Assassin’s Creed (2016)

2017 #135
Justin Kurzel | 115 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA, France, UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Malta / English, Spanish & Arabic | 12 / PG-13

Assassin's Creed

There seemed to be great hope when the Assassin’s Creed movie was announced. Partly because it’s a popular video game series, so of course its fans were excited; but also because it attracted star Michael Fassbender, an actor doing Oscar-calibre work, who then hand-picked director Justin Kurzel, whose previous movies suggested loftier ambitions than just trashy blockbusters. Feelings seemed strong that this could be the first great video game adaptation. But it was not to be.

Fassbender plays Cal, a criminal who is ostensibly executed but then wakes up in a strange facility where a doctor (Marion Cotillard) informs him that they’re going to strap him into a machine called the Animus, which uses Cal’s DNA to kind of send him back in time to relive the memories of his ancestor, who was an Assassin (with a capital A, because they’re like a guild or something). Her organisation, the Templars (who are the bad guys, presumably), want to use this totally plausible science to access the aforementioned memories so that they can locate the world-changing MacGuffin, hidden away by Cal’s ancestor (who was a good guy, I think). Something like that, anyway.

Academy Award Nominee Michael Fassbender

To be honest, a “something like that” feeling pervades the film. It’s a very strange viewing experience, in that you can follow what’s going on while at the same time feeling like it makes no sense whatsoever. Until the last act, anyway, when it goes thoroughly WTF. In part that’s because all the nonsensical bits and bobs that you let slide earlier finally come into play. Like, what’s going on with the other inmates? Are they actual Assassins? Did using the Animus make them Assassins? That seems to be what happens to Cal. So, how does that work exactly? And then the actual ending… what the hell was it all about? I’m not sure I could even summarise my confusion — like I said before: it’s both completely followable and completely nonsensical. Of course, it’s very much trying to leave things open for a sequel. I guess that won’t be happening…

For a video game adaptation marketed as an historical actioner, there’s altogether too much plot (whether it’s followable or not, the story is dull and unengaging) and too little action. What’s there is mostly well realised — apparently a lot of it was done for real, and although there’s obviously a lot of CGI background extension (with a nice painterly look), there’s a definite physicality to the parkour and fisticuffs that you don’t get with CGI body doubles. I mean, there are only three or four action sequences total, and only one and a half of them are really worth it, but at least there’s something to like in them. Unfortunately, the action carries no weight: our hero can’t change the past, just witness it as he helps the bad guys watch to see where the MacGuffin ended up. So we are literally watching someone watch someone else do all the action — like, y’know, watching someone else play a video game. It’s almost a meta commentary on video game movies, except I don’t think that was the intention.

Running and jumping

So what is it trying to comment on? I mean, it’s an action blockbuster, so “nothing” would be a perfectly adequate answer. Nonetheless, some reviews claim it’s trying to consider philosophical, religious, and/or genetics-related concepts. I suppose it does technically mention such things, but it fails to actively engage with them to such a degree that I think it’s doing it a kindness to even claim it’s attempting to be a thoughtful movie. In a similar shot at intelligence, apparently we were meant to feel neither the Templars nor Assassins are good or bad, but both morally grey. However, rather than creating ambiguity in who to root for, it just comes across as a smudge of indifference.

Nothing else impresses either. It’s a very visually gloomy film. I can’t discount the possibility that’s because I watched it in 3D, with the notorious darkening effect of the glasses, but my setup usually compensates for that (I don’t recall noting any undue darkness on other 3D viewing). Actually, the 3D itself was fine — good, even, at times — but it’s battling the largely unappealing visuals.

Come up to the lab and see what's on the slab

I’ve never played an Assassin’s Creed game, but I’d wager they don’t primarily consist of people nattering in a lab interspersed with the occasional period action scene. Maybe a greater adherence to such thrills, and less needlessly convoluted plotting, would’ve made for a more likeable movie. My rating’s possibly a tad harsh, but Assassin’s Creed could and should have been better.

