Tomb Raider (2018)

2020 #143
Roar Uthaug | 118 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

Tomb Raider

In this gritty(-ish) reboot of the videogame-turned-movie franchise (inspired by a similar reboot they did in the games), Lara Croft loses her most famous twin assets — her dual pistols (also, her giant boobs) — instead replacing them with a bow & arrow (and muscles, respectively) for an adventure that sees her travelling to a secret island where her father disappeared seven years earlier while in search of an ancient curse surrounding a long-lost tomb. Well, natch — clue’s in the title.

“Movie based on a game” used to be synonymous with “shit”, and to an extent that reputation persists — it takes time to turn such widespread prejudices around — but there have been a few in recent years to buck the trend, like trashy-but-fun Rampage and (apparently) Angry Birds 2. For my money, Tomb Raider is part of that movement. For one thing, it manages to actually feel like the games (or, at least, what I presume the games are like — I’ve never really played any of them), which is a noteworthy point for a genre that sometimes spectacularly failed to understand its source material. Tomb Raider successfully recreates the running, jumping, shooting, puzzle-solving action of its inspiration without too overtly abandoning real-life logic for video game logic. Well, I say “real-life logic” — it’s actually “action/adventure movie logic”, but I think that’s allowed in an action/adventure movie.

As an entry in that genre, it’s fun enough. It’s not going to compete for greatest-of-all-time status with its urtext, the Indiana Jones films, nor does it quite challenge the heights of more-overt homages like The Mummy, but it’s not a bad couple of hours’ entertainment in their mould. On the downside, the amount of preamble the plot goes through before taking us to the island is a tad unnecessary, mainly because there are a couple of early set pieces that feel forced to make sure there’s some action in the first act. I can understand having one or two (as much as anything, it establishes that Lara isn’t completely unskilled in combat and physical endurance), but it feels like padding. Besides, we’ve come for an Indiana Jones-esque affair — a bicycle race around grey London isn’t quite the right tone.

Hanging around

Alicia Vikander is more than capable in the lead role, both as an actress and a physical performer — she’s clearly developed the physique for the part, and apparently did her own stunts. Unfortunately, her accent is a little all over the place, a blend of English and Swedish (rather similar to Rebecca Ferguson’s) with occasional flecks of Irish. It’s kind of charming in itself, and I guess it just passes as “English” to Americans, but it’s too distractingly ‘off’ to truly pass as the upper-crust English girl Lara is meant to be. She’s surrounded by a supporting cast of reliable performers — Walton Goggins (surprisingly understated as the villain), Dominic West, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Nick Frost (just a cameo) — but none leave a particularly large mark.

A quick word on the 3D, which is fairly enjoyable. I’d heard bad things, but it’s not awful, just unexceptionally adequate — a bit like the film itself, I guess. It adds somewhat to the “hanging over a chasm” shots (of which there are more than a handful), if nothing else.

The film ends with a massive sequel tease, which I thought was fairly well handled. I’ve often criticised movies that exist purely to setup sequels/trilogies/franchises, and there are clearly parts of Tomb Raider that have been designed to do that, but it’s managed well enough to not really intrude until the final scenes. That said, it’s an odd kind of tease, suggesting more “corporate espionage” than “tomb raiding”. Unlike so many sequel teases nowadays, this one will actually be acted upon: after some umming and ahhing (the film wasn’t a huge box office hit, but did respectably outside the US, particularly in lucrative markets like China and the UK), it’s going ahead… with Ben Wheatley directing! Colour me surprised. (It was scheduled for release in March 2021, but the shoot was meant to begin in April 2020 and, surprise surprise, got cancelled, so who knows.)

Tomb raiding

A lot of this review has wound up couched in disclaimers but, fundamentally, I enjoyed Tomb Raider. It may not have a surfeit of original ideas, but once it gets going it offers up solid levels of excitement — highlights include a protracted boat crash in a storm, Lara negotiating a plane teetering on a cliff edge, and the titular raiding of a tomb, which occupies the third act. If Wheatley can supplement that with a dash of his trademark oddness, the sequel might well be worth looking forward to.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Tomb Raider is on ITV tonight at 7:50pm.

Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

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.

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.