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 Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Life of Pi (2012)

2015 #107
Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG

Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
11 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Original Song, Best Production Design.


Life of Pi“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.

Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.

Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), Tiger's talebut because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.

Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.

To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. The book cover shotLater, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.

And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.

Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.

I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.

TranscendentalReading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.

Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…

Living the Pi lifeI found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.

Gravity (2013)

2014 #13
Alfonso Cuarón | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 7 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Production Design.

GravityOn its theatrical release, a commonly-cited recommendation was to see Gravity in 3D on the biggest screen possible. Obviously, I didn’t bother. Some say it isn’t as effective on a small screen in 2D. Maybe it isn’t as effective, but it’s still a damn fine film.

A near-future thriller (albeit one set in space), the destruction of a satellite sees a cloud of debris hurtling round the Earth, in the process destroying the space shuttle of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and other less-fortunate crewmembers. Using Clooney’s experimental space-jetpack, the survivors set off across the void for the nearest space station, racing against their oxygen supply to find a way home…

As many have noted, Gravity is a little light on plot. That’s a dealbreaker for some, it would seem, which I think rather misses the point. This is a survival story, predicated on two things: one, the desperate attempts of our heroine to triumph against increasingly-poor odds; and two, the spectacle of weightlessness and space. Not every movie needs a complex storyline to keep it going; not every film needs to only be about its plot. As co-writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón drives the film admirably on the aforementioned survival attempts and some swiftly-sketched character development.

The spectacle may have worked best on the big screen in 3D, but Cuarón’s talent as a director means it translates at home, too. That most of the film was created in computers means his penchant for long takes is indulged, but the impact of those is paramount: rather than fast-cut action sequences (even if the speed of cutting has been pushed to extremes in recent years, He said DON'T let goquick editing has always been a way of creating excitement in that arena), the never-ending shots serve to make you feel closer to events, right alongside Bullock, almost wishing it would stop. Plus there’s skill in being able to show us what we need to see from a single vantage point, without the easy option of being able to cut to a different angle to clarify a detail.

Left to carry much of the film solo, Bullock’s performance is strong enough, but this isn’t a deeply-drawn character. There’s something to her, and the situation she’s been put in is trial enough without the need for backstory, but is it really a performance that cries out for awards recognition? Not as much as the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, controversy has occasionally dogged Gravity — on two fronts. Firstly, that BAFTA awarded it Best British Film. Cue varying degrees of outrage and incredulity that an American-funded film about American astronauts could be considered British. The flipside to this is that Cuarón has made Britain his adopted home; and while the Big Studio may ultimately be American, the production company and producers are British. It was shot in Britain by a British crew, and the groundbreaking CGI — which even James Cameron, he of great determination and resultant innovation, said couldn’t be done — was created in Britain by British artists. Made in BritainThe most high-profile jobs — the actors, the studio — may be American, but everything else is pretty darn British. Rather than cry “that’s ridiculous! Give it to a proper British film!”, we should be keen to point out that, actually, this surprise global mega-hit wasn’t made in America, but in Britain, by all the talented filmmakers we have here. Rule Britannia, etc etc!

Secondly, there’s the genre issue. Most have labelled the film “science fiction”, primarily because it’s set in space. The hardcore SF brigade take umbrage with that, however: technically it’s set almost-now, with present-day technology. This is a story that Could Happen Today, not a distant dream of what Might Happen Tomorrow. Really, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: technically it is set in the future — that’s proven by little things like flight numbers and the existence of a finished space station that, in real life, is still being built — and makes use of technology that doesn’t actually exist (the space-jetpack I mentioned earlier), plus it depicts a massive-scale disaster that, obviously, hasn’t happened. But that’s no worse than many an earthbound thriller, which routinely use just-beyond-possible tech (look at all of Bond’s gadgets, even (at times) in the newly-grounded Craig films) and depict huge events that haven’t actually occurred (Presidential assassinations, nuclear detonations, etc). So, really, Gravity is no more sci-fi than those, except for it being set in space… which immediately categorises it as SF to your average viewer.