2 out of 5

Assassin’s Creed is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

Musical Review Roundup

My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • Moana (2016)

    2017 #85
    Ron Clements & John Musker | 103 mins | TV (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Moana

    The latest entry in Disney’s animated canon (the 56th), Moana is another princess-starring musical — that genre fully back in vogue for animated movies since the success of Frozen, I guess. The twist (if you can call it that, because the film thankfully doesn’t belabour the point) is that this isn’t another European-style princess fairytale, but rather one inspired by Polynesian culture, with songs co-written by That Guy From Hamilton.

    Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief whose tribe never venture far from their island’s waters, despite the sea calling to Moana — literally, as it turns out, because when the island’s crops begin to wither, the sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore a MacGuffin and make everything a-okay again. Along the way, there are moral lessons about being adventurous and stuff.

    Although the cultural setting is notably different to Disney’s usual stomping ground — and, don’t get me wrong, that diversity is something to be applauded, both for putting different kinds of heroes on screen and for giving us all something fresh — Moana is executed with Disney’s customary slickness. It looks fantastic, especially in 3D, where the ocean stretches forever into the screen, and there’s a musical sequence with 2D backgrounds that, ironically, is one of the best extra-dimensional bits because of what it does with said backgrounds. The songs are a toe-tapping treat too, with Moana’s big number, How Far I’ll Go, a more likeable earworm than certain other Disney songs about going; a David Bowie-inspired villain’s song, Shiny; and, my personal favourite, a comedy number sung by the Rock called You’re Welcome (this being the one with the 2D-that-looks-fab-in-3D animation).

    Maui and Moana

    Surprisingly for a Disney princess film, there’s a superb action sequence in the middle, a rope-swinging sea battle against… miniature… pirate… coconut… things… er, I guess…? Anyway, it may actually be one of my favourite action scenes of the year, which is not what you generally find in a Disney musical. The big action scene at the end is perhaps slightly less effective as it strives hard to be an epic climax, but I think that’s nitpicking — it’s conceptually strong, with another positive underlying message. A bigger problem is the character of the sea: it chooses Moana for the quest, which arguably takes away some of her agency (the film fights to seem like it’s giving it back to her), and regularly turns up as a mini deus ex machina every time the characters need a hand.

    That said, while I can observe those issues from an objective and critically-minded point of view, they didn’t actually bother me all that much. If you just (ahem) let it go, Moana is a ceaselessly likeable, consistently entertaining musical adventure. Along with Frozen and Zootropolis, it suggests Disney have hit a real stride right now that hopefully they can continue to build on.

    4 out of 5

    Moana is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

    2017 #98
    Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

    War for the Planet of the Apes

    Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

    Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

    When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

    Cheeky monkeys

    This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

    Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

    Military might

    Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

    On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

    Talk with the animals... or not

    Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

    It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

    They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

    War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

    5 out of 5

    War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.

    Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

    2017 #72
    Anna Foerster | 91 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Underworld: Blood Wars

    Kate Beckinsale is back in skintight leather for……

    I’m sorry, my mind wandered off then. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… skintight leather……

    Sorry, happened again. As I was saying: Kate Beckinsale is back in… her role as a werewolf-killing vampire for the fifth entry in the Underworld series, which seems to be as undying as its star creatures.

    Picking up a little while after the last one left off, the war between vampires and Lycans (aka werewolves) is now back in full swing, and both sides are hunting Selene (Beckinsale). Her own kind want her for previous crimes (see: the first two films), while the Lycans are after her daughter (see: the last film) to give them an advantage in the war. Fearing for their safety, the vampires invite Selene back into the fold to train a new generation of combatants, but there are sneakier plans afoot…

    Kate Beckinsale in leather. Nuff said.

    The first Underworld marked out somewhat-new territory when it hit screens in 2003 by taking fantasy/horror elements like vampire covens and werewolves and placing them in a modern urban environment, fighting more with guns than swords and teeth. It certainly wasn’t wholly original — Blade had already done a similar concept and visually it owed a lot to The Matrix — but it was fresh enough. Since then the series has increasingly strayed away from that: the second film brought more traditional-style Eastern European countryside, the third was a medieval prequel, and the fourth was… kind of nothing-y, really.

