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.

Advertisements

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

Sucker Punch: Extended Cut (2011)

2011 #72
Zack Snyder | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

Sucker PunchZack Snyder’s fifth venture in the director’s chair is his first not to be based on someone else’s pre-existing material; or, to put it another way, the first wholly original story from the director of 300 and Watchmen. On the strength of its critical and box office reception, he may be relegated from the chance of doing such original work in future (his next effort, as I’m sure you know, will be a reboot of Superman).

I read a good summary of the critical reaction to Sucker Punch somewhere: that critics (and viewers) split into two types, one who thinks it’s a shallow story-free brain-dead over-indulged video game of a movie, the other who think it has hidden depths and themes worthy of exploration. And both sides are likely to call the other stupid, one for not being bright enough to spot the subtext(s), the other for bothering to read stuff that isn’t there. I side with the group that thinks there’s something more to the film, which, as the minority, I guess makes this review a defence.

I’m going to start by discussing the difference between the theatrical cut and this Extended Cut, because for once I think it makes a notable difference. Indeed, why this isn’t called the Director’s Cut is unclear: Snyder reportedly had to submit the film to the MPAA five times before they were satisfied to give it a PG-13; the R-rated Extended Cut restores all that, so surely it’s the Director’s Preferred Version rather than Version With Extra Stuff Bunged In? Some of it is significant in terms of clarifying the film’s story, themes and real-world/dream-world juxtapositions. The girls of Sucker PunchIf you hated the film in its theatrically released form they’d likely struggle to change your mind, but for those seeking extra clarity they may help.

From what I’ve read, there are lots of changes here and there, but it strikes me there are four major omissions or additions:

  1. An extended Orc fight in the fantasy/dragon world. Fine.
  2. The dance number to Love is a Drug. I’d wondered why it got replayed over the end credits! Presumably it was cut because it was a bit too much like a musical, which is an understandable (people don’t like musicals allegedly) but disappointing decision. It adds to the film though, not just in terms of being Something Different, but also showing us what the club/brothel is like during working hours. It’s a great sequence.
  3. A climactic scene with Jon Hamm’s High Roller and Babydoll. I can only imagine how baffling it was for cinema audiences to see the Mad Men star turn up for one half-arsed scene (namely the scene which now follows the High Roller one, which had to be gutted to make sense in the theatrical version). It’s a tense, uncomfortable, challenging scene that adds a lot to chew over — especially in context of:
  4. The smallest cut in length, but perhaps the most significant: when the Priest first brings Babydoll to the club, it’s discussed that she’s there to sell her virginity to the High Roller. Cut (like everything else) to get a PG-13 and because of the connection to that High Roller scene, it might sound like a minor omission, but restoring it clarifies both character motivation and some of the film’s themes, while juxtaposing the real world and dream world with, respectively, lobotomy and loss of virginity.

This is where the film is better than some would give it credit for: it’s not just a muddled excuse for some action sequences, it’s a dream-logic battle by a girl poised to lose her mind… or, maybe, already has. While her stepfather is taking Babydoll to the asylum for nefarious purposes, there’s little doubt in my mind that she’s already suffering serious mental health problems — BabydollPTSD, quite probably, seeing as she accidentally murdered the little sister she was trying to protect after almost being raped by the evil stepfather her dead mother has left them to. If you know anything of the crazy, fractured dreams/hallucinations someone with a damaged mind can have, and apply that to this film, it begins to make more sense as a story.

(Major spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) That doesn’t mean it isn’t a problematic depiction of this. Is the ending really saying a lobotomy is a great solution to mental health problems? It allows Babydoll to escape her guilt and remorse for killing her sister, but that’s hardly empowering — giving in to it is, thematically, tantamount to suicide. This is supposedly offset by the escape of total-innocent Sweetpea, which wouldn’t have happened without Babydoll, but that seems scant consolation. And Babydoll’s stepfather escapes unpunished, apparently! Oh dear.