Space jetpackWhile I sympathise with the idea that it’s not A Science Fiction Movie, but instead A Thriller (That Happens To Be Set In Space), you can’t really deny its SF-ness. OK, if we’re classing this as SF then so too should be films like The Sum of All Fears, or most of the James Bond canon; but really that’s just an argument over technicalities — one I’ve indulged for far too long.

The point is, however you classify it, Gravity is an exciting, spectacular, technically-impressive movie; one that overcomes the alleged need for a huge screen and 3D to work even in the corner of your living room.

5 out of 5

Gravity debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4:30pm and 8pm.

It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (2013)

2013 #102
Nick Hurran | 77 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

The longest-running science-fiction TV show in the history of the world ever marked its 50th birthday with a feature-length cinema-released one-off special — I think we can count that as a film, right? Good.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor theatrical poster

The pressure on showrunner/writer Steven Moffat when it came to this special must have been immeasurable. To distill over 30 seasons of television and 50 years of memories into a relatively-short burst of entertainment that would satisfy not only fans, both hardcore and casual, but also Who’s ever-widening mainstream audience. Not only that, but to produce it in 3D, preferably in such a way that the 3D wasn’t pointless, but also that played fine in 2D; and to make it of a scale suitable for a cinema release, but for only a BBC budget; plus, the weight of an unprecedented (indeed, record-shattering) global TV simulcast audience. And all that in the wake of years of griping and disappointment about the direction he’d led the show in, not least the less-than-usual number of episodes being released during the 50th anniversary year as a whole. Yeah, no pressure…

That The Day of the Doctor delivers — and how — is part miracle and part relief, and all joy for the viewer. Well, most viewers — you’ll never please everyone, especially on a show as long-running, diverse, and indeed divisive, as Doctor Who has become. But for the majority it wasn’t just a success, it was a triumph. Evidence? There was that record-breaking global audience; it was the most-watched drama in the UK in 2013; its theatrical release reached #2 at the US box office, despite being on limited screens two days after it aired on TV Come on in...(and it made more than double per screen what The Hunger Games 2 took that night); it recently won the audience-voted Radio Times BAFTA for last year’s best TV programme; and, last week, a poll of Doctor Who Magazine readers asserted it was better than the 240 other Who TV stories to crown it the greatest ever made.

Phew.

As we well know, popularity in no way dictates quality, especially when it comes to TV viewing figures or opening-weekend box office takings… but those audience polls tell a different story, don’t they? The story of something that managed to satisfy millions of people who it seemed impossible to please.

There are many individual successes in The Day of the Doctor, which come together to make something that is, at the very least, the sum of its parts. The star of the show, however, is Moffat’s screenplay. Eschewing the “standard” Whoniversary format of bringing back all the past Doctors and a slew of their friends for an almighty stand off with a huge array of popular enemies (so “standard” it was only actually done once), he instead opts to tell a different kind of story: the series is never about the Doctor, just the adventures he has, so what could be more special than shifting that focus? And with the backstory previous showrunner Russell T Davies had created for the revived show in 2005 — the Time War, and the Doctor’s role in ending it — Moffat had the perfect canvas to tap in to our hero.

Does he have the right?The Doctor’s role in the Time War has not only dominated many of his actions and personalities since it happened, but it also stands awkwardly with his persona as a whole. Here’s the man who always does the right thing, always avoids violence, always finds another way, even when there is no other way… and this man wiped out all of his people and all of the Daleks? The same man who, in his fourth incarnation, stared at two wires that could erase the Daleks from history and pondered, “do I have the right?”, before concluding that he didn’t? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?

So Moffat crafts a story that shows a little of how the Doctor came to make that decision… and then, thanks to this past Doctor getting to see a little of how his future selves reacted to it, the chance to make a different one after all. If that sounds a little bit Christmas Carol-esque, it shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s a favourite form of Moffat’s. Indeed, for a series about time travel, very few pre-2005 Doctor Who stories involve it as a plot point (merely as a mechanism to deliver the main characters into that week’s plot), whereas Moffat has frequently tapped into the whys and hows of that science-fictional ability. In these regards — and others, like the sublime structure where things are established in passing, or for one use, and then resurface unexpectedly later with a wholly different point — The Day of the Doctor is inescapably a Moffat story, albeit one without some of his other, less favourable, predilections that have coloured the series of late.

