The $1.2 Billion Monthly Review of April 2019

We’re in the endgame now… except we’re not, because it’s only May — there’s two-thirds of the year left yet.

And because it’s May, it’s time to look back at what I watched in April…


#50 The Howling (1981)
#50a Cotton Wool (2017)
#51 Searching (2018)
#52 The Gold Rush (1925)
#53 Creed II (2018)
#54 A Good Year (2006)
#55 Aquaman 3D (2018)
#56 Early Man (2018)
#57 The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
#58 The Silence (2019)
#59 Amour (2012)
#60 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), aka Zatôichi to Yôjinbô
#61 Rampage 3D (2018)
#62 Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
#63 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
#64 Click (2006)
#65 The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
#66 Captain Marvel (2019)
#67 Avengers: Endgame (2019)
#68 Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
#69 Mortal Engines 3D (2018)
#70 The Help (2011)
Searching

Creed II

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

.


  • So, I watched 21 new feature films in April.
  • That’s a long way down from last April’s total of 33, but then that was my second best month ever.
  • In every other respect, April 2019 did good. It’s the joint best month of 2019 so far (tied with March), and is also in the top 11% of all months. It smashed the April average (previously 12.1, now 12.8), overleapt the 2019 average (previously 16.3, now 17.5), and equalled the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 21.083, though it now drops by exactly one whole film to 20.083).
  • Not content with having about 15 different film series on the go (depending how you count it), this month I picked up three more: The Purge (after watching the first last year), Resident Evil, and Ice Age. The first of those was because the sequel’s on Netflix UK and the threequel was on TV this month, so the stars kinda aligned; the other two… I dunno, it’s a whim as much as anything. As they both began with rewatches, I’ve written a little more under Rewatchathon.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Edgar Wright’s comic book-adapted video game homage, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I kinda expected it to be a bit hipsterish and self-consciously ‘cool’, but I bloody loved it.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS film: Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, in its original longer form. No Chaplin film I’ve yet seen has lived up to The Great Dictator for me, but, as with them all, this has its moments.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Captain Marvel, Creed II, The Help, Searching, and Game Night (see Rewatchathon).



The 47th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
This month was a right old mixed bag, with films ranging from terrible to exceptional, from adequate to underwhelming, from surprising to disappointing. The two films that are frontrunners for this category both took a digital-based gimmick and turned it into something special. In the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, that was to apply arcade video game aesthetics to what is, really, an indie romance; and in the case of my ultimate pick, Searching, it was to present a missing person mystery entirely from the point of view of the computer screens our characters are using for their investigation. It’s fascinating, engrossing, and ultra-timely.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
As I said above, lots of middling-but-not-really-bad films this month, but there were a couple of genuine clunkers too. The worst of the bunch was probably Resident Evil: Apocalypse. There’s nothing wrong with a trashy zombie action B-movie, but its low genre aspirations are no excuse for it being so poorly made.

Best Movie Actually Based on a Video Game of the Month
Step aside, Scott Pilgrim and Ralph Breaks the Internet — we’ve got some based-on-real-video-game movies here! (Incidentally, how come I watched so many game-based movies this month?! Total coincidence.) As already outlined, Resident Evil: Apocalypse was a borderline disaster, but Rampage turned out to be very enjoyable. Its concept is pretty bloody stupid, obviously, but the end result was a lot of daft fun.

Biggest Missed Opportunity of the Month
Mortal Engines was so almost excellent, with astounding production design and visuals, but lacking something in character and narrative. But that’s trumped by Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which takes the exciting, surefire combination of two remarkable screen heroes and bungles it into a dreary mess.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Avengers: Endgame may’ve obliterated every box office record going this past weekend, but it wasn’t the most popular post on this blog. In fact, it finished third. It was a victim of extraordinary circumstance, because I had two other uncommonly popular new posts this month. Indeed, together they weren’t just my three most-viewed new posts, but the top three most-viewed posts overall. That never happens — even the winner is normally only somewhere in the top five (sometimes even lower), with second and third way down the overall chart. So, each of those three posts received enough views to be the clear winner most months, but instead it was a close-run thing. In second place, fuelled by Game of Thrones, was my latest TV column. But the winner was, of all things, mediocre direct-to-Netflix horror rip-off The Silence. Better luck next time, Marvel. I’m sure you can wipe away your tears with some of those 1.2 billion dollar bills…



After failing to watch the Matrix sequels last month, this month I only failed to watch one of them.

