Guardians of the Galaxy 3D (2014)

Rewatchathon 2017 #8
James Gunn | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the Galaxy 3D

So, I just got a 3D TV. Well, it’s a 4K TV, but we’re interested in the fact it does 3D right now. And, to cut a long story short (literally — I wrote a 1,200-word post about this before deciding it was rambling and pointless), the impetus to get one now came from the fact that all TV manufacturers are ditching 3D from this year and I always kinda wanted it. (As to why I got a 4K one, apparently it makes for better quality 3D; plus it’s future proof — “future” being the operative word because I’m not replacing my Blu-ray player, I don’t keep a regular Netflix subscription, and Amazon Prime’s UHD selection (found on an otherwise-secret menu when you access it from a 4K device!) is quite pitiful.)

The first thing I watched was… the opening seven minutes of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary episode, actually (which has superb 3D). But the first thing I watched in full was Guardians of the Galaxy, because I’d been meaning to rewatch it before the sequel lands at the end of the month, and because I’ve long been curious about the 3D version’s shifting aspect ratio.

Regular readers may remember that I love a good shifting aspect ratio, and Guardians does not disappoint. As usual for these things, most of the film is at 2.40:1, opening up to 1.78:1 for selected sequences. Director James Gunn uses it in a similar way to Christopher Nolan, with a scattering of expanded shots here and there alongside some whole sequences, mainly used for action scenes and epic establishing shots. (That’s as opposed to something like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which has more-or-less half the film in one ratio and the second half in the other.) Even on a TV the effect is immense, the screen-filling interludes feeling genuinely larger and more impactful. This was helped no small amount by my new TV being 12″ larger, which doesn’t sound like much but actually makes a huge difference (as the actress said to the bishop). That said, pausing a moment to do the maths, it’s nearly a whole third bigger than my old TV, so no wonder the difference is noticeable. But I digress…

Knowhere's better in 3D

As with so many 3D blockbusters nowadays, Guardians was a post-conversion. Nonetheless, I commented in my original review that some sequences seemed to have been designed with 3D in mind — specifically the chase through Knowhere, which I described as “little more than a blur.” I feel like past-me was correct, because I had no such issues with the sequence this time out. Even though I enjoy it, I’m still one of those people who regard 3D as fundamentally little more than a gimmick (though I’ve yet to see Hugo, so I guess there’s still room for my own conversion to considering it a Serious Filmmaking Tool), but it does lend a scope, scale, and pizzazz throughout the movie that’s a lot of fun, especially during the big action sequences. Indeed, particularly when combined with the shifting aspect ratio, it makes for some very striking moments.

I’d hesitate to say the 3D improved my opinion of the film as a whole, but I think the second viewing certainly did. My aforementioned original review was pretty darn positive, though I think I’d remembered enjoying it less than I did because the praise it received in some other quarters went into overkill. On this viewing I didn’t feel the problems with pace that bothered me before; and while I continue to think Nova City could do with more development before the climax (I still can’t even remember its proper name), I found said climax to be less overlong and more structured. Obviously the film itself hasn’t changed (well, other than that extra visual dimension), but my perspective on it clearly has (in addition to that extra visual dimension).

Badasses of the Galaxy

For all the benefits of bigger screen sizes, extra dimensions, and an adjusted appreciation of its pacing, Guardians’ greatest asset remains its characters and how much fun they are to be around. They are primarily what make it a mighty entertaining movie, whether in two dimensions or three.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy is on BBC One tonight at 8:30pm — in 2D, of course.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 #183
Justin Lin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA, Hong Kong & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Star Trek Beyond

The cover of Star Trek Beyond’s Blu-ray proudly proclaims that it’s “the best reviewed action movie of the year”. I don’t think that’s true (Civil War, anyone?), but it does indicate the mindset producing these films nowadays: they’re not the serious-minded sci-fi the Trek franchise was once known for, but action-orientated summer blockbusters.