The (new) Three DoctorsI think some fans would have preferred a big party history mash-up; they certainly would have liked to see their favourite faces from the past. But let’s be honest: from the classic era, only Paul McGann could pass muster as still being the Doctor he once was (and he got his own, fantastic, mini-episode to prove it); and how the hell do you construct a story with a dozen leading men? It’s clearly enough of a struggle with three. The Doctor is always the cleverest person in the room, so what do you do with multiples of him? Moffat finds ways to make all of the Doctors here (that’d be David Tennant’s 10th, Matt Smith’s 11th, and John Hurt’s newly-created ‘War Doctor’) have something to do, something to say, and something to contribute — because really, the oldest (i.e newest) Doctor should be the most experienced and have all the ideas, right? There are ways round that, but only so many.

No, instead Moffat treats us to a proper story, rather than an aimless ‘party’… and then serves up a final five or ten minutes that deliver fan-centric treat after treat, without undermining what’s gone before. I guess a lot of that is meaningless to the casual viewer, or is at least unintrusive, but to fans there are moments that provoke cheers and tears — often at the same time. All the Doctors flying in to save the day! Capaldi’s eyes! Tom Baker — as the fourth Doctor, or a future Doctor? Doesn’t matter! And then the final shot, with them all proudly lined up! It’s an array of effective, emotional surprises that far surpasses what could have been achieved if the whole episode had been executed in this style.

An excellent MomentAlong the way, Moffat nails so many other things. The dialogue and situations sparkle, and frequently gets to have its cake and eat it: familiar catchphrases and behavioural ticks of the 10th and 11th Doctors are trotted out to a fan-pleasing extent, and then Hurt’s aged, grumpier, old-fashioned Doctor gets to criticise their ludicrousness, speaking for a whole generation of fans who hate “timey-wimey” and “allons-y” and all the rest. I think it’s this self-awareness that helps so much with selling the episode to everyone, both calling back to well-known elements of the series that many love, and pillorying their expectedness for those that aren’t so keen. Well, it would be a pretty awful party if you had a cake but couldn’t eat it, right?

Tasked with delivering all this, the cast are uniformly excellent, to the point where it’s difficult to pick a stand out. Hurt makes for a creditable ‘new’ Doctor in a relatively brief amount of screen time, while Tennant slips back into the role as comfortably as he does his suit. Special praise should be reserved for Billie Piper, though, having a whale of a time as the quirky Bad Wolf-inspired interface to The Moment. She could’ve been an excuse for exposition and plot generation, two roles her character does fulfil, but if you think that’s all she was then I suggest you watch again: there’s more complexity at play there; a weapon not only with sentience, but with a conscience too. She’s not Rose Tyler, but perhaps she has a part of her…

Clara and one of her DoctorsSmith and Jenna Coleman are on form too, of course, but as the series’ regular cast members that feels less remarkable. That’s not intended to sell them short, however, as they hold their own against actors who are arguably more, shall we say, established. If there’s one weak link it may be Joanna Page’s eyebrows, possibly the side effect of duelling with an English accent. (Complete aside: I’m rewatching Gavin & Stacey as I write this, and feel horrible even going near criticism of such a lovely person.)

They’re backed up by a cornucopia of technical excellence. Yes, OK, it’s a TV episode really — but gosh darn, it looks like a movie. I’m sure some would dig in to criticism of the direction (don’t get me started on the increasingly-regular internet commenter’s cry of “the direction was made-for-TV quality”, but suffice to say I generally don’t hold with that as a complaint), but Nick Hurran’s work is suitably slick. The battle of Arcadia is a sequence any modestly-budgeted big screen extravaganza would be proud to contain, and all achieved on a tighter-than-most-people-realise BBC budget. It won a BAFTA Craft award for special effects, which is more than deserved. Combining full-scale effects, CGI, and even model work (personally, I didn’t even realise there were models involved until I read so in an article months later), it looks incredible, with a scale that’s completely appropriate for a major battle in the war to end all wars. Elsewhere there are a few slip-ups, like a bit of heroic slow-mo undermined by not being recorded at a higher frame rate, but these are few and far between.