    Now, they seem to have made something of an effort to get back to the ‘world’ of the first film, with extravagant vampire covens and underground Lycan forces, while also growing the series’ mythology by introducing us to new areas of vampiredom, primarily a Nordic coven. This move also brings with it a degree of politicking among the vampires, which is kind of what I imagine a millennia-old secret society would be like. I mean, don’t expect House of Cards — it’s done at the level of the action B-movie this series is — but it’s kinda fun. To achieve this it’s had to ignore an awful lot of the last film — not entirely, by any means, as it’s quite heavily based in some leftover plot points — but other parts have been completely glossed over. This lax attitude to continuity could be irritating, but a counterargument might go that isn’t it better to ditch stuff that isn’t really working in favour of stuff that’s more entertaining?

    Vampire politics

    Part of the entertainment comes from characters talking rather than just fighting, and we’re treated to some magnificently cheesy, overworked dialogue. Some of these scenes are edited within an inch of their life, lines almost tripping over each other as they’re rushed on to the screen. By rights that should be a problem, yet in something as fabulously trashy as Underworld it feels more expedient — they’re getting on with it, rather than being ponderous about the mythology, like much fantasy is wont to do. I kinda like it for that. Alternatively, there’s one bit where the main characters seem to express themselves in a quick-cut series of heavy breaths and grunts. It’s either terrible or genius, or possibly both.

    This tone is supported by some superbly hammy acting from a cast filled with faces from British TV. Sherlock’s Irene Adler, Lara Pulver, seems to be having a whale of a time as the scheming head of a vampire coven, while giving Miss Beckinsale a run for her money in the kinky outfit department. She’s accompanied by Merlin’s Arthur, Bradley James, pouting around as her frequently-insulted boy toy. Tobias Menzies (take your pick of what you consider him best-known for) does his best as the Lycan’s cunning new leader, who’s most threatening in his CGI-powered transformed state. And Charles Dance is back, exuding pure class as always, completely convincing you that he believes in all the high-fantasy drivel he has to spout.

    Irene and Arthur

    Similarly, we all know Kate Beckinsale is better than this — and if you’d forgotten, Love & Friendship should’ve reasserted it. Even here she’s called on to be more than just a shapely pair of buttocks, getting to inject Selene with some rare emotion on several occasions. She also once again kicks ass left, right, and centre. The film’s action on the whole is fairly entertaining. There’s little impressive choreography or particularly original combat concepts, but it passes muster. Even Charles Dance gets to do some swashbuckling (as he terms it in the making-of), which is only brief but also as awesome as it sounds. Another part amusingly sees two bulletproof adversaries walk slowly towards one another while emptying their guns into each other. It’s, again, simultaneously close to being both terrible and genius.

    Despite being renowned as a visually gloomy series, I thought it looked pretty nice in 3D — better than Awakening did, at any rate. Awakening was genuinely shot in 3D, whereas (based on what I could see in behind-the-scenes footage from the special features) Blood Wars appears to have been post-converted. It shows how far that technology has come that even a modestly budgeted movie like this (just $35 million) can afford post-conversion that often looks very good indeed.

    The only major disappointment I had with the film was that, thanks to it being in a rush every time it had some plot to get through, parts of it don’t quite make sense. The ending, in particular, where a voiceover monologue mentions a load of stuff we haven’t just seen happen and doesn’t quite flow. Surely they could’ve afforded an extra two minutes to connect the dots? Apparently the ending was designed to both brings things full circle and, perhaps, leave it open for a sixth instalment. Well, I would say it shortchanges the wrapping-up bit — this could be a place to conclude the series, but by not giving that sufficient weight (i.e. by rushing it), it implies a kind of “tune in next time”-ness.

    Kate Beckinsale. Leather. Nuff. Said.

    That aside, I actually massively enjoyed Blood Wars; much more than the negative reception led me to expect. Of course, the Underworld films are a fan-only experience at this point — not because of diminishing quality, as most reviews would cite, but because of how much the story is based in events from three of the previous four films. If you’ve watched any of those previous movies and not enjoyed them, it’s not worth catching up for this — it’s fundamentally “more of the same”, just done better than it’s been since the first movie.