As that, Beyond is pretty entertaining. An overall lighter tone than the heavy-handed Into Darkness, plus competently executed action sequences and fewer incredulity-inducing contrivances, make for a fun adventure.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t succumb to the modern franchise proclivity for forcing third movies to be trilogy-formers. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising though: it was confirmed before Beyond’s release that a fourth (aka fourteenth) movie is in development, so obviously this shouldn’t feel like the end of the road for this crew. The upside of this is that Beyond can get on with its story, unworried about being Epic.

Explosive

The downside is it creates a “just another adventure” feel to the plot — a bread-and-butter situation for Star Trek’s original TV format, but underwhelming in an expensive blockbuster movie franchise. Consequently Beyond feels inessential. That’s an odd sensation in a franchise nowadays, where the usual MO sees every movie feed into a bigger multi-film narrative. But with Into Darkness being deliberately ignored here (thanks to its unpopularity with hardcore Trekkies) and Beyond functioning as “just another adventure”, Trek is almost a franchise-out-of-time, where individual instalments can be entirely enjoyed in isolation.

Not that I think that’s a bad thing. Beyond may lack a certain epicness, but it’s entertaining enough for what it is.

4 out of 5

Star Trek Beyond is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

2017 #48
Rupert Sanders | 107 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell

A few decades in the future technology has continued to proliferate to the point where the majority of humans are cybernetically augmented in some way, whether it be eyes that have additional functionality, like zooming or x-ray, or fingers that split into dozens of segments to type faster, or a stomach that can process alcohol quicker… However, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human mind in a fully cybernetic body. Along with her team at anti-terror unit Section 9, they find themselves on the trail of a cyberterrorist who is murdering high-ranking employees of Hanka Robotics — the company that built the Major. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a startling conspiracy. Well, of course they do.

Although officially (as per the credits) adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original manga, this iteration of Ghost in the Shell creates a new narrative, but builds it out of liberally repurposed imagery, sequences, character traits, and more from the popular 1995 anime adaptation and its sequel, and apparently from the Stand Alone Complex TV series too (I’ve never got round to watching that so can’t vouch for its use here). Though to say “new narrative” is something of a kindness because, intricacies aside, the story isn’t new at all. A familiar narrative is not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment — to invoke it for the second time in as many GitS reviews, Doctor Strange had a rote “Marvel superhero begins” storyline but made up for it with flashy visuals and a good amount of wit, resulting in a movie that I enjoyed very much. Ghost in the Shell also has flashy visuals, as you’ll have no doubt noticed from the trailers, but instead of wit it has all sorts of existential philosophy to ponder upon.

Shoot first, ask questions never

Unfortunately, it doesn’t bother to. It certainly raises some of those issues, but I think it may do so by accident: director Rupert Sanders and co have clearly decided to focus on the action-thriller aspects of previous Ghost in the Shell material in their reworking, but have unavoidably swept up some of the philosophising in the process; but because they have little to no interest in actually exploring those questions (Sanders has literally said as much in interviews), they all lead to nowt. Some of the quandaries Ghost in the Shell’s world poses have been well-considered elsewhere — Blade Runner is probably the most obvious example — but, I think, not all of them. For instance, there’s rich potential in the stuff about having your brain put in a brand-new body, especially given some of the twists and revelations about that which come later on, but it doesn’t feel like the film has much to say about it. It’s a thriller movie that uses those elements to generate plot twists, rather than a film that’s interested in examining what they might mean to a human being who experiences them.

This tin-eared understanding of the source material stretches in every direction. Take the role of the bin man, for instance, and how it’s been repurposed here. How that character’s been tricked, and Section 9’s uncovering of it, is quite an affecting sequence in the original film, as well as contributing a lot to the film’s cogitation on how much our memories make us who we are. In this remake, the fundamental facts of the man’s case are still the same, but there’s very little feeling or emotion there. It’s just a plot point; a stepping stone on the way to the next bit of the narrative. I guess to most people watching Hollywood blockbusters plot is paramount, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have both driven the story onwards and contributed something meaningful.