#13 Resident Evil (2002)
#14 The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
#15 Game Night (2018)
#16 Ice Age (2002)

Resident Evil and Ice Age each kick off series, as I mentioned earlier. In both cases, the initial instalment is the only one I’d previously seen, and both many years ago, close to their original releases — both of which were in 2002, coincidentally. I always intended to continue Resident Evil; Ice Age not so much. But two of them are on my 50 Unseen lists (2009’s and 2012’s, if you’re interested; two Resident Evil films are on those lists too, weirdly enough), and the fact the series somehow rolled on to five financially-successful films (even the last made over $400m worldwide) long after it felt like everyone had stopped paying any attention (or Americans had, anyway: only $64m of that $400m came from the US, down almost $100m from the film before) kinda fascinates me. Oh, and three of them are in 3D (in fact, that’s also true of Resident Evil — this is getting weird now).

If you remember my review of Game Night (and if you don’t, it’s linked above), you might remember I bemoaned the Blu-ray’s dearth of special features (it only has about ten minutes’ worth). Having now watched them, it’s actually even worse, because the cast seem pretty fun to hang around with in the brief interview clips that are included (and I even laughed at some of the gag reel, which is a rarity). A little more of that (the interviews, not outtakes) might’ve been enjoyable, or a cast commentary. And considering how well-made the film is, a commentary from the directors would’ve been nice as well. Ugh. Anyway, I enjoyed the film even more on a second viewing — I think it’s a consistently hilarious, genuinely superb piece of work.


This month’s misses on the big screen include the poorly received Dumbo, the well received Shazam, and the belated UK theatrical release of Eighth Grade. They thought it would be a good idea to release that last one on the same day as Endgame, and consequently it’s not even screening near me.

At home, I’ve got rentals of Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows awaiting me on Amazon. Recent Blu-ray purchases include Finnish fairytale horror The White Reindeer, Fritz Lang film noir Human Desire, and far too much from Arrow’s recent sale. I also imported the German box set of The Hunger Games quartet for the sake of Mockingjay (both parts) in 3D, as well as all the special features that were missing from the UK releases. It doesn’t include the IMAX ratio on Catching Fire, though, so I’ll also be hanging onto my UK Steelbooks… though I guess I could sell the other three, but then I wouldn’t have a complete set. Ah, the life of a collector.

Last month I noted there were 29 films recorded on my V+ TiVo, and that I’d never get round to all of them. Well, me being me, I only went and recorded some more; namely Everybody Wants Some!!, Filmworker, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983 version), Nebraska, The Purge: Election Year, Snowden, Wild Bill, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth — all 8 hours of it! That’s not getting watched, is it? I did watch some things though, and downloaded or bought others (for various reasons), so the current tally stands at… 29. Ha!


Films and stuff, sure, but also: the end of Game of Thrones! If that TV review isn’t my most-viewed post next month, [episode 3 spoiler warning] I’ll take off my magic necklace and go die of old age in the snow.

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Resident Evil (2002)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Resident Evil

Survive the horror

Also Known As: Biohazard (in Japan — the film uses the original title of the game it’s based on in the country it originated from, appropriately enough.)

Country: Germany, UK, France & USA*
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R
* The end credits call it “a German/British co-production”. IMDb adds the other two.

Original Release: 15th March 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 12th July 2002
Budget: $33 million
Worldwide Gross: $102.98 million

Stars
Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Hellboy)
Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious, Avatar)
Eric Mabius (Cruel Intentions, The Crow: Salvation)
James Purefoy (Mansfield Park, Solomon Kane)

Director
Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, AVP: Alien vs. Predator)

Screenwriter
Paul W.S. Anderson (Shopping, Death Race)

Based on
Resident Evil, a video game by Capcom, directed by Shinji Mikami.


The Story
After a virus kills all the employees at the underground research facility of Umbrella Corporation, a team of commandos are sent in to contain the outbreak. But to do that they’ll have to fight the facility’s megalomaniacal supercomputer, plus all the employees, who aren’t exactly dead after all…

Our Hero
Alice wakes up in her mansion with total amnesia… but soon a bunch of military operatives are whisking her along into a life-or-death situation, which it turns out she’s equally trained for herself.

Our Villains
The undead! Hordes of ’em, as always. Plus an evil supercomputer who controls the entire facility and speaks with the voice of a little girl, because why not. Oh, and we know someone deliberately released the virus — could they now be part of the team investigating the facility? Hmm, I wonder…

Best Supporting Character
Rain is just one of the commandos, but, as played by co-billed Michelle Rodriguez, she gets the lion’s share of the best lines. (I mean, the dialogue is hardly sparkling, but what good lines there are, she gets. Maybe it’s all in the delivery.)