That it was Sweetpea’s story all along is also an interesting conceit. Snyder does contribute to this — Abbie Cornish gives the opening voiceover, we first see Sweetpea in a stage-set like the one Babydoll was on at the film’s open, and when we enter the (first) dream world it’s Sweetpea rather than Babydoll who emerges from the rotating transition shot. But is that enough? Because we’re undoubtedly in Babydoll’s head throughout the film, the only exceptions being the real-world bookends in which we only follow her. (We do see the result of Sweetpea’s escape, but the visual style makes it clear it’s Babydoll’s imagining of what happened.) Sweetpea and coMaybe this is Snyder’s ultimate aim: it’s someone’s story told from the perspective of a (particularly interesting) supporting character. A little like the end of Super, actually.

This isn’t the end of Sucker Punch’s thematic implications though. Some say it’s a deeply misogynistic film dressed up as a female empowerment movie — look at the hyper-sexy outfits, the ultra-action, the fact it’s set in a brothel… Others probably argue it’s about female empowerment despite all that, but one of the more convincing arguments I’ve read says it’s about female oppression: these characters think they’re independent and fending for/defending themselves, but everywhere they turn there’s a man in control. Even in the dreams-within-a-dream where the action sequences take place, the girls are given orders by a male commander and they follow them unquestioningly. I suppose it’s all down to your personal perspective whether you see this as evidence of misogyny or of a deeper, more thoughtful approach. Let’s be kind and see the latter, I think — it makes the film more interesting, more thought-provoking, and therefore more enjoyable. And enjoyable is good — if you’re setting out to hate a film for the sake of hating it then… oh, then just sod off.*

Battle landing

A far wiser man than I once theorised that any work of art, once completed and released, belongs to the viewing public rather than the artist.** (This is a lesson I feel someone needs to put to George Lucas.) Part of what this means is, if one reads something into the work — a thematic discourse, a moral message, whatever — then it is there, whether the author intended it or not. And if the author intended a certain message and you get the opposite, well, that’s right too (heck, even if you subscribe to the notion the work still belongs to the artist and only their intentions are valid, clearly they mucked up their delivery if you got the opposite). So, in other words, it doesn’t matter whether Snyder wrote and directed his film to ponder or convey certain points or ideas, or whether he just set out to create something that was “effin’ cool maaan, with, like, action and hot chicks and stuff, dude” — what I (and other critics) have read into it is still valid. So there.

Jon Hamm is actually in the movieLike the rest of the film, the soundtrack is divisive. Some think it contains weak re-workings of excellent classic tracks, others that it contains interesting and appropriate re-workings of excellent classic tracks. I must again side with the latter. For instance, there’s a Queen/rap mash-up that I actually quite liked, and this is from someone who thinks the Wyclef Jean bastardisation of Another One Bites the Dust on Greatest Hits III is an offensive waste of disc space. The standout is probably the opening sequence, five minutes of dialogue-free brilliance with near-perfect visual storytelling (albeit aided by familiar imagery of abuse), set to a haunting rendition of Sweet Dreams (darkly, thematically apt for the entire film) sung by star Emily Browning herself.

Really, Sucker Punch is a musical. No, most of it isn’t sung, but every action sequence is accompanied by a cover song specially designed to fit with it, many (or all) of which in some way comment on or add to what’s happening. Not a traditional musical by any means, obviously, but the way it’s constructed around these musical/action interludes belies the truth.

Said action sequences are all inventive, but they began to feel a bit samey to me. There’s just too many, and though they should feel drastically different thanks to the variety of settings, Snyder’s style links them too well: they’re all shot in the same brown/sepia hue and our heroes all use current-day weapons and vehicles, Action!blurring what should be a clear difference between World War I with steam-powered Germans, an Orc-riddled fantasy castle, and a robot-guarded train on a distant planet. They sound incredibly distinct on paper, but on screen it’s confusing whether they’re meant to be the same world or not. The last of these, a single-shot running gun battle along a train, should be a balletic triumph, but by this point the action’s beginning to wear. I love an action film, and especially a creatively-rendered sequence, and Sucker Punch does have a ton of originality, but there’s perhaps too much of an onslaught. Maybe it’s less battering on later viewings — another reason they cut back on it in the theatrical version, perhaps.

All of the dream levels (we go at least two deep) invite comparisons to Inception, though they’re radically different films. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made along the lines of Inception being a product of a very organised, methodical mind — all steel city blocks and precise Escher paintings made real — while Sucker Punch comes from a crazed creative place — a random grab-bag of ideas and concepts. For all those who complained that Inception’s real-world-influenced dreamscape lacked the creativity and madness of real dreams, Sucker Punch should be a marvellous experience.