Geisha gone gaga

Despite the focus on plot, and the relatively brisk running time of an hour and 45 minutes, Ghost in the Shell manages to drag on occasion. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they had licence to do so thanks to some of the slower sequences in the original film, but at least those were busy with philosophising, while here they’re just… I’m not sure, really. It was probably a form of exposition — slow, unfocused exposition — but dressed up to look like it might be something more. Conversely, at other times the relatively brief running time is to the film’s detriment, with characters and plot elements going underdeveloped. For example, we never really feel the brewing conflict between Hanka Robotics, the government-funded tech company that built the Major, and Section 9, a government anti-terror task force. We see some of the arguments between the heads of each organisation, but the fact they both answer to the government is only alluded to rather than enacted — the Prime Minister and what s/he might do is invoked on more than one occasion, but no one governmental personage ever appears to actually weigh in on matters. Considering the importance of all that to events in the third act, I thought it could’ve done with a few more building blocks.

If we set aside the wasted potential to engage with the thought-provoking topics its world raises, and the few storytelling fumbles like the one just discussed, Ghost in the Shell is a solid straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, with a decent if familiar revenge-ish story eventually emerging and some competently realised action scenes — though the very best of the latter are all homages to the original movie, which probably did them better. The design work is often exemplary, with some striking cityscapes and technology (the robotic geishas that have been quite prominent in the marketing, for instance), and Sanders and DP Jess Hall usually lens it all to good effect. That said, this is a future world that doesn’t really feel lived in — it looks like it’s just sprung out of the mind of a designer, or a comic book artist. Some might think that’s the fault of the source material being a comic book, but I don’t think it’s true of the earlier film, at least. The rubbish collectors are again a good example: in the original movie you really feel like they’re on their usual rounds, until Section 9 track them down and it explodes into an action sequence. In this version, they merely exist because a bin lorry is the kind of thing that would make a handy battering ram (and also as another nod to the anime, of course).

Unspecified future cityscape

Funnily, for all the film’s faults in not talking about anything, there’s a lot to talk about with the film itself. I haven’t even touched on the whole whitewashing controversy, though to be honest it never bothered me that much anyway — I mean, it’s a US-led English-language remake, of course they’re more interested in a big-name American star than racial fidelity. Not that it’s cut and dried anyway: you might assume she’s Japanese, but the ’95 movie was supposed to be set in a future Hong Kong (for its part, the live-action movie never names the city or country it’s set in). Also, without meaning to spoil anything, the film itself touches on the issue. I thought how it did that was solid, though (as with everything else) under-explored, but others consider it an empty gesture to try to excuse the whitewashing.

I find it a little tricky to sum up my reactions to this new Ghost in the Shell, because they were kind of… nothing. I walked out of it feeling reasonably entertained by the action scenes and thriller storyline, though I would argue both could’ve been even stronger; and while I may lament its lack of engagement with the issues its world inherently raises, it does so little to tackle them that I almost just shrug it off — yeah, it probably should do that, but it doesn’t do it badly, or half-heartedly, it just doesn’t. Exactly what you want or expect from Ghost in the Shell may well dictate one’s reaction to it as much as the content of the film in and of itself, which I think is perfectly adequate for what it is. It could have been so much more, though.

3 out of 5

Ghost in the Shell is in cinemas pretty much everywhere now.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

aka Innocence / Kôkaku Kidôtai Inosensu

2017 #44
Mamoru Oshii | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | 15 / PG-13

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Nine years after he made the highly influential sci-fi action/philosophy mash-up anime Ghost in the Shell, writer-director Mamoru Oshii returned to that world to tell an original story (the first film having been an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga) that once again butts action up against philosophising, though with diminishing returns.

Set a couple of years on from the original movie, it follows the first film’s sidekick, Batou (originally voiced by Akio Ôtsuka, and in the English version by the dub’s co-writer and director, Richard Epcar), as he investigates a series of murder-suicides committed by sex robots. It’s just the tip of an iceberg that leads to… some kind of conspiracy.

