The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^

The Past Month on TV #16

Another busy month on the box round these parts, so I’ve once again divided my comments into new stuff (i.e. what was actually on TV this month), old stuff (i.e. anything older than four weeks), plus the usual round-up of quick thoughts.

Doctor Who (Series 10 Episode 1)
Doctor Who: The PilotThe 36th run of Doctor Who kicked off with an episode titled The Pilot — no coincidence, that. This is the most newcomer-friendly episode of Who for 12 years, an episode finely calibrated to establish everything for a first-timer but also function for regular viewers too. A lot of that effectiveness can be attributed to Pearl Mackie as Bill, the new companion to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. After a run of oh-so-special companions running back years, Bill is just an ordinary young woman; but of course she’s extraordinary in her own way: ready to learn, eager to help, full of both inquisitiveness and caring. This is surely the birth of both a fan-favourite companion in Bill and a star in Mackie.

It’s also a rejuvenation for Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. They arguably tried too many different things all at once when he joined the series a few years ago, making him old and irascible in contrast to the young and friendly Doctors that had preceded him throughout the revived series. He was gradually softening anyway, but freed of the burden of Clara he seems able to fully revel in his kooky kindliness. It’s perhaps the most Doctor-ish he’s ever been, and for Capaldi, a life-long fan of the show, that must be a real delight. It’s already a shame he’ll be leaving us this year, but at least we have 12 (or 11, if some rumours turn out to be true) more episodes to enjoy before then.

As for this episode in itself, it was more solid than incredible, though that perhaps does it a disservice. No, it’s not going to sit alongside the likes of Blink and Heaven Sent at the pinnacle of all that modern Who can achieve, but it set out the series’ stall well: it’s sci-fi, but a little quirky, a little scary, and full of heart and emotion. It was almost like a Russell T Davies-era episode, but with an unmistakable Moffat-ness about it too — he may be trying to dodge the “fairy tale” mode he adopted for most of his time on the show, reasserting the “this is based in the real world” aesthetic that RTD relaunched the series with back in 2005, but, frankly, Moffat does the former better than the latter, and there’s an edge of that heightened unreality here nonetheless.

But I think those are niggles and nitpicks. This is a strong opener that establishes a very likeable new TARDIS team to guide us through the season of adventures about to come. Fingers crossed the rest of the run can fulfil its promise.

Iron Fist (Season 1)
Iron FistThe last of the Marvel/Netflix series before the Defenders team-up, Iron Fist has certainly divided critics and viewers. It doesn’t begin well: the opening episode is possibly the worst thing yet released as part of the MCU, and I only say “possibly” because I never bothered with Agents of SHIELD after the poor reaction to season one. It’s needlessly slow, repetitive, the characters behave implausibly, and the fights are terrible, looking like a first rehearsal filmed with one take. Things do improve — there are more engaging characters, some interestingly developed arcs, and better realised fights — but it still doesn’t come together as well as it could. For one thing, it makes the running of Rand Enterprises a major element, but has a very vague-seeming understanding of how business actually works. It’s just too simplistic.

One of the series’ strongest aspects is the unpredictable loyalties of its characters. I don’t mean that they’re inconsistent, but aside from Danny (who’s the title character, so of course he’s a good guy) and Claire (who’s been in every other Marvel/Netflix show, so she’s a known quantity), the trustworthiness and allegiance of almost every character changes at some point; for some of them, at multiple points. Heck, there are even scenes when you can’t be sure whose side to be on, because both have aspects of right and wrong, good and bad. There are better shows than Iron Fist that never manage that level of shading in their characters. I imagine there’ll be a second season, because when doesn’t Netflix commission more of anything, so hopefully they can build on what worked going forward. And maybe add a business consultant to the writers’ room or something.