Babydoll in the snowPart of me wonders if, had I seen Sucker Punch in cinemas, would I feel the same way I do now? Would those big omissions have obscured the thematic depth I believe is there? To put it another way, how much do the changes really add? You or I will never know for certain. But I do think Sucker Punch has been underrated. It’s not the masterpiece I hoped it might turn out to be when I first began to notice the themes I think Snyder was (consciously or not) tapping in to, but I do think it’s a lot better and more interesting than most gave it credit for.

4 out of 5

* This is not the same as disliking a film that merits disliking. But that’s a whole other discussion. ^

** The man in question where I encountered this theory was Russell T Davies, writing in his and Benjamin Cook’s book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. A completely unrelated article that I just happened to stumble across later reminded me that credit for the concept “that once a work of art exists, it no longer matters what the author intended” more properly goes to Roland Barthes. ^

Nirvana (1997)

2011 #75
Gabriele Salvatores | 89 mins | TV | R

NirvanaThe Radio Times film section may be steadily going down the drain, but when anyone describes something as “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” it’s worth paying attention. “Yet few people outside Italy have seen it,” they add. Indeed, despite screening at Cannes (albeit out of competition), this Italian movie has never been classified by the BBFC, so I presume it’s never been released here (though this was its third showing on the BBC). It’s been released in America though… by Miramax. They did their usual foreign film job, chopping out 17 minutes, changing the music and adding an English dub. This is the version shown by the BBC (at the time of posting, also available on iPlayer) and reviewed here.

Most sci-fi we see is of the American variety — partly due to the fact most of any cinema and the vast majority of imported TV we get is from there, partly due to that being where the money is for special effects and what have you — and that tends to mean tonnes of CGI, a fast pace and action sequences up to the eyeballs. Nirvana is more stereotypically European, however: it’s clearly a Deep and Meaningful film, though unlike many examples of Thoughtful cinema it at least has a slightly thriller-ish plot and a hefty dose of cyberpunk styling for us plebs to pick up on.

Sometime in the future (I read 2005 in one review, but best to ignore that now), Christopher Lambert is a computer game designer working on a new title for Christmas. Somehow a virus invades his system, in the process making his lead character, Solo, fully sentient. Unable to escape the game, Solo wishes to be deleted, but Lambert can’t because the final software is owned by some giant corporation and will be released in just three days… so he has just three days to get into their computer system and delete the file, before Solo is condemned to never-ending life stuck in the game.

Nirvana's SoloThe most obvious point of reference for Nirvana is Blade Runner, which I’d wager was a hefty inspiration. Writer/director Salvatores introduces themes of what it means to be human and a lead character one might like to decide isn’t after all, and sets it in a perma-night, dystopian, multi-cultural future. It doesn’t quite have Ridley Scott’s consistency of vision, though: while he just rendered an Asian-American future L.A., Salvatores takes globalisation to the max, running us through locations named after Marrakech and Bombay City, which may or may not be part of the same sprawling metropolis, and which all exhibit appropriately specific cultural stylings. These aren’t just pretty backgrounds, but in some ways reflect the film’s use of video games — in which you can, of course, constantly re-spawn your character — as a metaphor for reincarnation.

In aid of this, while Lambert is collecting the plot pieces needed to attack that corporation — at the same time as following a subplot about a missing girlfriend — we get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.

This part of the film calls to mind eXistenZ, David Cronenberg’s film about a virtual reality game that blurs the line between reality and the game. It’s rather a surface similarity though — Lambert barely spends any time in his game, I think there's something in my eyeinteracting with Solo merely though a series of screens on his journeys (and, one presumes, a series of microphones too). Cronenberg’s film was made a couple of years after this, so commending it for not doing the same thing would obviously be a bit rich. It is to be commended for not descending into a needlessly twist-strewn third act though, which I had thought was coming — there’s plenty of bits along the way that could be used to build a ‘surprise’ or two. There’s some ambiguity in the ending, but not too blatantly (unlike later versions of Blade Runner, for instance), and Emmanuelle Seigner’s ex-girlfriend character is never quite used in the way I expected.

