100 Films @ 10: Most Effective Director’s Cuts

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Whether they be director’s, extended, ultimate, or any number of strung-together adjectives someone in marketing thought sounded exciting, direct-to-home-media alternate cuts of movies are all the rage nowadays. They have been for quite a while, actually — thanks no doubt to the booming sales of the DVD era — so for today’s top ten I thought I’d run down some of the most effective. I don’t necessarily mean the best (these aren’t “the ten best films that happen to have extended editions”), but rather the ones that have the biggest positive impact on the end result — which is sometimes the same thing, of course.

I know the initially stated point of these top tens was to look back over the last ten years, but this time I’ve widened the remit to include all extended cuts, mainly because that only added one title. Losing out because of that is X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Rogue Cut, which does contain significant changes, especially to the climax, but didn’t really belong because I actually think the theatrical cut is smoother.

10
Léon
Version Intégrale

To undermine my introduction right away, the extended version of Léon doesn’t actually make massive changes to the movie. Some of the additions bolster character development, but the film wasn’t shortchanged on that in the first place. It is great though, but it’s also just more greatness. Does that mean it shouldn’t be here? Well, if you’re watching the US Blu-ray, it’s the longer version that has the proper title card, which is reason enough to prefer it in itself.

9
Watchmen
Director’s Cut

There are three cuts of Watchmen, but it’s the middle one that is director Zack Snyder’s preferred version of the film (aptly, given its subtitle). I’ve still not got round to the semi-experimental Ultimate Cut so can’t truthfully comment on whether Snyder’s right, but when I reviewed the Director’s Cut I asserted that, thanks to “a little extra room to breathe and a few worthwhile extensions, and in spite of the odd tweak that doesn’t work, this is the superior cut of the film.”

8
I Am Legend
Alternate Theatrical Version

The extended cut of I Am Legend has one of the most meaningless subtitles of all — it wasn’t released theatrically, so how is it an “alternate theatrical version”? That said, “alternate” is definitely a more apt descriptor than “extended”: although this version is longer, the biggest change is a completely different ending. That makes a difference to the film’s tone, as well as paying off some subplots. But it only changes the movie so much — those misguided CGI creatures are still there, after all.

7
Salt
Director’s Cut

This middling action-thriller starring Angelina Jolie is not the first film that’s going to come to mind to most people (for any reason, ever), but it exists in three different cuts that make some striking differences. I discussed them in depth in my review, but on balance the one they labelled the Director’s Cut is best.

6
Alien³
Assembly Cut

The second Alien sequel was a fraught production for a number of reasons, which wound up in an obviously-compromised theatrical version. A little over a decade later (doesn’t sound so long with hindsight, does it?) the original “assembly cut” was released — not a director’s cut because, understandably, David Fincher wants nothing to do with the movie. The different version doesn’t save the film entirely, but it does clarify some of it, thereby improving it.

5
The Lord of the Rings
Extended Edition

From Fellowship onwards, the extended versions of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic are the preferred versions, deepening characters and expanding the rich world of the story. But by the time of the third and final movie, they’re essential: in a rare misstep, Jackson chose to completely excise one of the trilogy’s primary villains, Christopher Lee’s Saruman, from the theatrical version of Return of the King, so only in the extended version is the storyline of a major character actually resolved. That film won Best Picture nonetheless, which is why these aren’t ranked higher: the extended cuts are better, yes, but the theatrical versions are an incredible cinematic achievement regardless.

4
Sucker Punch
Extended Cut

Zack Snyder again, with another director’s preferred cut only debuting on the home release. This time he had to cut the film for censorship, revising it multiple times until the MPAA gave it the necessary PG-13. In the process, he removed several lines and scenes that helped to clarify what the hell was going on, which is rather helpful in such a crazy-ass movie. I’ve never bothered with the theatrical cut, but — in its extended form if no other — I think it’s something of an underrated movie.

3
Blade Runner
The Final Cut

Arguably the daddy of all alternate cuts, Blade Runner’s so-called Director’s Cut wasn’t really anything of the sort — Ridley Scott was busy and couldn’t be properly involved, merely providing notes for a studio after a fast buck. Years later, he was able to do it properly, resulting in the aptly named Final Cut… which is kinda just a polished version of the earlier Director’s Cut, but there you go. (Incidentally, there are some people who prefer the theatrical version. I’ve still not got round to it myself, but… well, there are also some people who prefer the theatrical cuts of Lord of the Rings. What I’m saying is, there’s no accounting for taste.)