Memorable Quote
Rain: “All the people that were working here are dead.”
Spence: “Well, that isn’t stopping them from walking around.”

Memorable Scene
With the team separated, Alice is exploring the facility alone and comes across some empty animal cages… and, shortly thereafter, the dogs that used to live in them… who are now zombie-dogs out to eat her, obviously. It’s mainly memorable for this bit:

Memorable Music
The score, co-credited to habitual genre composer Marco Beltrami and Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, was explicitly influenced by John Carpenter’s early electronic work, albeit given a very ’00s techno/rock spin by Manson.

Letting the Side Down
There’s so much stuff some would put in this category, but the main jarring point is some middling ’00s CGI. It’s not outright bad (like, say, the Rock-scorpion-thing in The Mummy Returns), but it definitely shows its age.

Previously on…
The first Resident Evil video game was released in 1996. The film is more “inspired by” than adapted from it. Multiple sequels to it came out before the movie finally hit the big screen, and even more have followed since, not to mention various spin-off novels, comics, animated films, and other stuff, like a themed restaurant in Tokyo.

Next time…
Five sequels followed over the next 14 years. Before the series-concluding final film had even made it to home media, a reboot was announced. That’s gotta be some kinda record, even for Hollywood.

Awards
2 Saturn Award nominations (Horror Film, Actress (Milla Jovovich))
3 Golden Schmoes nominations (Most Underrated Movie of the Year, Horror Movie of the Year, Best T&A of the Year — you might read that last category and think “only in the ’00s!”, but I checked and they still award it today)

Verdict

Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson has managed to sustain a lasting career out of making movies no one seems to really like. With a CV full of video game movies (Mortal Kombat, multiple Resident Evils, the forthcoming Monster Hunter), and B-movie do-overs (Death Race) and emulations (AVP), he’s a bit like a bigger-budgeted, less-objectionable version of Uwe Boll (remember him?). Anyway, the first Resident Evil is actually one of his better efforts. I’ve never played any of the games so have no idea of its faithfulness (“not very” is my impression), but Anderson took inspiration from early John Carpenter movies to create a lean action/thriller/horror flick (again, leaning into those B-movies), which drives the viewer from set piece to set piece with quickly-sketched characterisation (or, in many cases, none at all) and a mysterious backstory to be uncovered. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a solid 90-minutes-and-change genre fix.

Ready Player One (2018)

2018 #183
Steven Spielberg | 140 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into the style of popular moviemaking he helped create in the ‘70s and ’80s — the summer tentpole action-adventure mega-blockbuster — is an adaptation of a novel so bedded in the popular movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s that the whole thing is a bit too meta: it’s a movie obsessed with the brilliance of ‘80s pop culture, made by one of the primary creators of that culture. At least Spielberg insisted that all references to his own work be cut, otherwise it could’ve become a mite self-congratulatory. Though it does mean that Spielberg becomes conspicuous by his absence in a Spielberg movie. Oh, it’s enough to make your head spin…

The plot, then: in the year 2045 the real world is a mess, so people spend most of their time in the virtual reality playground of the OASIS. When the game’s creator died, he left behind the first in a series of challenges, and whoever completes them will inherit the OASIS itself. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, I guess we’ll chalk that up as just another reference. (If you’re thinking, “isn’t that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but with video games?”, tsk, go read more Dahl.)) Unfortunately, no one’s even been able to crack the first clue… until someone does, of course, because this is an action-adventure blockbuster, not some existential mood piece on the futility of trying to please the dead… or, you know, something. Anyway, cue lots of whizzy CG antics, with CGI that’s actually allowed to look like CGI because it’s all set in a CG environment — I bet the animators were thrilled when that brief came along, because who doesn’t love their job being made easier?

What other car is an '80s lover gonna choose?

Unfortunately, the same amount of effort seems to have gone into the screenplay. Some of this no doubt stems from the original work: the world of 2045 makes no plausible sense (check out the ghost of 82’s review for more on this theme), and there’s the least convincing romantic relationship outside of a George Lucas movie. Worst for me was something a screenplay can readily fix, the dialogue, but which here is frequently full of clunky, hand-holding exposition. This rears its head not just when establishing the film’s world and its rules, which would be bad enough, but also for relatively minor and easily-followed plot points throughout. It’s like the film has been written so even a goldfish could follow it — you don’t need to remember the start of a sentence because its end will explain the same thing again. Equally ill-considered is the movie’s apparently pro-gaming stance. Certainly, a lot of gamers seem to have embraced it as a film that understands their culture; and yet its final message is, “go spend more time in the real world, ya nerds!”