The Flash Duet
The Flash: DuetAmongst the eight Arrowverse episodes I watched this month was this: the much-anticipated musical crossover between The Flash and Supergirl, which star Glee alumni Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist respectively — hence why (some) people called for a musical episode, which caused the producers to decide to do one. Somewhat ironic, then, that it seemed to go down well with critics (at least per Wikipedia) but less so with fans: its IMDb rating is just 6.0. I find myself in agreement with the latter. It wasn’t bad, as these things go, but it was overloaded with niggles, Like, why cast another former Glee actor as the villain but then not have him sing with the stars? Why is there a plot hole whereby they call said villain the Music Meister even though it was Barry and Kara who picked the musical fantasy? The guy’s powers seem to be hypnotism-based and nothing to do with music. There were only two original songs, one which was quite fun and one which was overlong and a tad cheesy. Neither came close to the delights of the Music Meister’s original appearance, which also managed five new songs (and a reprise) in an episode that was half the length. The episode’s guest cast seems to have been selected purely on the basis of “anyone from an Arrowverse show who likes to sing”. All in all it came across as half-arsed; like they felt they should do it because people demanded it, but didn’t assign enough time or energy to doing it properly.

The Crown (Season 1)
The CrownThe most expensive TV programme ever made (or not, whatever) certainly has its budget plastered all over the screen, which hopefully didn’t distract most viewers in the way it did me. It shouldn’t, really, because this is a good drama about the humanity behind the public faces. Its adherence to fact is apparently variable, which I imagine is very irritating to historians of the period, but it works for the fiction. There are great performances all round, with John Lithgow in particular disappearing into Churchill to the point that I forgot I was watching an actor more than once. There’s an interesting plot thread early on about the position of Philip (Matt Smith) relative to Elizabeth — how his role as a husband is challenged by her position as Queen, etc — which goes a bit awry as the series goes on and has other plots to focus on. It’s left quite open-ended, so hopefully it’ll be completed in the second season.

Line of Duty (Series 2)
Line of Duty series 2I devoted just 32 words to Line of Duty series one when I finally got round to watching it last October. In summary, it was pretty good but not really great, and the unadulterated adulation that follows the programme around nowadays seemed unmerited. Now I get it, though, because — in a similar fashion to how, say, Mad Max is a decent Ozploitation flick but Mad Max 2 is a reputation-earning action classic — series two is where it’s at. There was much praise for Keeley Hawes’ performance as a downtrodden copper under suspicion of organising a violent ambush of a witness protection convoy, and it’s deserved, but the real star is the writing. There are huge, attention-grabbing twists and surprises, and a mystery that keeps you revising your opinion on what happened right until the end, but perhaps most impressive are the lengthy, intensely procedural interview scenes that could come across as factual and dull but instead are completely gripping.

Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 1-9)
Twin Peaks season 2I first saw the debut season of Twin Peaks many years ago during a repeat run (it was a ‘classic series’ even then, though with hindsight it can’t’ve been a decade old at the time), then watched it again when the DVD came out, but this is my first time watching season two (legal complications delayed its DVD release for what felt like forever, and by the time it finally came out I just never got round to it). The second season is infamous for representing a steep decline in quality, though that isn’t yet evident from this batch of episodes, which covers up to the revelation of who killed Laura Palmer and their capture. I’d say it lacks the pure concentrated genius of the first season, having ramped up the quirkiness quotient and, at the behest of the network, rushing the resolution of the Laura Palmer mystery, but it ain’t bad by any means. There’s certainly much to like in the off-kilter characters, the folksy mysticism, and some fantastic performances — Kyle MacLachlan is a constant delight as Agent Cooper, but Ray Wise is frequently incredible as the grieving Leland Palmer. But I guess it’s mostly downhill from here…

Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 5-8 — everything I said last time still applies: this is little more than 24-by-numbers. Episode 6 was a particularly irritating example, as a major subplot was hurried to its climax presumably because the writers just got bored with it. Why else rush the plot so massively, in a way that practically ignored the series’ real-time gimmick? I miss the days when the makers cared about maintaining that illusion.
  • Broadchurch Series 3 Episodes 4-8 — it handled its treatment of the issues well, but as a drama Broadchurch 3 couldn’t quite reach the engrossing heights of the first series. Still, it’s a shame there won’t be further cases for the brilliant Tennant and Colman to investigate.
  • Unforgotten Series 1 — ITV’s police drama recently aired a second series, with a third commissioned. This cold case-focused first run features powerhouse performances from a bunch of quality elder thesps (Tom Courtenay won a BAFTA for it, but for my money Gemma Jones as his wife was just as good), plus nicely understated turns from the ever-excellent Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar as the coppers on the case.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Car Share series 2This month, I have mostly been missing series two of Peter Kay’s Car Share, which is a couple of episodes in on the telly or available in its entirety on iPlayer. I nearly didn’t bother with the first series (two years ago now!) because I’m not a huge fan of Peter Kay, but someone recommended it and it turned out to be hilarious. I’m sure I’ll make time for the new one soon.