2
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ultimate Edition

Guess who’s back? Zack Snyder’s third entry on this list is his most effective revised cut he’s yet done. There are aspects of Batman v Superman that mean some people will never like it, but it’s hard to argue that the Ultimate Edition isn’t an improvement, clarifying plot details and character motivations left, right, and centre. Seriously, though, what is it with Zack Snyder and cutting scenes that explain the plot?! At least when he does a director’s cut (which is most of the time) he really makes use of it.

1
Kingdom of Heaven
Director’s Cut

Guess who’s also back? The other great proponent of the director’s cut, Ridley Scott — though he’s more prone to using and abusing the term than Mr Snyder (the director’s cut of Alien is, famously, nothing of the sort). I’ve never seen the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven so can’t actually vouch for this myself, but, by adding a massive 45 minutes of material, Scott’s lengthier cut turned a theatrical dog into a film some regard as a masterpiece. I can’t think of another director’s cut that has ever instigated such a thorough reappraisal of a film’s critical standing.

Tomorrow: ten good scenes and no bad ones.

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

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

Mad Max: Fury Road - Black & Chrome Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Black and Doof

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

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

Furiouser and Furiosa

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

5 out of 5

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

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

Wizardhood (2016)

2016 #186
edited by Tim Stiefler | 78 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English

WizardhoodAt the tail end of last month, a story did the rounds on entertainment sites about a fan edit that took the eight-film, 20-hour Harry Potter series and reduced it into a single movie that ran just 78 minutes — a reduction of over 93%. You see stories about these kind of fan edits all the time (or you do if you read certain sites, anyway), but I usually don’t get round to watching them. I mean, who has time for a dozens-of-hours supercut that puts every piece of footage from every Marvel movie (and short) into chronological order, or whatever? But as I was off to Harry Potter Land — and as it’s less than an hour-and-a-half long — I did make time for Wizardhood (like Boyhood, see?)

(I did debate whether this merited a new number, because it’s a fan edit of other people’s movies; but it’s such a radical restructuring of that material, and (as I’ll come to in a moment) it’s designed to function as a film rather than as a long video summary, so I’ve decided it does count, as would any official major re-edit.)

So how exactly do you go about making such a huge reduction? Is it just a really, really long “previously on”-style montage? No, thank goodness, it isn’t. What editor Tim Stiefler (a 27-year-old New Yorker, if you’re interested) has produced is less an abridgement and more a complete retelling of the Potter story. His cut doesn’t even attempt to tell whole swathes of the story, instead ditching them entirely. Stiefler has clearly tried to make a film out of this material, not just a long précis of the story. That means we don’t just get a series of vital scenes that further the plot. Instead, moments are allowed to play out a bit to convey their emotional impact or their humour. He’s even selected a couple of the series’ many action sequences, presumably based on the points in his cut that benefit from that adrenaline boost — just as you would if you were pacing a ‘real’ film.

Harry Potter and the Streamlined StoryWizardhood focuses in on the main narrative of Harry vs Voldemort, and the need to destroy the Horcruxes. In practice, that means there’s a chunk of Film 1 to establish the world, followed by cursory scenes from Films 2, 3, 4 and 5, mainly for texture and pace, before great chunks of Films 6, 7 and 8 are used to complete the narrative. In the process it also focuses on certain characters. It’s centred around Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. The latter two are only really there because they’re always around Harry, although Stiefler makes a decent subplot out of their relationship. Also retaining much of their storylines are Dumbledore and Snape, who both have primary roles in Harry’s story. Draco Malfoy and Neville Longbottom get subplots, again mainly because they have vital roles to play in the main tale. There are a couple of scenes featuring major players like McGonagall, Hagrid, Ginny, and Umbridge, but otherwise every major character is cut: the Dursleys and Sirius Black don’t even appear; the likes of Lupin and Mrs Weasley are in a shot or two without any dialogue; and so on (I’m not going to list everyone!)

It’s a little hard to say how Wizardhood works as a standalone movie, because if you’ve seen all eight films in full then your brain can fill in the gaps. The said, it does seem fairly smooth. It’s so efficiently and cleverly edited that there are barely any lines or moments that aren’t relevant to the version of the story it’s telling, and the excised stuff is so thoroughly removed that you kind of don’t miss it. It’s not the ideal way to view the Harry Potter saga — it loses so much of the texture, the plot, the characters — but as an exercise in telling the series’ primary conflict in a single-film-length way, it’s an impressive piece of work.