    These days franchises can revive themselves for new viewers later in their runs — Fast Five being the best Fast & Furious movie is a case in point — but Blood Wars isn’t a Fast Five. However, as someone who would, at this point, I guess, count myself as a fan of the series, Blood Wars delivered.

    4 out of 5

    Underworld: Blood Wars is released on DVD and Blu-ray (in regular, 3D, and UHD flavours) in the UK today.

    Prometheus 3D (2012)

    Rewatchathon 2017 #10
    Ridley Scott | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Prometheus 3D

    80 years in the future, a starmap found in some caveman paintings provokes a trillion-dollar mission to the other side of the universe so that the world’s stupidest scientists can (spoilers!) get themselves killed.

    It is, by complete coincidence, 4½ years to the day since I first and last watched Prometheus, and this revisit has of course been inspired by its just-released follow-up, Prometheus 2: Extraterrestrial Boogaloo Alien: Covenant, which I’m seeing tomorrow. Frankly, most of my original thoughts on the film still stand. To summarise: it has some really good bits, but then it stops making sense and turns into a braindead blockbuster that doesn’t bother to properly explain its own plot, never mind the potentially-interesting sci-fi ideas it initiated early on. Apparently the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes do clarify some of the plot holes and gaps in character motivation, but other stuff is just plain stupidity on the part of the characters. Or, rather, the writers. Well, one of the writers, at least.

    But despite my basic opinion not changing, I’m posting about Prometheus again because this was the first time I watched it in 3D. Hailing from those brief couple of years where the term “post-conversion” was blasphemous, Prometheus was genuinely shot in 3D — and, however good post-conversion has become since then, I think parts of this film make a case for why doing things properly is still best. But I’ll come to that.

    Building busy bridges

    In general, Ridley Scott’s 3D mise en scène is exemplary, almost always placing objects and characters at various distances from the camera to emphasise and clarify the sense of depth. The busy layout of the Prometheus’ bridge helps this no end, making scenes set there some of the clearest examples. Even on less populous sets, Scott finds angles and compositions that offer nice dimensionality without slipping into being a vacuous 3D showcase. He frequently uses glass to good effect, creating an obvious separation between the clear material — be it a window, a spacesuit helmet, or a sleeping pod — and what’s on the other side, almost casually adding extra layers to any shot they appear in.

    In terms of show-off effects, Scott never breaks the ‘window’ of the screen by having things poke out at the viewer, but there are still scenes where the extra dimension is really felt. The storm sequences are a perfect example, with bits of debris flying around all over the place. In-film computer elements like holograms or displays have their own shapely presence in front of, around, and distinct from the physical world they’re part of, making them seem all the more real. Perhaps most of all, the room-filling Engineer star chart David discovers looks great in 3D. My memory of it from the 2D version is an indecipherable array of lights filling the screen, which is probably because it was all perfectly in focus for the sake of the 3D. With that extra dimension, it looks like something worth marvelling at.

    Maps to the stars

    Having been shot ‘for real’, the 3D just gives everything, even dialogue scenes, a sense of space and distance. You can appreciate the gap between someone’s head and the neck-back of their spacesuit; or, in close-ups, the distinct (but not in-your-face) distance between someone’s nose and eyes and hair. Perhaps the most impressive element are textures, like the hieroglyphs David finds cut into rock, or even characters’ skin — at times you can ‘feel’ its surface, its pockmarks and pores. However good post conversions are, I’m not sure they’re ever that thorough!

    Watching in 3D is never going to gloss over Prometheus’ more fundamental flaws — it’s never going to make up for issues with the screenplay or the edit (that said, I’ve heard it makes Transformers 4 considerably more entertaining, so maybe “never” is too strong a word). What you do get is a sense that effort was made to make the 3D experience worthwhile. It may be an inessential component of the movie (a virtual necessity when there will always be people watching in 2D, of course), but it’s one that nonetheless adds an appreciable extra dimension.

    3 out of 5

    Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from Thursday.

    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.