A Christmas Carol (2009)

aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

2016 #188
Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Disney's A Christmas Carol

You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

2 out of 5

War on Everyone (2016)

2017 #52
John Michael McDonagh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

War on Everyone

The third feature from John Michael “older brother of the guy who made In Bruges” McDonagh, War on Everyone is a comedy crime thriller about two dodgy New Mexico cops (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) who are tricked while trying to prevent a heist and so set about tracking down the stolen money — to pocket for themselves.

I’ve read that War on Everyone is massively offensive. Well, I mean, if you want to be precious about it, I guess some of it is. Maybe reading that left me expecting something incredibly outrageous, but sadly the film doesn’t hit those highs. I say “highs” — offensiveness for the sake of it is pointless, but some of the best material in the previous movies of the McDonagh brothers has come from a willingness to say and do un-PC things. War on Everyone doesn’t feel neutered in that regard, but nor is anything it does so striking.

Worse, it has a rambling narrative, wandering pace, and inconsistent tone. It’s not funny enough, frankly, but nor is the crime plot interesting enough to sustain the humour drought. Peña’s comedic gifts carry some of the flat material, though barely, while Skarsgård seems a little lost in an underwritten role. He and Tessa Thompson attempt to salvage something from a romantic subplot that springs from almost nowhere and then occupies a bunch of screen time to no one’s benefit. Caleb Landry Jones fares best as a foppish strip club owner, one of the henchman to Theo James’ big bad, whose entire character is basically, “he’s English — they make good villains, right?”

Not-so-nice guys

There are broad similarities to another irreverent comedy thriller from 2006 about a pair of not-so-nice fellas investigating a somewhat-complicated crime plot, but War on Everyone just serves to demonstrate how hard it is to do what Shane Black makes look effortless in The Nice Guys. I thought War on Everyone trailed well and looked like it would hit that same level, or at least something close to it, but sadly the final result feels fumbled.

2 out of 5

John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature, The Guard, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:05am. I’ve got the Blu-ray knocking around somewhere; really ought to get round to watching it…

London Has Fallen (2016)

2017 #14
Babak Najafi | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Bulgaria / English, Italian, French & Japanese | 15 / R

London Has Fallen

The unwanted sequel to the less-good of 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” double bill sets its rip-off sights lower: the entire plot feels rehashed from a weak season of 24. It may as well begin with a gravelly-toned voiceover informing us that “the following takes place between 9AM and 9PM Greenwich Mean Time.” Fortunately, events don’t occur in real time.

Those events take place in the wake of the British Prime Minister’s unexpected death. Granted a state funeral, the American President (Aaron Eckhart) is naturally in attendance, along with 39 other world leaders — most of whom are suddenly wiped out in a series of terrorist attacks. POTUS’s Secret Service chum (Gerard Butler) must get him out of the embattled capital, away from an enemy who seems to have foreseen their every move.

From there, the film is a relentless assault on the notion of good filmmaking. The narrative is so poorly structured that it doesn’t feel like there’s a climax — it’s only apparent with hindsight that what seemed like the back-half of Act 2 is actually meant to be the big finale. The main villain is only dealt with in a tacked-on coda; so too is the obligatory mole, whose presence appears to be solely motivated by a futile attempt to plug plot holes.

Going Underground

The dialogue is horrendous (“You should have let us kill him quickly, because now… we’re going to kill him slowly”) and the CGI is ceaselessly cheap — shots of the various terrorist attacks wouldn’t look out of place in a Sharknado movie. A single-take action sequence feels like it should be exciting filmmaking, but is actually more like watching someone else play a video game.

Even with that, London Has Fallen does just about pass muster as a brains-off actioner, in the truest sense of the term: you’ll need to switch your brain off to endure the rampant xenophobia and American flag-waving.

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild (2007)

2017 #7
Sean Penn | 148 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Danish | 15 / R

Into the WildThe true story of Christopher McCandless, who abandoned regular life after college to go hitchhiking and become one with nature or something, then accidentally killed himself by being a pretentious wanker.

The filmmaking is driven by this same youthful pomposity, which when you consider it was “screenplay and directed by” (to quote the awkward credits) a 47-year-old Sean Penn makes it feel both inauthentic and also, frankly, a little pathetic.

At least there’s some stunning scenery; and Hal Holbrook’s performance as a lonely old man, whose outward cheerfulness masks inner sorrow and a need reengage with life, is suitably affecting.