4 out of 5

The full Harry Potter series is on ITV daily from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve, beginning with Philosopher’s Stone today at 1:30pm. If you want to see Wizardhood, you’ll have to go looking

Ted 2: Extended Edition (2015)

aka Ted 2: Unrated

2016 #94
Seth MacFarlane | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

Ted 2Comedy sequels often struggle, and writer-director-producer-star Seth MacFarlane’s in-between feature was sporadically odious, so I approached Ted 2 with trepidation. While it can’t match the freshness of its predecessor, it’s certainly no AMWtDitW.*

The plot (about Ted trying to become a legally recognised person) exists to string together comedic set pieces. Perhaps that’s why the pace feels off: individual parts are funny, but it’s slow going. That’s not the fault of the extended cut (details here) — the additions include at least one of the funniest bits.

Not a surprise success like the first, then, but an amusing couple of hours.

3 out of 5

* The length of that title is anathema to a word-limited review. ^

Duel (1971)

2016 #140
Steven Spielberg | 86 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 12* / PG

DuelAs far as Americans are concerned, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film was The Sugarland Express (which I reviewed just last year). For the rest of us, it was Duel. Originally produced as a TV movie for ABC, it was a ratings and critical success, which led Universal to have Spielberg shoot extra footage so they could release it theatrically in the rest of the world. It merits it, too, because Duel is a brilliant work.

Adapted by renowned Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson from his own short story, the film sees ordinary family guy David Mann (Dennis Weaver) driving across the back of beyond to a business meeting, when he comes up behind a massive slow-moving truck. Perfectly reasonably, he overtakes and continues on his way… but a few seconds later, the truck thunders past him. “Whatever,” thinks Mann (in modern parlance)… until the truck slows down again. When he tries to overtake, the truck speeds up, or blocks his way. So begins a game of cat and mouse between the two vehicles, which mild-mannered Mann finds impossible to escape, as it becomes clear the mysterious truck driver is definitely trying to kill him.

It’s an incredible simple, straightforward premise; so simple that initially one struggles to see how Matheson and Spielberg intend to ring half-an-hour out of it, never mind a whole feature. That is to underestimate them, however; and to underestimate the truck driver, who has many ways of messing with Mann’s head — all without revealing himself (the one time he disembarks from his cab, we only see his boots as he paces on the far side of his vehicle). Never revealing the trucker’s face was Matheson’s idea, but Spielberg leapt on it wholeheartedly, because the scariest monsters are the ones you never see. Couple that with a specially-chosen truck (of the seven Spielberg ‘auditioned’, it was the one whose front most resembled a face) and you have a genuinely threatening presence.

Although Duel has been analysed as a horror movie, or a Western, or a commentary on class war in America, Spielberg didn’t see it that way, regarding it as a pure Hitchcockian suspense thriller. He’s bang on the money. It’s not scary in the way a horror movie would be, and I think calling it a Western is a bit of a reach, though I can kind of see where the class war thing is coming from; but you can absolutely see the ingredients for a Hitchcock movie here. Mann is an everyman (I’m sure his name can be no coincidence), a completely nondescript ordinary Joe, who gets caught up in extraordinary events against his will, and winds up the only person in a position to do anything about them. The truck is akin to the eponymous avians of The Birds, an everyday thing that seems to be acquiring almost supernatural powers; that you can never predict its next action, or where it will next appear, other than to know it will always be there, waiting for you. It’s a situation any driver — or, indeed, any passenger — can conceive of finding themselves in, which adds a “what would I do?” frisson to proceedings.

Weaver is excellent, plausibly charting a course from bland normality to apologetic paranoia, on to hopeless despair, ending in desperate lunacy. At one point he pauses at a roadside cafe to get a breather, but has reason to suspect one of his fellow patrons is his tormenter. As he tries to subtly surveil them, attempting to figure out what he can do to defuse the situation, Mann’s thoughts are narrated on the soundtrack; but we barely need it, because Weaver physically conveys all of his uncertainty, his fear, his wannabe-bravado. Sequences like this also demonstrate how Spielberg was already a master of camerawork and editing, guiding us as to where Mann is looking, shifting angles high and low, the constant changes in perspective not disorientating our sense of space but nonetheless keeping it off kilter.

This applies tenfold to the road sequences. Spielberg was originally urged to shoot the film on a soundstage using rear projection, the only way to shoot a feature-length piece of this complexity in the time they had available; but he knew that wouldn’t be effective, so despite the insanely tight schedule he took the production out on the road and shot it all for real. Although he did run over in the end, the original TV movie was still shot in less than a fortnight, and edited in ten days to boot. (The additional photography for the movie version amounted to just two more days.) You wouldn’t know it. The array of complex setups on display is extraordinary if you’re looking out for that kind of thing; even if you’re not, there’s some fairly detailed road choreography in play at times, including dynamic moving material that can only have been achieved with a separate camera car. It’s no wonder this work brought Spielberg a lot of attention, and finally facilitated his long-desired move from TV into movies.

