a white male lead when it’s supposed to be about the plight of Native Americans, and especially Native American women. Well, yes, to an extent that’s true, but this is where fantasy rubs up against reality: do you really think a movie with a Native American lead would find it easy to get funding, distribution, and gain attention? Sometimes these things are a necessary ‘evil’ if your goal is to reach a wider audience and thereby spread the message. Besides, the film makes a point of treating the white characters as outsiders, in various ways. It’s not pretending this is how it should be, nor that they’re welcomed like, “hooray, the white people are here to save us!” If anything it’s used to emphasise the point: the Native American cops can’t solve the case themselves because they’re underfunded and understaffed; they have no choice but to rely on white people being prepared to help. That’s an indictment in itself.

    Altogether, this is a powerful movie — arguably Taylor Sheridan’s best, most mature screenplay (which is saying something for the man who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water), and features a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, reminding you why he was Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker before his attempts to be a blockbuster action star.

    4 out of 5

    Body of Lies
    (2008)

    2018 #168
    Ridley Scott | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English & Arabic | 15 / R

    Body of Lies

    A CIA agent on the ground in Jordan hunts down a powerful terrorist leader while being caught between the unclear intentions of his American supervisors and Jordan Intelligence.IMDb

    That’s the simple version, anyhow, because I thought the film itself got a bit long-winded and complicated; but if you enjoy spy movies, it’s smattered with some good bits of tradecraft stuff. That said, I’m not sure I buy Leonardo DiCaprio as the CIA’s man in the Middle East — he stands out like a sore thumb there; not good for a spy.

    Meanwhile, Russell Crowe commands complex world-changing missions over the phone while taking his kids to school or watching a football match — a nice touch, I thought, contrasting mundanity with these high-stakes actions. (Quite why he “had” to gain 50lbs for the role is beyond me, though. Sounds like he just fancied being lazy about his diet and exercise regime.) Still, the standout from the cast is the ever-excellent Mark Strong as the head of Jordanian intelligence, a man who is urbane and always immaculately dressed, but does not suffer those who disrespect him, exhibiting a kind of calm fury-cum-disappointment when they offend him.

    For all the confusion I felt about the plot, what I presume is the intended theme (that America can’t win because it refuses to respect or understand the culture of both its enemies and allies in the Middle East; and that the supposed good guys aren’t any better than the bad guys) comes across quite effectively. It’s also about the ineffectiveness of advanced technology. The CIA, so focused on their shiny new bells and whistles, lose out in the end to old fashioned personal interaction and patient preparation.

    Body of Lies seems somewhat torn between making these points and being an entertaining action-thriller. Ultimately it straddles the two stools, not quite satisfying as either — it has its moments, for sure, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. Maybe Ridley should’ve left the spy thrillers to his brother…

    3 out of 5

  • Gemini Man (2019)

    2020 #141
    Ang Lee | 117 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

    Gemini Man

    Gemini Man is a film that, at every point I can remember it being talked about, was discussed more for its various technical feats than anything else. Partly that’s because there are a couple of angles. Firstly, the most obvious: it stars Will Smith as an ageing assassin who must fight… a 25-years-younger Will Smith, achieved with motion capture and CGI. Secondly, director Ang Lee shot it in 3D 4K HFR — that’s High Frame Rate, if you don’t know, with the picture running at 120 frames per second rather than the 24fps we’ve been used to for the past 90-odd years (excepting The Hobbit trilogy, though only if you saw one of the relatively-limited HFR theatrical screenings). Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Gemini Man often feels more like a tech demo with a plot grafted onto it than it does a fully functioning movie in its own right.

    Consequently, I’m going to spend more of this review writing about the film’s presentation than its content. To some degree, that speaks for itself as criticism. But if you are interested in the film and don’t give a toss about how exactly you’re seeing it (or don’t have a choice), feel free to whizz down to the last two paragraphs (just after the picture of Young Will Smith) where I finally offer some thoughts on the film itself.

    Back to the tech, then. There’s currently only one way to see Gemini Man in its intended format: at the cinema. I say “currently” — obviously such opportunities expired when its theatrical run ended, and I don’t imagine it’s likely to get a re-release. Every other option is a compromise. Want to see it in 3D? Not only will you need the appropriate home cinema setup, but you’ll have to import the disc from Germany, the only country where it was granted a 3D Blu-ray release. Want to see it in HFR? That’s easier, because the 4K disc is widely available, though obviously you still need the appropriate kit. (I presume the digital 4K versions are HFR too, but I don’t actually know that.) Mind you, even that’s something of a compromise, because tech limitations mean the home release is 60fps rather than the full 120 (to be fair, so were most HFR cinema screenings).

    Action Man

    I watched it in 4K 60fps, and, oh, it’s weird. So so weird. Distracts-you-for-the-entire-film weird. Virtually-the-only-thing-I’m-going-to-talk-about-in-this-review weird. The disc even begins with a notice/warning that it’s at 60fps rather than 24fps, so presumably they know how weird it feels. The most obvious effect of more frames per second is that motion is smoother, with reduced motion blur, but that applies on a micro level to lend an unnatural clarity to everything. The effect on motion is often called “the soap opera effect”, because such cheap drama has traditionally been shot at TV’s higher default frame rate. Of course, so is much other television, or even behind-the-scenes footage on films; so while it’s not a wholly inaccurate nickname, the effect reminded me more of TV documentaries. The film begins with a train journey in a lusciously green-looking Belgium, before travelling around the globe to other sunny locations with glamorous establishing shots. It looks less like a Hollywood action movie, more like Will Smith is the new host of Cruising with Jane McDonald.