2 out of 5

Into the Wild was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Fantastic Four (2015)

2016 #110
Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

2 out of 5

Cool World (1992)

2016 #70
Ralph Bakshi | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Cool WorldSometime recently, I said I was making more of an effort to avoid watching movies I know are going to be bad — when there’s so much good stuff to see, why knowingly waste time on bad stuff? But then sometimes something just catches your attention and you have to see for yourself. It sounds as if no one had anything good to say about Cool World when it came out back in 1992, and no one’s had anything good to say about it since either, but after spotting it on Netflix (I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before that) my curiosity was piqued.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi, who’s probably best known for the animated Lord of the Rings, it’s the story of cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who’s created the zany, surreal ‘Cool World’. But Cool World is actually a real place (a real cartoon place, as it were), which Jack ends up getting transported to. He meets femme fatale Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) who wants to escape to the real world, but is being prevented from doing so by Frank (Brad Pitt), another real human who was transported to Cool World decades earlier.

If this all sounds a bit of a mess, it is. It’s not a fundamentally bad story at a conceptual level, but its execution is a jumble, and the twisted Cool World is an unpleasant place to have to spend time. The darkness of the story is actually toned down from Bakshi’s original concept (which had an underground cartoonist fathering a half-real / half-cartoon daughter who tries to kill him), but only so much: it’s still full of sex, references to sex, Holli Would, and she willand general depraved behaviour. It’s clear it got caught in the crossfire between a creator/director who wanted to make a hard-R adults-only animated/live-action movie, and a star and producer who wanted to make something they could show to sick kiddies in hospital. The end result surely satisfies neither, because it pulls some punches to not get that R, but there’s no way this is kid-friendly.

It came out a few years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers from the comparison. It’s not just that Cool World is a less successful riff on the same concept, or that its storytelling is more muddled, but it’s less technically proficient too. The animation and live-action elements never gel as well as in Roger Rabbit, with plenty of lazy eye-lines and actions not quite lining up. This probably explains why Byrne and Pitt both give lacklustre performances, not that Basinger fares any better.

There’s some interesting stuff in Cool World, which is why I haven’t sunk it to the irredeemable depths of a single star, but the merits are slight and not worth the effort. Apparently it does have something of a cult following, though, so the adventurous may still feel it’s worth a visit.

2 out of 5

Cool World featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Armageddon (1998)

2016 #133
Michael Bay | 145 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

ArmageddonSometimes you have to wait to see a film because it’s not accessible for some reason (no one’s put it out yet, or it’s out of print and costs a fortune, or whatever). Other times… maybe it’s just me, but there are some films that I wait years to watch for no particular reason. Not wait in the sense of “drumming my fingers waiting for the chance”, but in the sense that I’ll get to it someday, it’s just not a priority, for whatever reason. And then one day, with nothing apparently having changed, the time comes when it’s that movie’s turn.

So it was for me with Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi disaster epic. It’s a film I’ve been aware of since it came out (how could you not be?) but never cared enough to actually watch, other than a general feeling I’d get round to it one day because (a) it’s the kind of movie everyone else has seen, and (b) when Michael Bay’s good, he is good (at what he does), so it’s at least worth a look. It’s a pretty readily available film — the kind of thing I regularly see in TV listings or on streaming services and consider watching and end up deciding “nah, not today” — so quite what made me finally watch it now — what made me see it in a list and go “actually, yes, today” — I’m not sure. Such are the mysteries of life. Or of my brain, at any rate.

For the few people who haven’t seen it, then, it’s about a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event, and NASA deciding the only way to stop it is to send up a couple of spaceships to land on the asteroid, drop nukes inside, and blow it up (it’s a Michael Bay movie, of course the solution is “blow it up”). To learn about the kind of deep drilling this would require, they bring in the best driller around, Bruce Willis, to train the astronauts. But drilling isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks — unlike “how to be an astronaut”, apparently, because it’s decided it will be easier to train drillers to be astronauts than train astronauts to use a drill.

At least they know which way space isIf you’re a reader from outside the UK, I guess you’ve probably not heard of Tim Peake. He’s (quite rightly) been big news here for the last year or so because he was our first (official) astronaut. That it’s taken until now for there to be a British astronaut seems remarkable, but there you go. I guess we always let other people do the initial exploring, then come along later to own the place — I mean, that Columbus fella was Italian, and is Italian the official language of America? No it is not. Anyway, Peake is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, has a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation, was selected to be an astronaut in a process that involved academic tests, fitness assessments, and several interviews, and then received six years of training, including a mission as an aquanaut, before he went into space. But no, you can totally train a group of drillers to do that in a fortnight.

Many Hollywood blockbusters have ludicrous concepts, but Armageddon feels designed to plow new furrows of ridiculousness. Apparently NASA show the film to new managers and ask them to spot the errors. There are at least 168. It only takes a few minutes before it’s already so OTT that it seems like a spoof of Bay — I mean, the title card explodes for crying out loud. When the president makes a speech just before the launch, the quaint shots of the world listening in make it look like the film’s set in the 1950s. Despite being a full two-and-a-half hours long, Bay manages to make the whole film feel like a plot-summarising montage. The average shot length must be Moulin Rouge-level crazy, though where that film weighs super-fast-cut scenes against more measured ones, I think Armageddon is out-of-control-freight-train fast for every last second. Bay is so impatient, the credits start rolling before the film has even finished! And why the fuck does the drilling vehicle have a fucking great machine gun on it?!