At the time of its release Innocence gained a lot of praise, as is plastered all over the DVD and Blu-ray covers (at least over here), with some hailing it as a more artistically accomplished film than its predecessor. With time I think that reaction has cooled considerably, and rightfully so. If there’s one criticism to be levelled at the first movie it’s that it sometimes stops dead for characters to have a thoughtful discussion about the existential quandaries that underpins their cyborg existence. Innocence ramps this up to the nth degree, with even more such chats that go on even longer, liberally peppered with quotations from other sources, an idea Oshii cribbed from Jean-Luc Godard. It feels like it.

Ain't she a doll?

While the first film clearly pondered what it means to be human, and where the line might be between an artificial creation and sentience, I can’t really recall what Innocence was driving at. Possibly several things. Possibly too many things. A lengthy sequence in the middle where our heroes find themselves repeating the same events over and over with slight variations is probably meant to be About something, but it just left me thinking of cheap referential jokes (“Locus Solus, I’ve come to bargain!”)

There are action scenes too, some of which are decent and some of which are hysterically overblown. There’s nothing that approaches being as iconic as any of the original’s multiple memorable set pieces. Where the first film broke new ground by combining traditional cel animation with computer-generated 3D, in a way that still holds up today, Innocence takes it too far, and looks dated because of it. The characters are always 2D, but often placed in CG environments, which are now 13 years old and feel it. It’s weird to think this is a film that was once hailed for its visual majesty, because a lot of it feels quite drab now. At times there’s an awful lot of brown.

Computer-generated brown

On its original release Innocence was called simply that, the Ghost in the Shell 2 prefix added to help sell it in international markets. Oshii’s view was that the film stood on its own and wasn’t your standard “Hollywood-style” sequel. I disagree. For one thing, the film makes many references to the events of the first movie, meaning a working knowledge is required to understand what’s going on at times. For another… well, with technical advancements that aren’t necessarily beneficial, grander but less memorable action sequences, and less coherent thematic underpinnings, it’s clear that Hollywood doesn’t have the monopoly on sequel-y sequels.

3 out of 5

The live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell is released in the UK today and the US tomorrow.

Logan (2017)

2017 #30
James Mangold | 137 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

This review contains major spoilers.

Logan

Little Miss Sunshine meets Hell or High Water via Midnight Special, with more superpowers and (probably) fewer Oscar nominations, in the film some people are calling the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight.

In the not-so-distant future, the man once known as Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman), is living / hiding on the US-Mexico border, his once formidable powers diminished by age. He works as a limo driver to afford meds for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose psychic powers have become dangerous as his brain falters with age. When a woman recognises Logan and asks for his help, the disillusioned former X-Man fobs her off. But soon dark forces and a mysterious girl (Dafne Keen), not to mention his innate moral code, will force his claw-wielding hand…

While Marvel Studios harp on about how they mix other genres into their superhero movies, with such-and-such a film being superheroes-cum-political-thriller, or this-and-that film being superheroes-cum-heist-movie, and so on, everything they produce is really merely colouring within the lines of the superhero picture, they’re just using different crayons to do it. Logan not only uses different crayons, but it’s colouring a whole new picture, too. It’s not the first superhero movie to operate at a remove from the standard big-budget tropes of the genre, but it is perhaps the first from a major franchise to dare to step so far outside the norm. As I intimated at the start, the feel of the piece is more indie neo-Western road movie than CGI-driven superhero spectacular, though to imply it stints on expensive action thrills would be disingenuous. It still cost $97 million, after all, and so works at ways to retain the favour of a blockbuster-seeking crowd. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of a refreshing change for the subgenre, with a more distinctive feel than any of those aforementioned Marvel movies.

Wolverine vs Robotic Hand Man

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, sadly. Functionally speaking, Logan barely has a villain. There are some ill-intentioned and dangerous people after X-23, so our heroes have to run away from them — that’s all the role they have to play. Heading up the hunt is Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a henchman figure who’s de facto lead villain purely because he gets the most screen time. Unfortunately, he has more personality in his defining attribute, a CGI robotic arm, than in the rest of his characterisation combined. The theoretical Big Bad is Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), an evil scientist who we’re told developed some kind of virus that all but wiped out mutantkind, but now seems incapable of tracking down a group of preteens. He’s not on screen enough to make any kind of meaningful impression. On the bright side, on my “how badly miscast is Richard E. Grant” scale (which ranges from “very badly” to “not that bad, I suppose”) this errs towards the positive end, precisely because of that lack of screen time. Lastly there’s younger, fitter Wolverine clone X-24 (also Jackman), who’s at least intentionally devoid of personality — he’s been bred without it so he’ll be the perfect biddable killing machine. Obviously he’s ripe for some sort of thematic commentary — on ageing; on morality; on heroism; on, frankly, anything — but it never comes.