    When it’s not playing travelogue, it looks like a tech demo. I don’t think that’s just the added smoothness, but everything about how it’s shot: it’s very bright and saturated, the kind of look you get in marketing promos, not feature films. Even paused it looks a little odd. Partly that’s the boost given to the colour palette by HDR, but at this point I’ve watched plenty of other films with HDR to be familiar with its effects, and I think this was beyond normal. The other thing the visual quality reminded me of was low-budget films by very new/amateur filmmakers, and that’s definitely to do with Ang Lee’s shot choices — lots of stuff at eye level, gentle pans and tilts, in locations so dull they might have been found around someone’s hometown. It doesn’t help any that all the fonts they’ve used for captions look like the editing software’s bland default. And further, it’s also the effect of shooting on high-resolution digital video — it’s ultra-clear, with none of the grain of real film, but, again, that’s a look more familiar from low-budget productions. Would HFR work better if it was shot on real film? You’d get back some of that tactile grit, rather than telltale digital smoothness.

    Biker Man

    What about when the film gets to its big action sequences — the kind of thing that obviously a no-budget newbie couldn’t afford. Would the change of milieu fix the mental associations? Yes and no, in that it just adds other ones: the first big sequence, the bike chase you probably saw in trailers or clips, looks like a computer game. Again, it’s a mix of elements: the digital sheen, the smooth frame rate, the shot choices (lots of POV or close following, like a game’s third-person camera), and an unnatural-seeming speed — it looks like some of the CGI has been animated too fast, though that could be HFR’s fluidity making normal motion look odd because we’re not used to it.

    The advantage of wondering all this while watching the film at home was that, afterwards, I could pop in the regular Blu-ray and compare a few scenes in 24fps 1080p SDR. Immediately, it looks a lot more like a regular movie. Is that indeed the loss of HFR’s smoothness, or is it the drop in resolution, or the loss of HDR enhancement? Without being able to view different permutations it’s hard to say which one causes the jarring effect, or if it‘s the incremental change made by each that adds up to a radically different picture when combined. That said, obviously I’ve watched 4K HDR films before, and it’s never struck me as odd-looking as much as this film (I’ve seen some strange applications of HDR, but that tends to be in individual shots/scenes, not an entire movie). The bike chase also looks more normal on the whole, though some of the bits I alluded to before still looked dodgy, so I can only conclude it’s a mix of the animation (because I’m sure it’s not a real stunt) and the HFR.

    If all that wasn’t distracting enough, there’s the fact that one of the film’s main stars is a de-aged Will Smith. We’ve seen plenty of de-ageing in films now, whether it be Marvel’s flashbacks or Scorsese’s varied eras in The Irishman. This feels more extensive, though — they’ve not just airbrushed Smith’s age-related blemishes, but recreated his youthful visage with full motion-captured CGI. The end result is both incredibly realistic animation and also not quite there. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s not real — I wonder if someone unfamiliar with the film’s setup wouldn’t register it. It looks more convincing than I remember Peter Cushing being in Rogue One, and I remember stories of kids who didn’t realise he was CGI. I guess the best praise is that, as the film went on, I realised I’d just accepted Young Will as his own character, not a second Old Will in disguise. There are scenes where he’s called on to do Proper Acting and it works. Unfortunately, it’s almost ruined by one scene at the end where the effect suddenly looks like a ten-year-old computer game. Was this a last-minute re-edit, I wonder, leaving them without enough time to do the CGI properly? It’s a shame to have dropped the ball at the last hurdle.

    Young Man

    And if you can get past all the technical distractions (which I guess most people will, as “the tech” is not why most people watch films, and on any format less than 4K the visual oddness evaporates anyway), what about the film itself? Well, it’s a passable action-thriller with a sci-fi tweak. For the level of the latter, think something like Face/Off rather than, say, Blade Runner. I’ve seen quite a few people compare it to a ’90s action movie and that’s pretty fair — subtract the fancy cameras and CGI and that’s what’s left. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re so young that ’90s action movies are Old and consequently Bad. There are a couple of very impressive and exciting action sequences — the bike chase, primarily (which I bet looks fab in 3D). That said, the Blu-ray’s visual effects featurette reveals they faked a bunch of stunts that Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie would’ve done for real as a third-tier action sequence, which takes the shine off a little. (On the other hand, it also reveals that there’s some fucking incredible CGI in this movie — stuff you’d never imagine was an effect but is, including a full-on close-up of Old Will.)

    So, the reason the tech presentation remains the film’s strongest talking point is that the film underneath is decent but nothing particularly special. That said, I do think it’s been given a hard rap by critics and viewers alike — whether or not you’re interested in the experimental visuals, it’s a fine sci-fi-tinged action blockbuster, with all the attendant qualities and demerits that implies.

    3 out of 5

    Gemini Man is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.