    31 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… more Doctor Who, more Twin Peaks, and probably more stuff dredged up from the “must get round to” pile.

  • 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.

    A Christmas Carol (2009)

    aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

    2016 #188
    Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Disney's A Christmas Carol

    You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

    Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

    The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

    I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

    In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

    I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

    2 out of 5

    The Russia House (1990)

    2016 #158
    Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

    The Russia House

    Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

    Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

    The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

    Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

    The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

    5 out of 5

    The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    The BFG (2016)

    2017 #51
    Steven Spielberg | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA & India / English | PG / PG

    The BFG

    The writer/director team behind E.T. reunite for another tale of a young kid befriending a strangely-proportioned otherworldly creature who can’t quite speak English properly and has an acronym for a name. This one, of course, is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, here rendered into live-action — or, for a large part, realistic computer animation — by director Steven Spielberg.

    If you don’t know the story, it concerns insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who one night spots a 24ft giant outside her window. Wary of her informing the rest of the world of his existence, he snatches her up and carries her off to giant land. Despite Sophie’s fears, he doesn’t eat her, because he’s actually the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance, motion captured) — but his fellow giants are a different story. Led by Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement, also motion captured), they bully the comparatively tiny BFG and are a constant threat to Sophie’s life, so she concocts a plan, which involves a trip to see the Queen (Penelope Wilton).

    For all its CGI — and, in creating a fantastical other-world adjacent to our own, there is a lot — much about The BFG feels pleasantly traditional, almost like a throwback to kids’ movies of a couple of decades past. This is partly the re-teaming of Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, I suppose, but perhaps also the decision to retain the novel’s original 1982 setting. Not that you’d know it for most of the running time, until the Queen makes some telephone calls to “Nancy and Ronnie” (Reagan) and “Boris” (presumably Yeltsin, though that means someone’s got their eras mixed up); references that, coming quite near the end of the film, made me pause in the realisation that it wasn’t just set today (the reference to Boris made my assume the Queen was phoning our foreign secretary).

    Window dressing

    More than dated references, though, the throwback feel is thanks to the pace. I’d hesitate to call The BFG slow, but it’s certainly gentle for a good long while. I don’t think it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, but a little extra speed early on, bringing the luxuriant two-hour running time down closer to the 90-minute mark, might’ve been beneficial. There’s certainly magic and wonder to be found throughout, which are very important aspects of a story like this, but I do wonder if kids might get a bit fidgety nonetheless, which would destroy the effect.

    There is a lot to admire, however. The production design is superb, the giants’ environment full of stuff pilfered from the human world and re-appropriated into useful things — a ship for a (water)bed, for example, or a road sign for a tray; in one sequence, cars and trucks become roller skates. It’s all realised with startling detailed CGI. Okay, you’re not going to mistake the giants for upsized real humans (which kinda makes me long for a Hook-era version of the film, when they would’ve done it all for real with optical effects), but look at the small details — the texture of the giants’ skin, for example — and it looks phenomenal.

    More importantly, the acting is pitched perfectly. Clement and his cohorts manage to be both menacing and comical by turns, Wilton brings easy class to the Queen, and Rafe Spall has an amusing little supporting role as a palace footman. However, Rebecca Hall is utterly wasted in a strangely nothing-y part as the Queen’s assistant — I can only presume this was either one of those “I love the book so will take any role” situations or one of those “my part was mostly cut” situations.