Dalek explosion!Credit too to editor Liana Del Giudice, not only for crafting cinematic action sequences, but for stitching together a narrative that is often told with imagery and flashbacks, rather than people stood around chatting. Look at the sequence just after the Doctor sees the painting for the first time as just one clear example. That sequence may be dialogue-driven, but the faded-in and intercut flashbacks and glimpses of other events are what’s really conveying information. This is first-class visual storytelling, not just when compared to the rest of British TV, or international TV, or cinema, but the whole shebang.

Perhaps (as in “it isn’t, but let’s see what some people think”) the editing is even too snappy. In the run up to the special’s release, some fans moaned about its length: an hour-and-a-quarter wasn’t enough to do justice to 50 years, they said; it should be at least 90 minutes. Which is exactly the kind of ludicrous small-minded pettiness some fanbases talk themselves into these days. Moffat commented in an interview somewhere that his scripts for The Snowmen (the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special) and A Scandal in Belgravia (the first episode of Sherlock season two) had exactly the same page count, and yet, when shot and edited, one episode was an hour long and the other 90 minutes. Screenwriting is an inexact science like that. I seriously doubt anyone at the BBC commissioned a 75- or 80-minute Doctor Who special; instead, I would imagine Moffat wrote a roughly-feature-length script that seemed achievable within Who’s limited-despite-what-the-Daily-Mail-think budget, then it was filmed, edited, and it ended up being the length it is. Indeed, the scheduler-unfriendly final running time of 77 minutes is merely further indication of such a notion.

Heroes just for one DayStill, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and not everyone liked The Day of the Doctor: it may’ve topped DWM’s poll, but there were voters who scored it just one out of ten. But then, that’s true of 239 of the series’ 241 stories; and almost 60% of voters gave it a full ten out of ten — that’s a pretty clear consensus. I didn’t get round to voting myself, but I would’ve been amongst them. There are undoubtedly some weak spots that I haven’t flagged up, but conversely, there are myriad other successes — both minor (the opening! The dozens of sly callbacks!) and major (the use of the Zygons! Murray Gold’s music!) — that I haven’t mentioned either.

Even if The Day of the Doctor isn’t flawless, as a Doctor Who story — and certainly as a great big anniversary celebration — it is perfect.

5 out of 5

Chicken Little (2005)

2014 #16
Mark Dindal | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

Chicken LittleThe director of Disney’s woeful The Emperor’s New Groove re-tells the well-known centuries-old folk take about a chicken who became a middle school baseball champ before foiling an alien invasion.

This was Disney’s first foray into computer animation in their main movie canon, in the wake of Home on the Range’s failure and Pixar and DreamWork’s CG success. It merely proves the fault was not with their traditional animation, but with their storytellers.

Occasional bright spots of humour are the only relief in this cheap-looking childish ‘adventure’, only notable as the “first film released in Real D’s digital 3D format”.

1 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Chicken Little is on Channel 5 at 3:25pm.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long.

Dredd (2012)

2013 #6
Pete Travis | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA, India & South Africa* / English | 18 / R

DreddDogged by comparisons to The Raid (which filmed after but released before), and enforced 3D that its 18+ audience didn’t go for, Dredd underwhelmed at the box office.

Huge shame. It’s the gritty take on 2000AD’s primary hero that aficionados have long desired, but also an exemplary sci-fi/action movie in its own right. With impressive gun battles, dry humour, and Karl Urban nailing the title character (yes, including the voice), it’s an hour-and-a-half of unencumbered testosterone entertainment.

Screenwriter/producer Alex Garland’s trilogy outline sounded unmissably good. We must hope home media sales are ultra-strong and the ongoing sequel campaign ultimately succeeds.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2013. Read more here.

Dredd placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long.

* IMDb used to list the countries of production as UK, USA and India, while the end credits of the film itself refer to it being “A South Africa/United Kingdom co-production”. With that in mind, I found the BFI list all four. Seems only fair. (IMDb have since taken my suggestion and added South Africa.) ^

Underworld Awakening (2012)

2013 #1
Mårlind & Stein | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Underworld AwakeningJust when you think the Underworld series is dead, it suddenly lurches back to life with a new instalment. Fitting for a series all about vampires & that, I suppose.