For all its intellectualising, Nirvana can still be a fun film, and not just because Lambert’s accent is always set to provoke a giggle. That sounds horribly xenophobic written down, but it’s all Highlander’s fault: there’s no reason he shouldn’t sound European here (and he has dubbed himself), but the memory of that accent supposedly being Scottish does linger. (And, just so we’re clear, I love Highlander.) But no, there are proper dashes of humour, scattered here and there to provide some subtle texture. And there are action sequences too, and dated ’90s music (presumably thanks to Miramax), and even some boobies. To be honest, though, if you just want humour, action, dated music and boobies, there are dozens of films that will serve you better. At least they stop it becoming too dry, and give you a chance to let what’s going on sink in, helping prevent total confusion every time the film threatens to become incomprehensible (maybe it’s just me, but it took a little while to work out what Lambert was actually getting up to in the main plot).

I’d quite like to see the original version. Who knows what changes Miramax have wrought with their fiddling (that woman on the poster certainly isn’t in this version, at least), Smells like teen somethingand I imagine subtitles could be easier to follow than this dubbed version, in which everyone’s covered by either the original actors straining with English (based on the accents) or the typically bad voice actors employed for such dubs. The Italian DVD is reportedly English-friendly and very good quality, so perhaps I’ll get hold of that (expect another review if/when I do… well, eventually).

Apparently Nirvana “has achieved something of a cult status, especially in Europe”, and I think I can see why: there’s a few themes that might be worth a ponder, and enough splashes of style and action to keep one’s attention… most of the time. It might not be as stylistically delineated as either of the films it brought to mind, but then Blade Runner is perhaps the pinnacle of screen SF and eXistenZ… well, now I really want to see that again. I don’t know if this is “one of the best science-fiction films ever made” — especially not in this Americanised version — but it certainly has a few things going for it.

4 out of 5

Nirvana is available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer until 3AM on Saturday 3rd September (i.e. Friday night).

Death Race (2008)

2011 #33
Paul W.S. Anderson | 98 mins* | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Death RaceSometimes, I wonder what I’m playing at. The list of films I haven’t seen but really should is quite extraordinary, from enduring classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai to recent praise-magnets like Scott Pilgrim and Black Swan (and those are just from some of the ones I actually own), yet I choose to spend my evening watching B-movie tosh like Death Race because it happens to be on telly.

There’s no denying that Death Race is B-movie tosh, I don’t think, but at least it’s an example of fairly entertaining B-movie tosh. The plot barely matters, but for what it’s worth it concerns a car race in a near-future prison where those who don’t die in the weapons-laden encounters stand a chance to earn their freedom. Jason Statham’s character is — of course — innocent, but once thrown into this world must escape by its rules. Yadda yadda yadda.

Basically, everything that happens is an excuse to get to some action sequences, in which cars race around a circuit and attempt to destroy each other in some moderately creative ways. It caters perfectly to its intended audience: there’s fast cars, sexy girls, lots of action, big explosions. It doesn’t always make sense — those sexy girls are really shoehorned in — but that doesn’t really matter. It’s Entertainment, for a certain type of person, and it surely hits all the points it should hit. Cars, guns, girlsAnd I expect it says something about that intended audience that the end credits begin with a “do not attempt this at home” notice.

Ian McShane is the most watchable out of an adequate cast. Who would’ve guessed Lovejoy would end up as a consistently entertaining presence in various US productions? Only the villains really get short shrift, being so readily defeated that there’s no real jeopardy, no sense they might not get their comeuppance. Their simultaneous best and worst moment comes in a dreadful, meaningless line about shitting on the sidewalk. Who doesn’t love a good “wtf?” bit of dialogue?

You can tell writer-director Anderson likes his computer games — as if the numerous films he’s made based on them weren’t enough, he brings their influence here too. For instance, the weapons are only activated by driving over special hotspots, which are only a big floating icon away from being like computer game power-ups. I’m surprised Anderson didn’t go the whole hog and have them be projected holograms.

This blank bit of paper contains the plotEven if it’s all about the action, it could be worse: I’ve seen plenty of films featuring weaker dialogue, weaker acting and an even less relevant story. Death Race does everything it sets out to do competently, delivering a couple of decent action sequences and even a couple of laughs along the way. Not exceptional enough to be particularly memorable, but it is fun — if you like this kind of thing — while it lasts.