With the villainous side of the equation so unbalanced, we’re left primarily with our heroes. Fortunately, they do take up the slack, mainly through a pair of fantastic performances from Jackman and Stewart. Wolverine is undoubtedly the defining role of Jackman’s career, a part he’s played on and off for 17 years across seven movies (as a lead, plus a couple more cameos). Here he’s the most human he’s ever been. In many ways Logan was always one of the most relatable X-Men, one of our points of entry into their world and taking the piss out of them and the situation when it was called for. He was still primarily a likeable character in a fantastical world though, whereas here he feels more like a real person, struggling with the physical detriments of ageing and (less explicitly) the metaphysical quandaries of what it was all for. As he puts his time with the character to bed, Jackman gets to deliver his most nuanced and affecting turn in the role. Neatly, it mirrors where it all began for this version of the character: protecting a young mutant girl struggling to come to terms with her dangerous powers in a world that’s out to get her.

Professor X-piring

Stewart is every bit as good as a man defined by his mental prowess whose mind is failing. Originally cast to play a statesman-like role in the series, here Stewart gets to have a bit more fun, to be a bit more cheeky, but also to tap into a bit more depth of emotion, as Charles struggles with whatever it was he did to land him in hiding in Mexico (I think there was some dialogue that explained it but, frankly, I missed it in the mumbly sound mix. I’ll catch that on Blu-ray, then).

Of course, they both die. Normally that’d be shocking in a major studio blockbuster, but it’s quite clear Logan is playing by different rules, and in those rules the old good guys die. Heck, nearly everyone dies, but the only deaths that matter are Charles’ and Logan’s. What’s at least a bit interesting is how they die. For Professor X, it’s almost ignominious, — in a bed, not even his own, stabbed by X-24 for virtually no reason, then later fading away in the back of a truck. It’s not a grand heroic self-sacrifice while trying to save the world, the kind of death you’d expect for a character of his stature (and more or less the kind he got in The Last Stand, the first time they killed him off). It’s a great life come to a meaningless end. Well, Logan’s that kind of movie — it has no reverence for such things, just as life itself does not. Conversely, the death of Wolverine / Logan / James Howlett (who is he, in the end?) is a sacrifice, the selfish man of the movie’s opening giving himself up to save some kids; or, in grander terms, to save the future. Ah, but he was never really selfish, was he? It was an act. An affection brought by the hard years. He was always a good guy at heart. Always an X-Man, as the neat final shot emphasises.

Wolverine: The Last Stand

So there is some thematic meat to tuck into here, even with the apparent dead-end (pun not intended) of the X-24 subplot. Couple that with the many uncommon-to-the-genre plot and tonal points and you have a movie that does merit consideration as one of the finer superhero films. However, the perception some espouse of this being brave or bold moviemaking is not inherent to the film. If this were an original story starring new characters, especially if they didn’t have superpowers, it wouldn’t make it a bad film, but nor would it be perceived as being so original or revolutionary. What is uncommon or remarkable is making that kind of movie with a well-known character, and in particular one who’s familiar from leading CGI-fuelled PG-13 summer spectacles.

Is that alone enough to confer greatness? Logan’s consistency of style and tone render it easily the best Wolvie solo movie (as much as I liked The Wolverine on the whole, its climax was horrible), but for this X-fan it’s not enough to usurp the top-draw traditional superheroics to be found in the three or four genre classics produced by the main series. Perhaps time and re-viewing will increase Logan in my estimation, however, because it is a very strong film indeed.