And yet, I mostly enjoyed it. It may not hang together if you engage your brain, but as a bit of fluff it’s largely a fun virtual romp. There are more Easter eggs than a Cadbury’s warehouse in January, which are fun for geeks like me to spot, and those whooshy visuals are even more entertaining when viewed in 3D, which (as Blu-ray.com’s review put it) is “a compelling demonstration of why the format is worth keeping alive.”

Watching other people play video games

But, even though I liked it overall, I can’t help feeling it was a bit of a waste of Spielberg’s time. It’s not that he’s done a bad job — he’s still a god amongst men when it comes to crafting a blockbuster movie — but I also think the end result lacks a certain something that his best work contains. I don’t really know why, but for some reason I feel like he should’ve spent the time it took to make this doing something else, and left this film to be helmed by someone… less important. I mean, there are a lot of other filmmakers who could’ve done a fine job with the material, and wouldn’t have felt the need to cut all the book’s references to Spielberg’s films either.

4 out of 5

Ready Player One is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main thing that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extend to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

aka Warcraft

2017 #38
Duncan Jones | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Canada & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Warcraft: The Beginning

Produced by Legendary — one of the companies behind the Dark Knight trilogy, Jurassic World, Godzilla, and many other massive hits — the only thing that’s “legendary” about the Warcraft movie is how terrible it is.

Based on the long-running video game franchise, Warcraft (optimistically retitled Warcraft: The Beginning in many territories) is, based on what I’ve read, less an adaptation of the game (which has many different incarnations anyhow) and more an expansion of its universe. Rather than take the game itself and try to mush it into the shape of a movie, as most video game adaptations are forced to do, Warcraft depicts some of the game-world’s backstory, taking care to keep events canonical. I’m sure this is brilliant for fans and players, but I wonder if it’s part of why the film feels muddled and tacky to those of us who are uninitiated. Of course, at its best such efforts can make newcomers want to learn more; but at its worst it leaves you feeling confused and shut out. Warcraft is definitely a case of the latter.

It plays like a $160 million fan film. It doesn’t bother with world-building, just throwing the viewer in at the deep end. That can work, but it needs to be carefully managed. Warcraft just ploughs ahead, going deeper and deeper. It’s been made for people who know this world, its places, its people, its concepts, its rules. The film is a prequel to something that doesn’t exist — or, rather, something that doesn’t exist as a movie. And yet, for all co-writer/director Duncan Jones’ efforts to remain faithful, apparently it’s not faithful enough for some of the hardcore. It seems the movie has wound up in a place where it’s not stuck to the backstory enough to please initiated fans, but not opened itself up enough to be accessible to newcomers either.

This could get orcward

Unfortunately, the problems don’t stop there. Characters’ personalities change from one scene to the next, with no sense of development or connection. Many of the performances are stilted or clumsy, with a good deal of the actors feeling miscast. Scenes exist in isolation, with little sense they should follow what was before or precede what comes after. It feels like it was heavily messed around in post — not just stuff chopped out (reportedly Jones’ director’s cut was 40 minutes longer), but things moved around within the story — but then something will happen that suggests those scenes were always meant to be where they are. Whatever the cause, it makes it even harder to follow a story that already feels like it’s shutting out newcomers.

The biggest shame is that you can see glimmers of potential — mainly in the world itself, which is clearly quite thoroughly realised (presumably thanks to having been developed over many, many years of the games’ existence). But then, the story that takes place within that world isn’t an especially original or interesting one. Or, rather, I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s hard to tell what precisely is going on half the time.

A lot of the technical merits are strong, too. Almost every shot is loaded with CGI, but the vast majority of it looks pretty incredible. It’s no wonder some bits come up short, however, because the sheer volume of different locations, creatures, and spell effects is mind-boggling. Obviously some parts are going to suffer when you bite off more than you can chew. If there’s a problem here it might be that the design work is quite “high fantasy” — it’s all exaggerated and almost cartoony, as opposed to the more realistic take of something like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. That’s not to everyone’s taste; indeed, it might be part of why such fantasy tales used to be (and, often, still are) such a niche market.