3 out of 5

* I know it’s largely immaterial, but I’m not really sure how long the version I watched ran. It was definitely the theatrical version (as opposed to the extended version, which looks to contain several minutes of unnoticeable additions and tweaks), which IMDb say runs 98 minutes, but the BBFC place at 105. I’ve used IMDb’s answer purely because as I watched it on TV it would’ve been PAL, so this number is closer, whatever the truth.

Some thoughts on star ratings

Last week’s run of films from 1953 got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, about coincidence — out of a pile of 20 unposted reviews, it happened to be those that were among the first few I had ready to post. But, more pertinently, it was the last two, and the scores I gave them — The Big Heatfour for The Big Heat, five for Roman Holiday — that gave me the most to mull over.

To put it simply, I wondered “why?” Why is The Big Heat only worthy of four stars and Roman Holiday worthy of five? They weren’t scored relative to each other — I watched them almost a month apart, and while I take forever to post my reviews I usually rate the films straight away — so this contrast hadn’t been thrown up before, and probably would never have been had I not happened to post them side by side.

The thing is, when considered against each other, The Big Heat is more my kind of film than Roman Holiday; if asked to pick a favourite, I’d probably choose the noir; I’d be more likely to buy it on DVD; I’d be more likely to watch it again. That’s nothing against Roman Holiday — it’s a great film — but, in direct comparison between just these two films, The Big Heat is more my kind of thing.

And yet, for all that, and having considered changing both scores, The Big Heat still has four stars and Roman Holiday still has five.

Putting The Big Heat up to five didn’t sit wholly easy, especially when I compared it to the scores I’ve given other noirs. This led me to wonder if I’m harsher on film noir because it’s a genre which, though I’m unquestionably still discovering it (most of those I’ve ever seen are reviewed here), Roman HolidayI have a good deal of affection for — and, therefore, expectation for its films. The same could be said of other favourite genres — action, thriller, etc.

Dropping Roman Holiday to four seemed wrong too, as if underrating it. This made me wonder if I was influenced by expectations — Roman Holiday is simply the kind of film one gives five stars too, thanks to Oscar wins and making a star of Audrey Hepburn and all that. I don’t think this is always an influence on me — I’m happy to give a respected film a slating if I disliked it, and vice versa — but when something sits borderline, I can be swayed by reputation.

Are star ratings just inherently rubbish? There’s a reason why reviewing publications from Sight & Sound to Doctor Who Magazine choose not to use them — and that’s in part because they invite instant, arguably invalid comparisons (such as the one I’m discussing). “Is W a whole star better than X?” “Are Y and Z actually worth the same score?” On many occasions the answer to such questions is “no”; that’s the inherent imprecision of having five possible scores and thousands of things that need scoring. By rating things with five stars the reviewer is placing them in broadly defined groups, and some will always be better than others within their group, and some will always be on the borderline — and some will get placed on the wrong side of it.

Many games magazines and websites using a percentage system (or they did in my day — several now seem to use an out-of-10 score… but merrily use decimal points, so it’s the same damn thing). I guess it’s an inbuilt cultural thing, because (other than an aggregate site like Rotten Tomatoes) Games reviews use percentagesI’ve never seen films reviewed with a percentage. Theoretically, this method allows for 100 different scores — much more precise. In practice, of course, the lower ones are rarely used and the tippity-top ones are seldom (if ever) reached. Partly this is because you find your ‘average’ review score sitting less at 50% and more at 70% or higher. I believe this is because (like almost any reviewed art form) the bulk of what one encounters has been polished enough to earn a higher score — the average quality of work is of above-average quality, if you will. It also makes the system more liable to awkward questions: give one thing 95% and another 96% and you provoke “is the second definitely superior” arguments you wouldn’t get if they both just had 5 out of 5. Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does require one to be frighteningly precise when scoring.

I’m not convinced the answer is to ditch all forms of rating. Perhaps a skilled reviewer could always present a perfect balance between their pro and anti thoughts on a review subject, Full of starsbut I don’t think there are many of them about. Giving something a score stamps your opinion nice and clearly: there have been a good few reviews where I’ve mainly discussed the negative points of a film I’ve primarily liked, for whatever reason, and without the score at the end readers might get the wrong impression; I may even have penned a review or two where I’ve tried to draw out the positives from something I was giving a low score to. I’d wager this is true of most reviewers — it’s always possible for your text to be misinterpreted; for a reader to see a positive (or negative) bias, however balanced or actually-the-other you thought you were being.