Having diverted to a prequel telling us a story we largely already knew, here we rejoin Selene (Kate Beckinsale), last seen six years ago (real world time) in Underworld Evolution, which was very much Part 2 to the original film’s Part 1. They told a pretty complete tale, actually, so rather than try to find something there, Awakening launches into something new. Following a two minute recap of the first two movies (it’s so long ago that this is actually very handy), a quick-cut prologue-y bit tells us that the long-secret war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) was discovered by humans, who set about wiping them out. Trying to escape, Selene’s crossbreed lover Michael (Scott Speedman) is killed and she gets frozen… only to wake up however-many-years later into a changed world… And so on and so forth. Escapes, shooting, action-y-business all ensues.

Said violence is very bloody and brutal, much more like the second film — I swear the first (especially) and third weren’t anything like as gory. Evolution well earnt its 18 certificate, after a very 15 first film, and quite surprised me at the time. This isn’t as extreme as that, but still. The main drama and attraction in the Underworld series lies in the vampires-vs-werewolves-with-modern-tech concept, not in ripping off limbs or spurting blood or whatever. Or maybe that’s just me.

Whose daughter might she be...By taking such a bold move with the plot, meanwhile, the story pushes the series’ mythology in new and relatively interesting ways. It’s becoming a bit dense and fan-only (unless you let it wash over you and just enjoy the punching), but at least they’re not regurgitating the same old stuff. It manages a few twists along the way too, which is always nice. The plot seems to have been half worked around Speedman’s non-involvement, leading me to wonder why — he’s not too busy, surely? Perhaps he’d just had enough? But no, apparently it was genuinely just written this way. I guess he couldn’t be bothered to turn up for some cameo shots, because the stand-in is really obvious.

Also glaringly obvious is the set-up for a sequel. Not so much as the first film, which had such an End of Part One feel (including a direct cliffhanger) that the sequel picked up mere hours later. But this is still a story obviously incomplete (again, there’s a sort of cliffhanger), but at least it has the courtesy to… actually, no, it’s only as complete as the first film. The main narrative drive is resolved, but other bits are blatantly open.

But it didn’t seem to go down too well, so what are the chances of us seeing it continued? Well, as we’ve learnt, you can never write the Underworld series off. And its niche fanbase, semi-independent production, and relatively long three-year gap between sequels There's still lots of shootingmeans the next one will probably turn up out of the blue with little hype, much as Awakening did last year. Plus, though this is the most expensive film to date (double the budget of the preceding one!), it’s also the most financially successful: $160.1 million worldwide, beating number two’s $111.3 million. Assuming Beckinsale still feels up for it, I imagine 2015 will bring us a continuation — and, hopefully, a conclusion.

The higher budget and higher gross I mentioned are surely both down to one thing: 3D. Shooting in proper 3D (as opposed to the ever-so-popular post-conversion) costs a fortune, as a producer reveals in the BD’s bonus features, but it can also net you more money at the box office thanks to that 3D premium. Such a gamble hasn’t paid off for everyone (Dredd), but it clearly did here (how the hell did Underworld 4 make four-and-a-half times as much money as Dredd?!) Watching in 2D, it’s clear that some sequences were designed with 3D in mind — not in the way that, say, Saw 3D or The Final Destination sometimes only make sense with added depth, but in ways where 3D would (I imagine) enhance the visuals. There are some instances of stuff flying at the camera, a popular sticking point for the anti-3D crowd, but that’s actually been part and parcel of Underworld’s style since the start (just watch a trailer for the first film — there was a shot of it used prominently in most of the marketing).

New-style evolved LycanAlso worthy of commendation: new-style ‘evolved’ Lycans; a small role for Charles Dance (always worth seeing); the evocative near-future setting; good quality action sequences; some nice steel-blue cinematography/grading. Some of it was shot at 120fps on brand-new pre-alpha never-used RED cameras — take that Peter Jackson, eh. Plus it’s only a little over 1 hour and 18 minutes long without credits. Some would bemoan such brevity, but it has its positives.