Totally realistic costumes

Talking of the market, reports say Warcraft needed to gross $450m just to break even. In the US, it took $47.4m. No, I didn’t put the decimal in the wrong place. And that’s not opening weekend, that’s in total. It was a big hit in China, but that wasn’t enough: worldwide it managed just shy of $434m (which, fact fans, makes it one of only two American movies to gross over $400m without making $100m in the US (the other was Terminator Genisys)). Jones had plans for sequels (he’s shared them on Twitter, which naturally got turned into news articles, if you’re interested), but, yeah, they’re not happening. Thank goodness the Chinese didn’t give it another few million, because this project already feels like a waste of five years of the director’s promising career. You could see Jones as currently being on a similar path to that previously trodden by the likes of M. Night Shyamalan and Neill Blomkamp: a hugely successful debut followed by increasingly poor, eventually terrible films. Hopefully his next movie, Mute (available exclusively on Netflix from today), will rectify that.

2 out of 5

Warcraft: The Beginning featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

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.

Pixels (2015)

2016 #88
Chris Columbus | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

PixelsAdam Sandler, eh? He has his fans, though apparently not among people who can write because you rarely see a good word penned about him. The one exception is Punch Drunk Love, and that’s because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and that’s why it’s the only Adam Sandler film I can remember seeing. I didn’t like it.

So why did I watch Pixels, which was as poorly received as Sandler films always are? Good question. It had a good deal to do with the short being good (I reviewed it back in 2010), and being intrigued how that concept — which makes a neat three-minute visual idea but doesn’t have any plausible narrative potential — could be converted into a full-length feature. Of course, a daft idea for a film, plus Adam Sandler, plus bad reviews — plus weak trailers — doesn’t add up to a recipe for success. To my surprise, then, I largely enjoyed it.

The plot sees aliens intercept signals from classic arcade games and believe they are a declaration of war, and so attack Earth in the form of said games made real. The best person to stop them is cable guy Adam Sandler, who used to be a video game wunderkind, and is fit for the job mainly because the President of the United States is his best mate — that would be Kevin James, as the unlikeliest US President in history. They also rope in Sandler’s old gaming rival, Peter Dinklage, and are chaperoned by Michelle Monaghan’s Lieutenant Colonel, who doubles up as a love interest for Sandler (of course). Later, Sean Bean and Brian Cox slum it in inexplicably small roles.

Arcade heroesPixels is the virtual definition of brain-off entertainment. The story has the plausibility of a kids’ daydream, the humour is frequently unimaginative, and the action sequences mostly coast on their basic concept rather than trying to elevate them. And Peter Dinklage is going to get a reputation for having terrible taste. I mean, I liked Knights of Badassdom, but hardly anyone else did, and now this… “Stick to TV, Peter Dinklage,” people are going to say. Assuming they’re not already.

But for all that mediocrity, I spent 100 minutes feeling gently entertained. I laughed a few times; the action was, as I say, passable; and there’s a bit in the Donkey Kong-themed climax with a remix of We Will Rock You that I rather liked. I don’t imagine I’d ever look to watch it again, but for a completely undemanding time-filler, well… (Nothing like damning with faint praise, eh?)

3 out of 5

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

2013 #109
Rich Moore | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Wreck-It RalphDisney’s 51st and/or 52nd animated classic (depends who you listen to) is, essentially, Toy Story with video games. Arcade games, to be precise. Turns out that all the characters from said entertainments hang out in the plug bar that powers them all, though behind-the-scenes they’re not necessarily like their characters — most of the villains are pretty nice guys, who have Bad-Anon (Bad Guys Anonymous) meetings to share their woes. But as the game he stars in reaches its 30th anniversary, Wreck-It Ralph has had enough of being an outsider, and when the other characters in his game imply he’ll be included if he can win a medal — which he can’t, because he’s a bad guy — he sets out into other games to try to get one.

Cue fun antics as our hero careens through various other games, right? Wrong. He goes to… two. OK, we see glimpses of a few more, and the Bad-Anon meeting takes place in Pac Man, but essentially he pops into one game to get said medal and introduce an apocalyptic MacGuffin, and then another for the rest of the plot. That latter game is Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racer. I’m pretty sure the production team must’ve spent the entire production eating candy for “research”, because the gaudy world and much of the film’s pace has all the idleness and restraint of a kid on a sugar high — i.e. none.