4 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition (2015/2016)

2017 #19a
George Miller | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15 / R

Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

During post-production on Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, director George Miller had a chance to watch composer Brian May (not that one) at work. As was standard practice, May was working with a ‘slash dupe’ copy of the film — a cheaply-produced duplicate print, which has the defining characteristic of being in black and white. Miller was instantly smitten, believing this was the best-looking version of his film. 30-something years later, during post-production on the fourth Max movie, Fury Road, Miller had the film’s colourist convert some scenes into black and white, and he once again discovered his preferred version. Only this time he mentioned it publicly and promised it would be released, which is more or less how, about 18 months after the film’s theatrical release, we ended up getting the so-called Black & Chrome Edition on Blu-ray. It finally makes its way to UK shores today… though only in a Zavvi-exclusive Steelbook edition, which has both already sold out and was dispatched to purchasers (like me!) last week. So, uh, so much for that.

Let’s start by getting some people’s obvious complaint out of the way: “Why do you need to buy it again? Why not just turn down the colour on your TV?” Well, you could, and you’d get an approximation of the effect; but if you have an appreciation for the fine details of film photography and colouring, that doesn’t cut it. The Black & Chrome version isn’t just the existing colour turned off — other things have been tweaked to heighten the experience, most obviously the contrast. Here’s a video that handily compares a selection of shots from the colour version, the Black & Chrome version, and the colour version simply desaturated:

If you’re thinking “but the two black & white ones look the same!” then maybe this isn’t for you. And that’s OK — it’s an alternate version, after all.

In his introduction (the only new special feature on the Blu-ray), Miller admits that at times you lose some information by not having the colour; however, at other times it looks even better, and he reiterates that he thinks this is the best version of the movie overall. Somewhat famously, the theatrical version of Fury Road has hyper-saturated colours as a reaction against the usual post-apocalypse movie look of heavy desaturation. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Miller’s preferred version is the opposite extreme — but can you imagine any studio exec agreeing to release a $150 million black & white movie?

Also in that introduction, Miller expands on the appeal of the desaturated version: “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract, something about losing some of the information of colour, makes it somehow more iconic.” He’s got a point. The starkness of the imagery really heightens the effectiveness of some shots and sequences. Indeed, taking a look at some parts of the colour version afterwards, it all felt so ‘busy’ thanks to the additional visual information. You may remember that, a few years ago, Steven Soderbergh shared a black and white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the point being to highlight the shot composition and editing, easier to focus on with the distraction of colour removed. And he’s right. Not in the sense that this feels like watching an assignment for film school, but in the sense that the point of the framing and focus is emphasised further without colour.

Black and Doof

And it does look beautiful. Cinematographer John Seale is clearly a master of lighting, something that’s only more apparent without colour. Indeed, Soderbergh said the same thing of Douglas Slocombe’s work on Raiders: “his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.” Most of the movie looks like it’s been etched from silver — or, of course, chrome. The greys and whites are metallic, the blacks deep points of contrast. It looks gorgeous. It’s let down slightly by the nighttime scenes, however. They weren’t so hot in the colour version either, having been clearly shot in daytime and aggressively graded blue. Presumably that finished version was used for this, because rather than the stark imagery of the rest of the film, the nighttime stuff is kind of murky, the blacks kind of blue-ish, and it’s far less pleasing. (If you want to see for yourself, compare this screenshot to the others here.) Fortunately, that doesn’t make up much of the film.

Separate to the colour issue, Miller has expressed the influence of silent movies over Fury Road, including cutting the film without its soundtrack to make sure that it worked on a purely visual level. When he first promised the black and white edition would be released, he also said there’d be an isolated score option, to give the viewer the option of seeing the most stripped-back version possible. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. (He also promised a commentary and additional special features, which aren’t there either.) At times I tried to imagine how it would work in relative silence, and aside from a couple of places where you might want an intertitle or two, and the pre-climax scene where Max explains the new plan to Furiosa, it’d get by fine. So thoroughly committed is Fury Road to visual storytelling that even many of the dialogue scenes don’t actually need their dialogue — think about the early bit where Hux and Slit argue about who’s going to drive, for example. Sure, the dialogue makes explicit that Hux is normally the driver and Slit is taking his steering wheel because Hux is semi-incapacitated, but their body language conveys the gist of their disagreement clearly. It’s a shame Warners didn’t go the whole hog and let us have the option to experience the film with just the score, or score and effects, because I think it would’ve been equally interesting.