I’ve always quite liked the Underworld series, even if the first one is still clearly the best. Awakening gets most kudos for taking things in a new direction, even if, as a film in itself, it’s only OK.

3 out of 5

Final Destination 5 (2011)

2013 #17
Steven Quale | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Final Destination 5Final Destination 5 is the latest Final Destination film. Do you really need a plot description? They all have the same story.

Here, the focus switches from the schoolkids of previous films to a workplace… staffed by people who look like they should still be in school. I don’t think that’s because I’m getting old, but probably because US productions have a habit of casting twentysomethings as highschoolers and I guess these are twentysomethings playing twentysomethings. It doesn’t really make much difference, anyway — they’re still all involved in an incident, they’re still not friendly enough to be hanging out together all the time, they still get bumped off one by one.

Oddly, this feels fresher than the dire fourth film. Not much, perhaps, but it has a few more twists on the formula. That said, it’s generally a very tired format now — the identikit plot is merely a delivery medium for more varied deaths. There are some creatives ones here, for them that likes that, but it feels horrendously shallow and exploitative. Of course, some people do like that (there wouldn’t be an “exploitation” genre otherwise), and I guess it satisfies them on some level.

In the positives column, Tony Todd is back from the first two as the enigmatic coroner. As well as no doubt pleasing the series’ fans, his appearance makes it seem like there’s been some attempt to further the franchise by re-introducing his brand of mystery. A Surprise Twist in the closing moments (about when and where the story’s events occur) seems to do similar, Something shocking, just out of shotalthough on reflection it’s meaningless; a clever nod that isn’t really clever, but is neat. And perhaps means the series is finally going to rest.

In other news, this is the second one in 3D. I’d forgotten that, but it becomes obvious pretty quickly — there’s all the usual stuff-at-the-camera nonsense. It’s part of the fun of trashy horror films in 3D, so in that respect I don’t mind it. But in 2D, it is kinda distracting. I think this is a film that was made to be watched on the big screen in 3D once and then forgotten about.

Some long-running movie series manage to cement their reputation as the films stack up — look at Bond. Others don’t exactly improve, but attempt fresh offerings or develop in some way — look at Saw. And others slide further and further into mediocrity — and Final Destination is now a go-to example of that. The first two are pretty great, in their own way, but none of the others are really worth bothering with — and, as you can tell from the number, this is one of the others.

2 out of 5

The Final Destination (2009)

2012 #61
David R. Ellis | 82 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Final DestinationThe best thing about The Final Destination is its title, because turning the series’ familiar name into a definitive article for the final entry is really quite a neat move. Sadly, it was a hit and they’ve made more. Why it was a hit… God only knows.

For starters, the story (such as it is) is a complete and utter rehash of the plot of every other film in the series. The only thing on its side is efficiency: it races through ‘plot’ scenes in a quest to find the next set piece. For example, the Rules are explained to this all-new cast because they Google “premonitions” and find out what happened in the previous movies. The overriding sense of familiarity makes for kind of depressing viewing. Previous films tried to find new twists on the rules, ways the cycle might genuinely be broken, etc, whereas this seems content to merely move from one death to the next. Aside from creative ways to kill people, literally the only new idea is that the premonition-haver sees two people die at almost exactly the same time and can’t remember who was first, meaning instead of traipsing to warn the next person they have to find two people. And that’s it.

Production values are low too, featuring very cheap CGI and very poor acting. I’d say both are below the standard of US network TV filler, so for the fourth entry in a fairly successful big-screen franchise that seems even more woeful. I know it’s only Final Destination, but still… The cast aren’t helped by the woeful screenplay, but I don’t think they could’ve enlivened a better one either. They’ve clearly been cast just for being Young and Pretty, but surely there are some Young, Pretty people who can act?

How this film will make you feel, 1The focus is clearly on the deaths — at 11 it has the highest of the series, and with its short running time that means there’s a fatality every seven minutes. They’re also very gory, more so than in previous films I’d say, but they’re not commensurately more inventive. There’s a very thorough line in misdirection at times, but the whole enterprise feels painfully lacking in creativity. I’m not sure some of them even make sense. But then do they need to? Similarly, there’s some customary low-rent-horror-movie completely-gratuitous nudity too, which I’m sure delighted teenage boys even more in 3D.