Sugar Rush indeedUnfortunately, despite the rarely-filmed milieu of video games, it’s all a bit predictable — like I said, it basically does with video game characters what Toy Story did with toys, both in terms of the story and its themes of acceptance. At least one wearing subplot had me involuntarily exclaim “oh get on with it!” out loud (and I was watching by myself). The pace rarely lets up, and at 101 minutes that becomes tiring. When it does give you a break, you kinda wish it would get a wriggle on, because it’s obvious where things are going and it’s wasting time getting there. Of course, most mainstream films (especially kids’ movies) are going to follow broadly the same arcs — however bad it gets we know the hero will win, etc — but the trick is to make you enjoy the journey, not long to arrive at the destination. I spent most of the third act almost drumming my fingers as I waited for it to get to the latter.

For fans of retro — and indeed current — computer games, there’s plenty of cameos and references to be excited about, both in terms of familiar faces (various characters from Sonic, Mario and Street Fighter, for instance, amongst many others) and clear riffs on other franchises and genres. I’m not really a gamer though, so while I recognised many of them (from the days when I did engage in such pursuits) there wasn’t exactly a thrill in it. I think that pleasure of recognition, and some almost in-joke-level bits, can lead certain viewers to enjoy the film more than it otherwise merits. That’s nice for them, but does nothing for the rest of us.

The life of a bad guyWreck-It Ralph isn’t actually a bad film. There’s a fair bit of inventiveness with the concept, and the makers have worked hard to establish a world with rules (though your mileage may vary on how successfully they’ve done that), but it descends into a breathless, sugar-fuelled, reheated runabout. I imagine young kids will adore its colourfulness and its energy, and won’t be bothered by the over-familiar plotting and life lessons; but, beyond nostalgia for arcade gamers, I don’t believe it has huge amounts to offer a grown-up viewer.

3 out of 5

Wreck-It Ralph debuts on Sky Movies Premiere at 1:45pm and 7:15pm today, and is already available on demand through Sky Movies and Now TV.

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

2000 AD (2000)

aka Gong yuan 2000 AD

2012 #9
Gordon Chan | 99 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong & Singapore / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 18

2000 ADPart coincidence (in that I happened to notice it), part forced appropriateness (in that I then chose to post it now), 2000 AD was originally released in Hong Kong 12 years ago yesterday, tying in to Chinese New Year the last time it was (as it is now) the year of the Dragon.

Or something like that — I’m no expert, I just Wikipedia’d it.

New Year was a fairly appropriate time to release it, as the title may indicate, because it was designed to tie in to the fuss around the Y2K bug. So ostensibly it’s a techno-thriller about computers and, y’know, all that. Well, there are some computers in it, and I think someone mentions Y2K early on, but that’s about it. Really this is a movie about chasing bad guys, people shooting at other people, people kicking the whatnot out of other people, and all that regular action movie stuff. The thing they’re all chasing is a stolen computer program that can do all kinds of magic hacking stuff, but that’s about as far as the technology element goes.

The plot it has wound up with doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The gist of it is fine — see above for my description — but it’s loaded with reversals and characters switching sides that slide past so quickly I’m not sure they even made an effort to explain it. That towards the end, mainly — at the start, it’s just bloody slow to get going. It’s not a problem that it takes over half-an-hour to get to the first real action sequence — I can handle an action movie that takes its time to build things up; it’s that nothing much of significance happens during that half hour. They look bored tooAll that’s established in these parts could be done much more economically, which would result in far less viewer thumb-twiddling.

An opening almost-action-sequence-thing with some fighter jets seems to exist simply so they could put some fighter jets in the trailer (they seem to have been featured heavily in the film’s promotion, but the main cast go nowhere near them). Some subplots exist purely to pad the running time — for instance, why all that business with the Singaporean agent, his boss’ assistant and their birthdays? There’s lots of others: something about an X-ray-EMP-device-thing causing cancer; a robot dog that doesn’t do anything significant; a friend of a character who’s established as a judge, only to not re-appear…

When the action does arrive, it has all the flare and panache you’d expect from a Hong Kong production. And then some, actually: it’s directed and edited with a heft of real-world grit, but swished up with some jumpy cutting, unusual angles and interesting colour washes. There’s all that on the first gunfight anyway — maybe it took a lot of effort, because it’s largely abandoned later. There’s some awkward undercranking, unfortunately, plus occasional confusion about what’s going on — how did she get that car? which character just jumped in that car? etc.