    Big star, little star

    But the real stars are the two leads. Ruby Barnhill was the result of a months-long search for the perfect Sophie and it was worth the effort. Called upon to be confident, scared, awed, and ingenious, Barnhill’s performance is precisely calibrated — “subtle” would perhaps be overselling it, but she lacks the histrionics you get from weak child actors. She’s overall charming, which is important in engaging us in the relationship between her and the BFG. In the giant role, Mark Rylance is, of course, sublime. He may have been recreated in the computer, but all of his personality shines through, his expressions and mannerisms both believable and familiar if you’ve seen him in his corporeal form. It’s one of the best-yet advocacies of so-called “performance capture” (where the actor’s whole performance is captured by those grey jumpsuits with little dots on, as opposed to just “motion capture” where it’s only their physical moves being digitised and supplemented by animators — both are the same process really, it’s just someone coined a different term to indicate when more of the actor’s own work is retained).

    Considering the level of challenge The BFG clearly presented to Spielberg (in the special features he talks about how at times he was unsure how to make the movie, with all the tough requirements of different scales, etc; he and his team actually spent a whole summer making the movie in previsualisation before they did it for real the year after), it’s something of a shame that it’s destined to be regarded as a minor work in his canon. I’m not going to argue it deserves a greater status among his venerable output, but it would be a shame for it to go ignored because of that.

    4 out of 5

    The BFG is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of this week.

    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.

    Tokyo Tribe (2014)

    2016 #149
    Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

    Tokyo Tribe

    Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

    Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

    When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

    I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

    4 out of 5

    Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    100 Favourites II — The Top 10

    And so I reach the pinnacle of my list — my most favourite films I’ve seen for the first time in the past ten years. (Well, if we’re being precise, in the past ten years and three months, but not counting anything from the last three months. But that’s less snappy.)

    Over three previous posts I’ve counted down #100 to #11, but here’s the perfectly rounded number everyone loves for a list: the top ten.

    #10
    Dark City


    4th from 2008
    (previously 3rd | original review)

    Before The Matrix there was Dark City, which tackles some of the same philosophical issues as the Wachowskis’ trilogy, only in a less opaque and verbose fashion — and, as I said, did so first. Of course, it lacks the groundbreaking action sequences that made The Matrix such a hit, but as a thoughtful piece of stylish sci-fi noir it probably bests its better-known thematic cousins. I also reckon it’s still a bit underrated… including by me, really, because it’s nine years since I first watched it and I still haven’t got round to seeing the Director’s Cut. (Note to self: fix that.)

    #9
    The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn


    1st from 2014
    (previously 2nd | original review)

    Calling on the same skill set that produced the Indiana Jones movies, Steven Spielberg created an adventure movie that perfectly balances plot, action, and humour. Despite the freedom afforded by crafting the entire thing in CGI (rendered with stunning realism by Weta), Spielberg knows when to hold back and maintain a level of realism, only to cut loose when warranted. The top end of this list definitely skews blockbustery-y — well, it is “favourite” rather than some kind of “objective best” (not that that’d be strictly possible anyway) — but, nonetheless, I think Tintin is a very fine and underrated example of the form.

    #8
    Kick-Ass


    1st from 2010
    (previously 1st | original review)

    As Watchmen was to superhero comics, so Kick-Ass is to superhero films: taking familiar building blocks from other films and TV series, it deconstructs the genre through a “what if someone tried to be a superhero for real” storyline, asking questions about the glorification of violence and the sexualisation of its characters — all while being a funny and exciting action-comedy. Perhaps it’s having its cake and eating it, and that leads some people to miss the point (some by enjoying it a bit too much, some by thinking it has nothing to say), but I don’t think that stops it being one of the best and most thoughtful superhero movies yet made.

    #7
    Let the Right One In


    1st from 2011
    (previously 3rd | original review)

    It’s felt like you can’t escape vampires in film and TV for the last couple of decades, but trust a European movie to give them a unique spin, right? So it’s both a coming-of-age-y arthouse-y movie about two 12-year-olds and first love, and a scary horror movie about violent supernatural creatures. It works by not shortchanging either aspect, instead combining them to transcend genre boundaries. So it’s a genuinely touching, emotional and relatable drama, as well as a creepy and horrific fantasy thriller.