Furiouser and Furiosa

Obviously Fury Road: Black & Chrome is always going to be a curiosity for the dedicated fan rather than the primary way of viewing the film. Next time I watch it I imagine I’ll go back to the full colour version… but that’s mainly because I’ve only seen that version once anyway, so I want to re-experience the full impact of its wild colourfulness. However, for appreciating the quality of the photography, and for emphasising the legendary iconicity of Max and Furiosa’s story, I think Black & Chrome may well be the way to go.

5 out of 5

Mad Max: Fury Road – Black & Chrome Edition is theoretically released on UK Blu-ray today. It’s also available to own digitally from Amazon, iTunes (as an extra on the regular edition), and presumably other retailers (if they still exist) too.

Steven Soderbergh’s variation of Raiders of the Lost Ark will probably be reviewed at a later date, because I really want to watch that now.

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

2016 #112
Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

Terrible meal

The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

Terrible face

Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

3 out of 5

Rogue One (2016)

aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016 #187
Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

Rogue OneThe first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.

It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.

As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.

HeistUnfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.

A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven / men-on-a-mission people-on-a-mission beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.

KrennicThen we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.

Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they current have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.

Donnie Yen: badassContinuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.

Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).

Star of deathMuch discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.

4 out of 5

X2 (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #99

The time has come for those who are different to stand united.

Also Known As: X-Men 2 (promotional/DVD title), X2: X-Men United (US promotional title)

Country: USA & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 134 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 25th April 2003 (Lithuania)
UK Release: 1st May 2003
US Release: 2nd May 2003
First Seen: cinema, May 2003

Stars
Hugh Jackman (Van Helsing, The Prestige)
Patrick Stewart (Dune, Hamlet)
Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes)
Brian Cox (Braveheart, Troy)
Alan Cumming (Emma, Josie and the Pussycats)

Director
Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Screenwriters
Michael Dougherty (Superman Returns, Trick ‘r Treat)
Dan Harris (Superman Returns, Imaginary Heroes)
David Hayter (X-Men, Wolves)

Story by
David Hayter (The Scorpion King, Watchmen)
Zak Penn (Last Action Hero, The Incredible Hulk)
Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Triangle)

Based on
The X-Men, comic book superheroes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In part inspired by the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson.

The Story
When a mutant attempts to assassinate the president, military scientist William Stryker uses it as a pretext to step up his persecution of mutants. With the X-Men occupied hunting for the would-be assassin, the school is attacked and the remaining students flee with Wolverine — whose still-mysterious past has some connection to Stryker.

Our Heroes
The X-Men, a team of mutants — humans who have evolved superpowers — organised by Professor Charles Xavier. As well as returning heroes Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Rogue (see X-Men), the roster this time includes Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, who can generate and manipulate ice, and John Allerdyce, aka Pyro, who can control fire. Plus Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler, a demonic-looking blue-skinned German teleporter.

Our Villains
Col. William Stryker, a military scientist who wants to eradicate mutants, and plans to use Xavier’s mutant-finding Cerebro machine to do so. Has a role in Wolverine’s mysterious past…

Best Supporting Character
Imprisoned at the end of the last film, Magneto is tortured by Stryker for information on Cerebro… until he escapes and teams up with the X-Men to stop the new threat.

Memorable Quote
“Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?” — Bobby’s mom

Memorable Scene
When Stryker launches a military assault on the school, Wolverine goes full berserker to defend the students, before he comes face to face with Stryker — as it turns out, not for the first time.

Write the Theme Tune…
I’ve always loved John Ottman’s main theme for X2, so I’ve been very pleased that Bryan Singer has made it the recurrent theme for the X-Men series since he retook the directorial reins for Day of Future Past. Its appearance there is quite short, but Apocalypse has two fantastic renditions.