Kicking itThat might be being picky. The action feels slight at the time because it’s a good while coming, but in retrospect, considered on their own merits, there’s a lot of good stuff. There’s a good car chase, a couple of shoot-outs that err towards realism rather than balleticism (both have their merits, but something that feels realistically punchy is rarer), and a couple of solid punch-ups that play fairly nicely on the idea that our hero isn’t a martial arts expert. That concept isn’t mentioned in the film as much as it is in the DVD extras, but his style has a sort of scrambly feel that’s less honed than your usual kung fu bout; plus, as director Gordon Chan explains in the commentary, his apparent competency is how all kids fight in Hong Kong, because they’ve copied it from the movies!

The centrepiece fist/foot fight takes place on the 32nd storey of a building. I learnt that from the DVD special features. They really filmed it up there too. I also learnt that from the special features. It’s a shame, because you definitely get more of a feel for how dangerous and on the edge — literally — the fight was in some of the B-roll footage and interviews than you do from the movie itself: it’s covered almost entirely through low-angle shots, meaning it could just as well have been recreated on a ground-level mock-up as the actual rooftop. There are some long shots in the making-of which show them filming it, and viewing those you can’t help but wish they’d taken the time to shoot at least some of the fight from the same vantage point, because it really shows off the drop. Oh well.

You do know we're not in Mexico?

That’s not the finale. The finale takes place at a Singapore convention centre and, after all that action, feels a bit limp. Again we can turn to the special features though: there was supposed to be a huge gunfight, but a mix-up with permissions meant when they arrived on location they weren’t allowed to film it, to the extent that the couple of shots that are fired were captured as men holding guns with muzzle flashes added in later. This kind of explanation makes you think, “well, fair enough”, but watching the film in isolation it felt anticlimactic.

ConventionalTalking of the action — it’s an 18? I know the BBFC used to be harsher, and particularly so on things featuring martial arts and whatnot, but I still don’t see how this makes an 18. A bit of swearing, a bit of blood — it’s a 15 surely? I watched this just days after Ironclad, which had people’s limbs being lopped off in close-up, beheadings, bodies being cleaved in two, much more violent stuff than 2000 AD features… and that’s only a 15. I know, this doesn’t matter to most of us, but I notice these things.

I’ve seen other reviews comment that it goes wrong when they head off to Singapore, around the third act. Personally I thought that was when it began to go right! The pace picks up, the action picks up. It’s not a movie of two halves — some of the film’s best bits are in the Hong Kong section — but I certainly wouldn’t say it gets worse. Hong Kong is, for example, where we find the best character, police officer Ng. He barely says anything, but he’s got a presence that works. Actor Francis Ng (who I noticed in Exiled and is also in Infernal Affairs II, as well as a mass of other stuff) conveys far more with looks than with the dialogue, which is probably why he’s so memorable. One scene featuring him, which comes around halfway I’d guess but I shan’t spoil, is the only non-action part of the film that really works, where you really care about something that’s happening. On the commentary, Bey Logan quotes Jean Cocteau: “never state what you can imply” — and that’s Ng’s whole character.

They're using a computer, seeAs with any film heavily based in the realm of technology, certain things have dated. Two things work in its favour: one, as noted, it’s not actually got much to do with technology anyway; and two, it comes from the slightly later time when home computers were more commonplace, so it’s not as bad as those ’90s tech thrillers where computers could do pretty much anything a writer dreamed up. But there’s floppy discs, flight sims with flat graphics, and Magical Hacking Software that can Destroy Everything. An opening spiel about the future of warfare being cyber-attacks doesn’t feel like its quite come to pass (yet?), but then the film doesn’t wholly build on that. The computer software they’re chasing is as MacGuffiny a MacGuffin as they come — it may as well be a bomb or a file of information for all that would change the story.

There’s some obvious CGI, which is fine for what’s a low budget film of this era. You’d see better in a computer game today, but it gets the job done well enough when it’s needed… though mixing in fake fighter jets with footage of real ones during an already-needless opening sequence was a mistake. I only mention it because, highlighted in the commentary, there actually tonnes of computer effects throughout the film that you don’t come close to noticing: bullet holes, smashed glass, a lead character nearly getting hit by a car — all faked by computer, all barely noticeable even when you’ve been told. So there.

Got a gunIn the DVD’s special features, Chan notes that 2000 AD was an attempt to make an American-style action movie, to show there’s more to Hong Kong cinema than kung fu. Maybe that’s why it’s compromised at times — it’s an emulation of something else. It’s successful in places, but certainly not entirely. My score was awarded almost immediately after watching the film, but after looking back on it through the DVD extras I find I may have liked it a bit more. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But still, perhaps not.