    #6
    Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


    1st from 2015
    (previously 1st | original review)

    There’s always been a bit of a ‘wannabe’ air to the Mission: Impossible films, like maybe someone thought it could fill the void left by Bond disappearing post-Dalton, only it took so long to make it to the screen that Bond himself got there first in the shape of Pierce Brosnan. Nonetheless, the series has trundled along… though I don’t want to sound like I’m doing it down too much because I’ve always enjoyed it — the second one made my first 100 Favourites list, even. But Rogue Nation is where M:I finally out-Bonds Bond. Mixing action thrills and a genuine sense of jeopardy with just-ahead-of-reality gadgets, a knowing sense of humour, and a cast full of likeable characters, it’s superb blockbuster entertainment.

    #5
    Seven Samurai


    1st from 2013
    (previously 1st | original review)

    A phrase like “three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie” is going to conjure up a certain experience in the minds of most viewers. That experience is most probably nothing like Seven Samurai — although it is, of course, a three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie. On the surface it’s about a bunch of warriors protecting a small impoverished village that can’t defend itself, and it has a lengthy action-packed climax to deliver on such promise, but it rises above that thanks to its reflective attitude towards its characters and their very existence. No, wait, I said it’s not your typical three-and-a-half-hour subtitled black-and-white movie!

    #4
    Rashomon


    3rd from 2008
    (previously 5th | original review)

    I’d wager most would rank Seven Samurai higher in the Akira Kurosawa canon, but I give Rashomon the edge because the form of its storytelling appeals to me. It retells the events surrounding a murder from the subjective viewpoint of each of the characters who were there, and of course their accounts differ. Its title has become a byword for such narratives, but there’s more here than just trendsetting plot construction — it’s a fantastically made film, exquisitely shot and magnificently performed.

    #3
    Zodiac


    2nd from 2008
    (previously 2nd | original review)

    David Fincher’s meticulous true crime thriller may be his best movie — and when we’re talking about the man who made Se7en and Fight Club, that’s certainly saying a lot. It may look like it’s a murder thriller — it is about the hunt for a serial killer, after all — but in many respects it’s more about obsession and addiction, and how such things can come to take over your life. But if you don’t want to ponder that kind of thing, there’s always chills like the basement scene to keep you viscerally engaged. (The slightly-different Director’s Cut is the better version of the film and, if we’re being specific, would be my pick here; but I watched that a couple of years later, so it was the theatrical cut that figured in 2008’s top ten.)

    #2
    Skyfall


    1st from 2012
    (previously 1st | original review)

    The James Bond films have always been action blockbusters, and more often than not immensely popular and successful ones. Skyfall changed the game though: by hiring Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes it was instantly booted into Prestige Picture territory — and still managed to deliver the most financially successful film in the series’ long history, the first billion-dollar Bond. But box office success is not why Skyfall is #2 on my list. It’s the beautiful cinematography; the way it adds thematic weight to the character without breaking the formula; the sense of Bond’s history without over-explicit reverence — and the way those aspects makes it both familiar and fresh at the same time. Plus it delivers on the action, larger-than-life villain, and one-liners just like a Bond film should. Its artistic success may be a case of the stars aligning and lightning striking (the lacking-by-comparison follow-up Spectre proved that), but Bond has rarely been better.

    #1
    The Dark Knight


    1st from 2008
    (previously 1st | original review)

    Eight years and three months ago, when I named The Dark Knight my #1 film of 2008, I wrote that “I’m unashamedly one of those who believe The Dark Knight isn’t just one of the best films of 2008, it’s one of the best films ever.” It’s nice to be able to stand by such a brazen assertion. And, having thought long and hard about what I would declare as my most favouritest movie from the 1,283 new ones that I’ve seen in the last decade, I clearly do stand by it. I love superhero movies, I love crime thrillers, and I love epics, so it’s no surprise that a movie which combines all three — and does them all well — would top a list of my favourite movies.

    Now: what’s a good list without some statistics?