Speaking of which, why has no one ever done a “TV work of Steven Spielberg” box set? There’s a short featurette on the Duel DVD (and Blu-ray) about the other TV productions he directed, and while I’m sure it can’t be his greatest work, he’s clearly not totally ashamed of it, and the clips shown suggest it’d be worth a watch. For one thing, being able to see the original TV edit of Duel would be interesting, for two reasons. First, it would solve the aspect ratio dilemma. The DVD is presented in 4:3, as it was originally shot for TV, even though it’s the movie cut. The more recent Blu-ray follows the cinematic framing of 1.85:1; however, it’s not just cropped and it’s not just widened: when they reviewed the footage to create the movie version, Spielberg discovered he could see himself sat in the back seat giving direction — so the final print is both widened slightly and cropped slightly. I guess which is ‘right’ is now a matter of personal preference, though the Blu-ray undoubtedly looks tonnes better in every other respect.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see Duel without the material that was added to pad the length. Specifically, that includes: the opening credits, where Mann backs out of the garage and drives through the city; when he phones his wife from the gas station; the scene at the railroad crossing; and the school bus. With the exception of the railway crossing, which is in-keeping with the focus of most of the rest of the movie, these are exactly the kind of scenes that feel added. That’s not to say they’re badly done, and if you didn’t know there’d been footage added they possibly wouldn’t stick out at all; but it would be interesting to see a version that less dilutes the otherwise near-unwavering concentration on Mann vs. Truck.

Nitpicks and “what if”s aside, Duel is a fantastic calling card from a director who has gone on to become arguably the most significant and influential filmmaker of the ensuing 45 years. To say it stands in contention to still be regarded among his finest films does no disservice to the body of work he’s produced since, but rather indicates just how assuredly he hit the ground running.

4 out of 5

Duel is on The Horror Channel today at 6:40pm and tomorrow at 8am.

* Duel’s initial rating under the modern system was PG in 1987, which stood until 2015 when it was resubmitted (presumably for the Blu-ray) and inexplicably given a 12 — “inexplicably” because even the BBFCinsight information doesn’t make the reasoning clear. It appears to be because of “threat”, which is a ridiculously vague non-justification. ^

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (2016)

2016 #128
Zack Snyder | 183 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Ultimate EditionThe Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition has been available via various means for a month or more now, but has only hit disc in the UK this past week (and I waited for it, because I’m a good boy). This extended cut adds half-an-hour of material, give or take (comparing the two Blu-rays tells me the difference is just under 31 minutes; Movie-Censorship.com says it’s just under 30 minutes) — material that is unlikely to completely transform anyone’s opinion of the movie, but at the same time definitely does improve it. That means two things: firstly, most of my original review still applies; but secondly, and crucially, some of it doesn’t.

If you hated the movie’s overall dark tone, or its depiction of either of its titular heroes, or the over-CGI’d climax, or the way it shoehorned in teases for DC’s future movies, this cut fixes none of that. I mean, of course it doesn’t — they didn’t remake the movie. If you thought the storyline wasn’t clearly explained, or that Superman’s half of the story needed more screen time, or that you’d really like to have to wait even longer before the title fight, then this is the cut for you.

As per Movie-Censorship.com, there are 99 changes. Yes, 99. That’s made up of 18 wholly new scenes and 60 extended ones, plus 19 scenes with alternate footage and two slight audio tweaks. The clearest effect of these additions is in filling out the events in Africa near the start of the film and Lois Lane’s subsequent investigation into them, as well as showing Clark actually investigating Batman, rather than just having Perry constantly tell him off for doing it. In the process, it massively clarifies who the overall villain is and what connects all the many disparate plot threads, so that it’s a logical reveal rather than an end-of-act-two declaration that some viewers completely missed. Let’s take each of those in turn.

You may have read that the photographer with Lois in Africa is Jimmy Olsen, identified in the credits but not on screen in the theatrical cut. In this version he is named on screen, but that’s not the important part. More is done to establish why Lois is in Africa, what she’s hoping to achieve, and lay the seeds for why it’s all going to go wrong. This is achieved in such a short space of time that it seems ludicrous it was cut out, leaving theatrical viewers playing catch-up when a couple of extra moments would’ve explained it clearly. (Of course, there may be an element of re-viewing bias in this: I already know what’s happening so of course I cottoned on to everything sooner.) When things do go south, more material makes it explicit what happened — what the bad guys do to frame Superman, essentially. It’s possible some of this material was cut to achieve the PG-13 rating, but in doing so they left out bits and pieces that are referenced later, heightening the sense of confusion for theatrical viewers — how are we meant to know a woman testifying to a congressional hearing about “burned bodies” is a reference to events we just witnessed if we don’t see anyone burning any bodies?