That all said, a definitive summary sentence or paragraph would serve just as well — better, maybe — than a little line of stars. Hm.

I’m not going to ditch my star ratings, but this has caused me to have a good think about them. It’s clear the way I apply them is not always accurate (as if the fact I often include four-star films on my top tens while excluding numerous five-starers hadn’t made that clear), but — if only for my own satisfaction — I like the way they separate the bad from the good, the good from the great… however broadly.

Max Payne: Harder Cut (2008)

2010 #57
John Moore | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 15

I was a bit of a gamer once. Not an especially hardcore one, but certainly a gamer. And I remember Max Payne, and I remember enjoying it, and I remember thinking it would make quite a good film, and I remember one of the biggest problems being that what made it so unique as a game was the bullet-time feature and what would make it so derivative as a film would be to use bullet-time. But it also had lots of other things going for it: the snow-bound nighttime New York setting, the dark revenge plot, the hard-boiled gravel-toned voiceover.

Luckily, director John Moore doesn’t use Matrix-derived bullet-time visuals, but, despite keeping a snow-bound New York and a revenge plot, he’s somehow managed to also throw out everything that made Max Payne: The Game good. Despite the similarities in plot and setting, this doesn’t feel at all like the game.

Max Payne: The Film, to put it simply, is a load of crap.

I’ll just reel off the bad points:

For something advertised as an action movie — at best, an action-thriller — there’s barely any action. Even the climax, where you might expect a fair bit, is virtually devoid of it. Moore exploits extreme slow motion to stand in for the game’s Matrix-esque combat. Unfortunately, he seems to be under the illusion that a couple of barely-moving slow-mo moments also stand in for a full action sequence. When an action movie can’t deliver any action, there’s a problem.

Instead, the budget seems to have been spent on some angel/demon CGI rubbish. Early on, one begins to wonder if the film’s headed toward Constantine-esque fantasy territory — it’s not in the game, but hey, that’s never bothered Uwe Boll. Eventually it becomes clear it isn’t, these are just some kind of junkie visions. At least, I’m sure they’re meant to be, but I’m not sure the film ever makes that explicit — I wouldn’t blame a casual viewer going away with the sense that these angel/demon/things are actually meant to be there and only the junkies can see them. Which would be just as irrelevant.

Despite this being the “Harder Cut”, it comes across as a PG-13 film playing at being an R. (Though the extended cut was released as ‘unrated’ in the US, the original MPAA rating was an R before a handful of changes needed to get it down to the more bankable PG-13.) It’s now around three minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but from what I can gather a significant chunk of that seems to be made up of people walking around longer. The ‘harder’ bit merely comes from a couple of frames (literally) of violence and the odd bit of CG blood. Presumably the extra walking around is to artificially lengthen the running time and persuade the more gullible that they’re getting a tougher experience.

Mark Wahlberg has all the charisma and emotion of a wooden plank. No one else in the cast can offer anything better, least of all a miscast Mila Kunis. In fairness, it’s not like any of them are given proper characters to work with: most display no kind of arc, and even those that have one — Kunis, for example — are ultimately ignored, the events that might affect them on an emotional level serving only to further what stands in for a plot. Only Max himself is allowed any genuine emotional connection. And by “genuine” I mean some supporting characters we never see again tell us it’s had a real impact on him. Wahlberg certainly doesn’t convey it.

Olga Kurylenko is also in this film. She tries to sleep with the hero and fails, as per usual.

At least some of it looks quite nice. The drifting snow-laden exterior shots are among the few bits of the film that might genuinely be considered good. But when you can get pretty images elsewhere, why suffer through this?

A short post-credits scene suggests a sequel. Why is this buried after the credits? Presumably so as the filmmakers didn’t embarrass themselves more widely by implying they thought this pathetic effort might earn itself a follow-up.

Uwe Boll wanted to get his hands on Max Payne. At times while watching this, I wished he had. You can’t get much more damning than that. Other than, maybe, something witty, like — “maximum pain is certainly what this film will cause you”.

1 out of 5

Max Payne featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2010, which can be read in full here.