Making of
The set for Stryker’s underground base was the largest in North America at the time — so large that cast and crew used bicycles to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible. Some areas of the set weren’t even used in the film, such as a room that was to be the setting of a Nightcrawler vs. Toad fight. (Several other sets were built and not used, including the X-Men’s famous Danger Room training centre. After also dropping its inclusion from the first X-Men, it finally turns up in The Last Stand.)

Previously on…
The film that started the modern era of comic book movies, X-Men.

Next time…
The trilogy was rounded out by X-Men: The Last Stand, though answers about Wolverine’s past were saved for spin-off movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine. More history was revealed in prequel X-Men: First Class, before time travel adventure X-Men: Days of Future Past combined both casts. The prequels continued with this summer’s ’80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse, with a ’90s-set follow-up in the works. Spin-offs include The Wolverine and next year’s third Wolverine movie, Logan, as well as Deadpool, the perpetually delayed Gambit, and X-Men: The New Mutants. TV series Legion is based on the X-Men licence but may or may not be connected to the films, and other connected (or not) TV series are in development.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Science Fiction Film)
6 Saturn nominations (Director, Writing, Music, Costumes, Make Up, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
2 Kids’ Choice Awards nominations (including Favorite Female Butt Kicker (Halle Berry))
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Sexiest Female Villain (Rebecca Romijn) — she lost to Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle)

What the Critics Said
X2 is also possessed of an emotional complexity that won’t surprise comics fans, but will delight connoisseurs of the summer blockbuster. […] The plot, in which hatred of a minority group threatens to spark a global war, is frighteningly topical and Singer doesn’t flinch from showing that resolution often comes at a bitter price — albeit one which paves the way for a pleasingly inevitable X3. Yet it’s not all FX-augmented naval-gazing. Though it does get very dark, X2 is unashamedly entertaining, with crowd-pleasing moments for geeks (the appearance of metal-skinned muscle man Colossus in full armoured form should benefit upholsterers everywhere) and non-geeks (a Nightcrawler-led mid-air rescue is exhilarating) alike.” — William Thomas, Empire

Score: 86%

What the Public Say
“it was the perfect superhero film sequel, the one that truly set the bar for all future sequels (and many managed to match it, thankfully.) Singer understood what worked about the first film, he understood that the audience wanted ‘more of the same’ but not just the same story over again. The core elements were preserved. The team’s personalities, diversity, and relationships that formed the emotional core of the first film, and were the most faithful thing about Singer’s adaptation, were carried on, as was the emphasis on Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Charles’ (Patrick Stewart) relationship and contrasting philosophies. The driving elements of the plot, though different than the driving elements of X-Men‘s plot, didn’t feel like they ‘came out of nowhere.’ Everything felt familiar without necessarily being the same. The ‘new’ elements that were introduced really did broaden the world, but were based in elements X-Men had already established. […] Although I, unlike many fans, didn’t consider this an improvement over Singer’s first X-Men film, I also don’t think it needed to be. And despite my preference for the first film, X2 was to a certain extent really when the series hit its stride and showed that it had staying power.” — Kat, Love. Think. Speak.

Verdict

If there’s one trend in the modern superhero era that’s gone under-analysed (at least as far as I’m aware), it’s this: sequels that are better than their predecessor, upending the accepted order of things. It’s not a universal occurrence (Iron Man 2, anyone?), but it happens often enough that many reviews of first films now note they’re setup a sequel. And as with so many things in the current superhero epoch, it started with the X-Men.

Personally I’ve always slightly preferred the first movie, but X2 does polish up the action sequences, engages with the series’ thematic subtexts in an effective manner, and adds significantly to the ongoing mystery of Wolverine’s past. Coupled with a shock ending that teased a big plot to come, everything looked so good for the third movie. Sadly, the whole “sequels are better” thing still doesn’t regularly extend to third movies. (Suffice to say, The Last Stand will not be next week’s #100.)

#100 is the moment when… Ewan McGregor drops his Jedi knickers and pulls out his real lightsaber.