This kind of increased clarity follows throughout the film. The fleshing out of Lois’ investigations is what leads to us understanding the overall scheme better when it comes to a head. It’s also where you’ll find Jena Malone’s character. There was much speculation about who Malone was playing, especially after she was cut and director Zack Snyder claimed it was because her character was of greater significance to the DC movie universe than this movie in particular. Turns out she’s… some lab tech. That’s it. Now, her role seems disproportionately small considering the level of actress cast, so maybe she has some secret identity that will be revealed in Justice League; but on the BvS level, she actually helps explain some of the plot, and therefore is much more relevant to BvS itself than that awful Flash cameo or the terribly clunky scene with the meta-human files. If Snyder really wanted to ring-fence the universe-building into the Ultimate Edition, those are the scenes he should’ve excised from the theatrical cut.

Less vital to the overall plot, but which certainly contributes to the titular conflict, is that Clark’s investigation into the Batman is seriously beefed up. It makes Clark/Superman feel like more of a leading character in a film that was, at least as originally conceived, his sequel. In some respects this storyline is a more understandable excision, because Superman’s dislike for the Batman and his methods isn’t entirely unclear in the theatrical cut. Equally, it does flesh it out better and connect up some of the dots, like why he intervened when Batman was trying to steal the Kryptonite at the docks (essentially: a Bat-victim’s girlfriend said Batman needed stopping. Maybe not a great reason, but hey, it’s a reason). It’s a case in point of how this film simply has too much going on. To create a workable version it’s had to be three hours long — that’s the length of two movies, and it does feel like two movies’ worth of material. Not back-to-back movies — you couldn’t cut it in two at the middle and be left with two independent films — but two movies that occur concurrently; intercut. I mean, there are even two big action climaxes, back to back.

In my original review, I noted that there was an “almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, [but] the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere.” I believe some viewers missed that reveal entirely. The primary achievement of the Ultimate Edition, then, is making this story clear. It’s still something of a reveal that Lex is behind everything, but we get there through investigations and deductions that the characters make, rather than arriving at the end and Lex simply declaring, “b-t-dubs, everything you’ve just seen? Totally planned it all.” Personally, I thought Lex’s plot was already fairly clear; not crystal, by any means, but you could get there. I mean, you had to pay attention — probably more attention than most people expect to have to pay in a Zack Snyder blockbuster — but it was there. So it’s tough for me to say exactly how much clearer the Ultimate Edition makes it. It does feel more streamlined, with obvious new bits that help clarify certain points. I don’t think it sinks to the level of spelling it all out slowly and carefully in case you missed it, but it does make it more explicit; and, as discussed, it does that by showing more of Lois’ investigation, so it feels like her role is more substantial too. She felt a little cursory in Man of Steel — “it’s a Superman movie, we have to put Lois Lane in” — whereas here she has a bigger role than her boyfriend… at least until the punchy-punchy climax, of course, when his superpowers win out.

Also in the Lex camp, his mystifying line to Batman about aliens coming (or something) is somewhat explained by a short scene (which was made available online after the theatrical release and is now cut into the film) where he’s shown in front of some kind of creature that disappears when troops turn up to arrest him. I say “somewhat explained” because that’s literally the extent of the scene — there’s not even the vaguest explanation of who the creature is, or what the creature is (another Kryptonian mutant? An alien entity? A man in a suit?), or how it got there, or why it got there, or what it’s doing with/to Lex… It’s just another vague tease, which non-fans must either shrug and ignore, or scurry online to find a forum thread or news article or tweet where knowledgeable fans can tell them what the hell they just witnessed and why it’ll be relevant next time.

That was one of the more sensible removals from the theatrical cut, then. Otherwise… well, I’m not the first to say this, but it’s really bizarre that Snyder seems to have consciously chosen to cut out scenes that actually explain the plot. As I’ve said, it was followable in the theatrical cut, so maybe he just got blinded by the fact he’d seen the movie a thousand times while editing and so it all still made sense to him? Nonetheless, watching the extended cut enhances the feeling (which is there in the theatrical if you know a longer version exists) that the methodology for shortening the movie by half-an-hour was to just select scenes at random and delete them. How else do you explain losing chunks of Lois’ and Clark’s respective investigations while that awkward scene of Perry wondering where Clark’s gone remains in both cuts?