None of the deaths matter because nothing is done to make us care about these characters, or even be broadly interested in them, unlike the best of the earlier entries. So there’s zero tension, zero emotion, just elaborate death after elaborate death. It’s one of the most hollow films I can think of. It may even have been better if they’d ditched the attempts at a plot and gone for a series of vignettes in which, unbeknownst to one another, the survivors were bumped off in order. That’s basically what this film wants to be anyway. At least it would’ve been something different. And shorter. And when you want an under-80-minutes (before credits) film to be shorter… oh dear.

The 3D factor was a large part of the film’s promotion, and it makes full use of stereo visuals in exactly the way you’d expect a schlocky horror to. Problem is, it’s so designed for 3D that some of it doesn’t work in 2D. It’s not just the usual array of stuff flying at the camera for no reason — Woah-oh-oh your steps are on firethat’s a sure sign it was meant for cheap 3D thrills, but otherwise fine — here, stuff pokes straight out. That means in 2D you see, say, the flat end of a pole, with absolutely zero sense of depth. This happened with one trap in Saw 3D, but in The Final Destination it keeps coming up. It might not sound like a serious problem, but again and again it jars as you try to work out exactly what’s where in the very flat straight-on 2D rendering. Maybe it’s good that 3D films are so thoroughly designed for their intended medium, but I’m not convinced.

As mentioned, this was sold as the final Final Destination — hence the definitive-article title — but it was a surprise hit (thanks in no small part to the 3D, back in the Avatar-hype era when it guaranteed anything a significant boost) and so the series has continued. What’s perhaps most odd, however, is that it makes no serious attempt to bring the whole series to a close. Sure, #3 ditched any links to the first two with a brand-new cast as well, but you’d think, knowing this was The Last One, they’d try to bring it full circle somehow. But clearly not.

Then again, I’m not sure anyone involved could have if they wanted too. The evidence for that is on screen: some of it is unbelievably boneheaded. “Where’s Lori?” “I dunno, I’ve been calling and texting all afternoon, she won’t pick up her phone.” Oh, maybe she’s, I dunno, in the film she told you she was going to see in the scene before last! Dear God.

How this film will make you feel, 2Elsewhere, one character starts talking about déjà vu before getting killed in the same way as the first film’s most famous death. I suppose it’s meant to be Meta and Funny, and maybe it kinda is, but again the CG is so cheap that the half-trained eye will spot an effect is about to happen, and the manner of death once again doesn’t really make sense. Later, we learn that shopping mall sprinklers can instantly extinguish all fires — handy!

I could go on. I have half a dozen more examples in my notes. But no. It’s so woeful that it’s kind of frustratingly bad — you want someone with half a brain to come along and make the film work.

There’s a somewhat amusing way to judge the Final Destination series: its posters and/or DVD covers; and, specifically, what they tell us about the decreasing importance of character to the franchise. You see, the first prominently features head shots of the central cast (albeit half turned into skulls). The second offers either blurry head shots or full body shots, reducing their recognisability. In the third, the cast are still there, but reduced to near-facelessness seated on a roller coaster, often upside down. And by the fourth, they’re not even there at all. It’s true that Final Destination has never really been about the characters — it’s about how they die — but it’s also true that the more attached you are to them, however superficially, the better (as it were) their deaths are. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the characters, deaths and films get weaker at about the same rate, or perhaps each really is connected to the others.

This picture is a metaphorThere’s potential in the concept of the Final Destination films, but clearly it’s either limited or the people in charge don’t know how to exploit it, because after making two quite-good films they’ve turned it into a repetitive, stale, uncreative, formulaic disaster. And there’s now a fifth too, and a sixth hasn’t been ruled out — surely it/they can’t be any worse than this? Based on form, maybe they can…

1 out of 5

The Final Destination is on Film4 and Film4 HD tonight at 11:05pm, and again on Friday 21st at 11:10pm. Because I’m sure you really want to see it now.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.

The Final Destination featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.