2 out of 5

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

2011 #81
Mike Newell | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Prince of Persia The Sands of TimeDisney’s attempt to launch a second franchise in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, this time based on a long-running series of computer games, seemed to sink without trace last summer. Despite that failure, it’s not all bad.

To give a quick idea of its quality, Prince of Persia is analogous to an average entry in the Pirates series, only without the craziness and humour provided by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. This probably explains Persia’s relative lack of success: Pirates began with an exceptionally good blockbuster flick, and has since coasted on goodwill and affection for Depp’s character; Persia has neither of these benefits.

There’s not much to get excited about here, however. Like On Stranger Tides, it suffers from a surfeit of ideas that are equally undeveloped. Even though this shares no writing credits with that film, it’s what it most reminded me of. There’s an adventure story that wants to reach an Indiana Jones-esque style but fumbles it. It often feels like the genuinely important bits of plot and character development are quickly brushed over, instead spending inexplicably long stretches on barely-relevant asides. It jumps about like a loon too, feeling like a lot of linking scenes or establishing shots have been excised for whatever reason.

Fiiight!There are some good action beats, but there’s also plenty of disorientatingly-edited, CGI-enhanced sequences, as per usual for the genre these days. For the former, see for instance Dastan’s climb up the wall into Alamut (or whatever it was called), or the knife-thrower-on-knife-thrower battle near the end. For explosions of CGI, see the massive logic-shattering ‘sand surfing’ sequence in the climax. Visually they’re clearly trying to evoke 300, but without going quite so far in the stylization stakes. Also worthy of note is the opening, the latest CGI-enhanced rendition of the opening sequence from The Thief of Bagdad and Aladdin: Westernised Middle Eastern streetchild-thief chased acrobatically through streets of Middle Eastern Town by Middle Eastern Guards. (None of the above pictured.)

As this is a Hollywood version of the ancient Middle East, naturally everyone is a Westerner with deeply tanned skin who speaks with an English accent. Everyone in the past had an English accent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s accent is actually very good, in my opinion; Gemma Arterton’s voice doesn’t grate as much as it seemed to in the trailer (I have no problem with her in any other film, but there was something about the Persia trailer that made her sound… weird). That’s probably the best that can be said for either of their performances. They’re not bad, just not in anyway endearing. Dastan makes a fairly bland hero — I think he’s meant to be something of a cheeky chappy, but they didn’t get close to achieving that — whereas ArtertonNot Keira Knightley has the role Keira Knightley would’ve played five years ago. I think she’s meant to be a Strong Independent Princess but, much like Dastan, we’re told we should be inferring it rather than seeing any evidence of it.

Alfred Molina has the best shot at creating a likeable supporting role, but it’s a part that resurfaces for no good reason, acts inconsistently, and all his best elements are cribbed from better films. Like most of the film, then. An attempt is made to conceal that Ben Kingsley is the villain, and it might have worked if anyone else was in the role — heck, I almost believed it even with him… but only “almost”. Like most of the story, it’s all a bit stock-in-trade. It’s good to take inspiration from other action-adventure classics, but it also means that it all feels very familiar. The time travelling dagger, the film’s truly unique point, is too powerful as a plot point, meaning rules have to be established that limit its use… which means that the one unique element doesn’t actually turn up very often.

Prince of Persia is riddled with flaws, it would seem. Its characters are unmemorable, their relationships unbelievable; its plot is disjointed and, while always followable, still half nonsensical; the other half is by-the-numbers predictable; its action sequences occasionally shine, but are largely whizzily edited or CGI burnished (though, in fairness, they’re far from the worst example of either problem). I should probably dislike it quite a lot, yet while part of me says I should rank it lower than even the Pirates sequels (owing to the lack of charming characters or any trace of humour), looking back I kind of liked it. It’s not Good, but it is sort of Fine, and it’s by no means bad enough to inspire genuine hatred.

Glowing daggerPlus, the sword-and-sandals milieu makes a bit of a change. I know we’ve had plenty of swords-and-sandals-flavoured movies in the wake of Gladiator, suggesting this is hardly unique, but whereas they’ve all unsurprisingly shot at the Gladiator mould, Persia is aiming for the PG-13 adventure-blockbusters style. It’s a shame that it’s not better, because said milieu and some of the talent involved could have produced a film in the vein of quality of, say, The Mummy, if we’d been lucky.

If you’re less forgiving than me, knock a star off. Or if you think you’d like the Pirates films better without Depp’s silly captain, maybe leave that star on.

3 out of 5