One thing that is pretty apparent about Snyder’s intentions is that he really wanted to make a Batman movie, and I suspect Man of Steel was his way in to getting to do that. Despite launching out of the events of Man of Steel, and engaging with issues of what it means to be Superman (therefore continuing MoS’s theme of “what would it be like if Superman was real?”), and having Lex Luthor as the main antagonist, BvS feels like a Batman-driven movie more often than it does a Superman one. Personally, I get it — I’m more of a Batman fan than a Superman fan too, so that approach warrants little complaint from me — but I can see why Supes’ fans would be miffed.

Another Snyder-related point comes to mind thanks to the numbering system I use for this blog. Most extended cuts of films I’ve already seen don’t merit a new number — i.e. this would be #127a — because they’re usually not significantly different to the existing versions, just adding some character beats, bonus action moments, or extra gags. They’re not fundamental enough to consider it a “new movie”. To be honest, because the extended BvS mostly serves to clarify the plot that was present in the theatrical version, I might’ve just gone with my usual numbering if it weren’t for, (a) everyone else saying how different it is, and (b) the fact a 30-minute extension amounts to 20% more film — no one can call that an insignificant addition. Interestingly, one of the few other extended cuts I gave a new number to was the Watchmen Director’s Cut. And I never bothered to watch the theatrical version of Sucker Punch, but from everything I read I’m sure the extended cut is substantially different and substantially improved. When Snyder does an extended cut, he means it. It’s not just “here are ten minutes of scenes I had to delete but rather liked”, it’s a revised version of the film — and it’s always a better version.

Other, more minor changes in this cut include increased violence, though personally I barely noticed it. Some people seem adamant this should’ve upped it to a 15 certificate, but I think you can justify saying it stops just short of that. Quite what the MPAA saw that merited an R, I’m not entirely sure. More interesting to my weirdly-obsessed mind is that the film actually includes the “Ultimate Edition” title on screen, both during the opening credits and at the end (where it’s technically titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition” without any additional punctuation). How many other extended cuts actually change their title card to reflect that fact? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any.

As someone who genuinely enjoyed Batman v Superman’s theatrical cut, it’s hard to say how much better the Ultimate Edition is for viewers who were less convinced. However, I do think it’s a question of “how much better” rather than “is it better”, because this is certainly a superior version of the film — the fact it’s now over three hours long notwithstanding. The new cut won’t ‘fix’ the movie for viewers who object to the inherent tone and style of the piece, but if you’re open to that, this cut does improves the storytelling and character arcs for a smoother experience overall. I do understand some of the reasons people dislike this movie — the way it modifies characters from their traditional depictions; the overall serious and dark tone — but they’re not opinions I share. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, though: the climax descends into CGI-fuelled mayhem (though the reduced scale of a TV screen makes it more followable); the desire to counter accusations levelled at Man of Steel’s destructive climax gets old fast (the film is at pains to constantly tell us that such-and-such an area is deserted for this-and-that reason); the meta-human set-ups are clunky and distracting; and your mileage will vary on the revisionist versions of Superman and Lex Luthor (I didn’t love Eisenberg’s take on the character, but I don’t mind it either).

I gave the theatrical cut 4 stars, which doesn’t leave me much room for manoeuvre here. Is the Ultimate Edition a whole star better? Maybe it is. I enjoyed it enough that I’m almost kind of tempted to go for the full 5… but that would be pushing it. I’m not sure any movie is perfect, but even for someone who likes it Batman v Superman has enough niggles to discount it. Still, I think it’s an enjoyable, interesting movie, that provides a welcome tonal counterpoint to the efforts of the other superhero shared movie universe. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition placed 10th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The next film in the DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad, is in cinemas from today.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



Spy: Extended Cut (2015)

2016 #106
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

The cinema was blessed — or, depending on your point of view, blighted — by an abundance of espionage-related movies last year (see: the intro to my initial thoughts on Spectre for more on that), and even writer-director/star team Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy got in on the act with this comedy.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who provides desk-bound support for Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed while investigating the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Cooper insists she go into the field to finish what he started. This doesn’t impress experienced agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue to deal with Boyanov himself.

Technically speaking, Spy is a spy comedy rather than a spy spoof — a perhaps subtle distinction, but one that does inform the kind of comedy you’re getting; i.e. rather than a send-up that relies on you knowing the material being parodied to get the jokes, this is almost a workplace comedy… just one where the workplace is international espionage. Put another way, less Naked Gun or Austin Powers, more Kingsman with the comedy dialled up higher in the mix.

This is perhaps why it’s sporadically amusing rather than regularly hilarious; on the bright side, it only occasionally slides too far into dull toilet/gross-out ‘humour’. Similarly, it means that there are a handful of fun and/or exciting action beats scattered throughout the film, which you might not expect. They’re typically brief, but — even more surprisingly — there’s a fight between McCarthy and a henchwoman in a kitchen which is a genuinely good action sequence. It’s also surprisingly gruesome. Yes, it’s R-rated, but in the world of comedy that usually just means an overabundance of the F-word. Here we have at least one clear headshot, a dissolving throat, a knife through a hand, and more photos of a henchman’s penis than you ever needed to see. (That last one’s only describable as “gruesome” depending on your personal predilections, of course.)

Apparently Feig is a fan of James Bond and developed, wrote, produced, and directed Spy because he knew no one would ever let him do a real Bond movie. I guess that explains why some of it does work passably well as a genuine action/thriller. Composer Theodore Shapiro does an equally good job of evoking Bond’s musical stylings throughout his score. In my experience most comedies don’t show such consistent commitment in their music. Talking of music: as I mentioned in my June monthly update, there’s a random cameo by Verka Serdyuchka, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry from 2007. That gets the film some bonus points in my book.

The quality of the cast’s performances are variable in ways I didn’t expect. Statham almost steals the film, playing essentially himself — but exaggerated, I’m sure. McCarthy is a solid lead, at her best when sparking off Rose Byrne, who makes anything more watchable. Miranda Hart has a large supporting role as McCarthy’s CIA colleague, but I’m not sure that her strengths are wholly played to. I guess if you like her you’ll like her here (and if you don’t…) Peter Serafinowicz’s lecherous Italian is disappointingly overplayed, however, and I’m not sure why you’d cast ever-so-British Jude Law as a James Bond type and then give him an American accent.

The extended (aka unrated) cut contains almost 10 minutes of extra material, detailed here. Reading that list really demonstrates how some bits were tightened up for the theatrical release. I’d even wager that some parts are the result of improvising to find one good line, but in the extended cut they’ve strung half a dozen of the options together. I don’t think any casual viewer would miss much by sticking to the theatrical cut. That said, despite it running to two hours, I didn’t find it to be too long. It still wouldn’t hurt if it was tighter in places, but I didn’t get that “oh dear God why is this longer than 90 minutes?!” feeling you can get from 120-minute comedies.

Amusing rather than hilarious, but with a pleasing commitment to its genre, Spy isn’t going to tap into the zeitgeist in the way Austin Powers did almost 20 years ago(!), but it does provide a largely entertaining couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Feig and McCartney’s latest collaboration, the Ghostbusters reboot, is in UK cinemas from today, and launches around the world over the coming weeks.

Independence Day: Special Edition (1996/1998)

2016 #102a
Roland Emmerich | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not sure when I last watched ID4 (as it was so often branded and marketed, for only semi-clear reasons — sure, US Independence Day is July 4th, but other than that the “4” has nothing to do with anything), but it’s been a damn long time — my DVD copy, which I know I never watched (I have the shiny new remastered Blu-ray now), has a postcard inside advertising the forthcoming Planet of the Apes remake, in cinemas Summer 2001. The time I best remember seeing it was in cinemas on its initial release. Independence Day was a phenomenally huge deal back in 1996: it felt like that shot of the White House being destroyed was on TV on loop; there were making-of TV specials (I remember the behind-the-scenes footage of how they did those incredible, much-discussed effects as clearly as I remember anything from the film itself); I listened to the Radio 1 Independence Day UK audio drama on tape (it was… so-so), read the tie-in comic book adaptation, and also the tie-in novelisation — which was the first book I ever gave up on without finishing because I thought it was so badly written. Ten-year-old badblokebob, literary critic. The film itself was also the first 12-rated movie I went to see in the cinema, so it was even more of a big deal for me.

Revisiting it 20 years later, with a sequel imminent, ID4 obviously no longer has that attendant hype, but it does hold up pretty well in its own right as a blockbuster disaster epic. At least, it did for me — I read a review on Letterboxd from someone who watched it for the first time this January, saying that, in the age of the modern spectacle-based blockbuster, Independence Day doesn’t compete. Which feels weird, because it was all about the spectacle when it came out; but of course, things date, and what counted as sheer cinematic spectacle in 1996 is (it would seem) underwhelmingly run-of-the-mill in 2016. It’s fair to say that not all of the model effects still hold up, but there’s a physicality to them that really works. The best ones are still among the best movie effects ever.

The film’s first half is superior to its second. Co-writer/director Roland Emmerich and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin conceived the film off the idea of 14-mile-wide spaceships just appearing one morning, and the realisation of that concept (and the ensuing destruction) is where the film really shines. That’s not to say there’s not good stuff after the aliens unleash their devastating destructive power — the famous presidential speech comes just before the climax, for one — but it’s from the midpoint on that some things begin to get a tad muddled, some subplots are rushed along, and other events get needlessly elongated. That said, it’s all relative: the 2016 version of this story with this many characters would surely run for five hours as it endeavoured to give them all a starring-role-level storyline and turn every effects-fuelled alien encounter into a 20-minute action sequence.

One area it really succeeds is humour. It doesn’t lose the scale or seriousness of the events, but it keeps the tone entertaining. That feels like a skill a lot of blockbusters used to have that’s gone awry in recent years, though you could use the tone of Marvel Studios’ movies to counterpoint that. Those Marvel films are definitely subject to a different criticism of modern blockbusters, however, which is their mindless destruction of whole cities. It’s a just criticism, and some of the blame for it can surely be traced back to the popularity of ID4. However, here the destruction isn’t so unfeeling: the morning after the aliens’ famous landmark obliteration, President Whitmore mulls over how many people died and how many didn’t have to if he’d made different choices. Both Marvel and DC have had to make that kind of reflection a plot point in sequels to retrospectively justify it happening in the first place.

This was the first time I’d watched Independence Day’s extended Special Edition cut, and I’d advise not bothering. It adds around 8½ minutes of new material, but the scenes don’t add all that much, and some of them are so awkwardly rammed in that it’s almost irritating — for instance, several are inserted in the middle of an existing music cue by merely fading out the score immediately before the new scene, then fading it back in afterwards! They’re deleted scenes that have been shoved into the movie, with the score often fudged to make room and stuff like that, rather than it being a genuine “extended cut”. People seem to love extended cuts on disc, but sometimes a nice deleted scenes section is preferable.

With the way things are nowadays — every hit sequelised; old IPs regularly dragged up for new moneymaking opportunities — it was kind of inevitable we’d get ID4 2 eventually. I’m looking forward to it, but not insanely hyped up. It probably benefits from the 20-year wait story-wise, allowing for a drastically new status quo on Earth when the aliens return, but with blockbusters released all year round now, and CGI meaning every one is overloaded with effects shots that are far more epic than ID4 had, there’s little doubt that the sequel won’t have the same enduring impact on the blockbuster firmament. For its faults, you can’t deny ID4 that.

4 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US tomorrow.

Hercules: Extended Cut (2014)

2016 #10
Brett Ratner | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

The answer to the question, “Hey, remember Brett Ratner? Whatever happened to him?”,* Hercules stars Dwayne Johnson in full The Rock mode as the eponymous demigod. In this comic book adaptation, we’re introduced to Hercules at a point in his life after the famous labours but before he’d passed into legend, when he’s just a mercenary… or maybe he’s always just been a mercenary, and the legends are a tall tale to help him and his band of warriors sell their wares. Their latest mission is to defend a kingdom from a vicious warlord, but all may not be as it seems…

A belated entry into the swords-and-sandals-and-epic-CG-action subgenre that Gladiator started, and which begot the likes of Troy and 300 a decade or more ago, Hercules is much closer to the latter than the former pair. It’s cheesy as heck, but passably exciting when the action kicks in, and also frequently funny (intentionally so, I should add), making it decently entertaining in a brain-off lazy-weekend-evening kind of way.

Johnson has the physique for Hercules, obviously, but the role as written doesn’t play to his real talents, which lie at the more comedic or knowing end of the action spectrum. It’s not his fault the part is the boring heroic lead and everyone else gets to have all the fun, though. Quality Brits like John Hurt, Ian McShane, Peter Mullan, and Rufus Sewell add not so much class as skill, knowing just how much to ham it up to sell their characters while maintaining the light-ish tone. Elsewhere, warrioress Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is the spitting image of (a younger) Nicole Kidman.

This extended cut wasn’t included on the UK Blu-ray, so no BBFC rating (it’s about a 15), but it is available on Netflix over here (it’s not listed as the extended cut, but it is). It’s no great shakes, though, adding only a couple of minutes. That’s made up of three short scenes, another half-a-dozen additional lines of dialogue, a couple of extra seconds of action, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG blood (full details here). An entire subplot about a traitorous scout was excised from the theatrical cut with the deletion of just three lines — a wise cut because, as the simplicity of its removal might suggest, it’s not so much half-arsed as sixteenth-arsed.

Hercules is not quite good enough to earn 4 stars, but if you’re in the mood for a fantasy-ish swords-and-sandals adventure which doesn’t offer anything challenging but is moderately entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome, you could do much worse.

3 out of 5

* You may recall that there were two competing Hercules movies released in 2014. The other, even-more-forgotten one is the answer to the question, “Hey, remember Renny Harlin? Whatever happened to him?” ^