Bruce Willis flashesApparently Michael Bay thinks it’s his worst film. In 2013, he said, “I will apologise for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could.” The problems stretch further than that, Michael.

Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. The bit where Bruce Willis’ life flashes before his eyes is actually really good — ten seconds of artistic moviemaking in a 150-minute movie! Visually it looks great throughout, meaning DoP John Schwartzman is possibly the only person who comes out of the whole thing entirely unscathed. The special effects are excellent for 1998. I thought Independence Day’s were still effective when I re-watched it earlier this year, but Armageddon’s feel much less dated, and it was only made two years later. As an effects showcase, it absolutely still holds up today. That said, the top of the Chrysler building falling off, complete with plummeting screaming people, is considerably less palatable since 9/11. And just a minute later there’s a shot of the World Trade Center with burning holes in it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been re-edited to remove those shots, especially as it’s a Disney-owned movie and they have a history of self-censoring stuff that is no longer considered acceptable.

Armageddon was, famously, released the same year as Deep Impact, which I watched many years ago but remember as a character-driven drama about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. Armageddon’s action-packed bluster was more successful at the box office, of course, but Deep Impact was the more mature movie. SPACE EXPLOSION!Maybe I’m wrong — it has a lower rating on IMDb. But then, that is IMDb. I should probably watch it again, but even without doing that I feel pretty confident saying it’s the better film.

If Michael Bay knew he was making a comedy, Armageddon might be a great movie. But he didn’t. While it’s definitely bad, I did kind of enjoy it… but mainly to laugh at. Make of that what you will.

2 out of 5

Blackhat (2015)

2016 #46
Michael Mann | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Mandarin & Spanish | 15 / R

BlackhatHow the mighty have fallen. The great Michael Mann, who once helmed genre-defining crime movies with expertly-directed sequences, here delivers a movie that looks like an amateur cheapie by a film student who’s watched too many Paul Greengrass movies without learning anything meaningful from them.

it plays like a Hong Kong action-thriller, but let down by flabby storytelling, including obvious restructuring in post. Praised for depicting hacking more accurately than normal, that’s undercut by the rest being so clichéd. And its horrible romance includes a scene where the girl’s lover and her brother discuss what’s best for her!

Oh, Mann.

2 out of 5

Lucy (2014)

2016 #44
Luc Besson | 86 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France & USA / English, French & Korean* | 15 / R

LucyAfter years producing movies in the Taken stable, Besson directs one himself. Unfortunately it’s a poor effort — not a bad movie, exactly, but a deeply silly one.

Forced to be a drugs mule, Scarlett Johansson accidentally ingests the product and unlocks her brain’s unused potential — yes, that long-debunked chestnut. Such daftness passes muster in, say, superhero origins, where no one’s expecting plausiblility, but Lucy seems to want to genuinely consider scientific ideas… between mediocre action sequences, anyway, which feel like they’re pulling punches to hit 12A/PG-13, even though it’s 15/R.

Less than an hour-and-a-half long, it still feels a slog.

2 out of 5

* IMDb also lists Spanish and Chinese, but I swear they’re only spoken very briefly. If we’re being that picky, Italian’s in there too, I think. ^

Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)

2016 #105
John Landis | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Beverly Hills Cop III always seemed to be on TV when I was younger — on BBC1, quite late, but I guess not that late because I always seemed to stumble across it during the theme park climax. In reality it can probably have only been on a couple of times, but that’s how it seemed. And because it caught my attention, I somehow knew that one day I’d end up watching the entire movie, just to see. To see what, I’m not sure; but to see. Of course, that necessitated watching the first and second films first (because I’m me). I very much enjoyed them both. Unfortunately, the third is nothing like as good.

This time, Detroit cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) tracks a gang of crooks to Disneyland Wonder World, an L.A. theme park. There, he ropes in his old chum in the Beverly Hills PD, Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold), and blatant stand-in for an actor who refused to come back his colleague Jon Flint (Héctor Elizondo), to investigate Wonder World’s head of security (Timothy Carhart), who Axel recognises as the head of the gang.

By all accounts Beverly Hills Cop III was a troubled production. Murphy was in a phase where he could be a pain to work with, and, according to director John Landis, was envious of the careers of Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, who were starring in straight action movies. Consequently, Murphy was keen to downplay the film’s comedy — much to its detriment, of course, as it’s Murphy’s comedy that makes this series work. Landis knew that: in the same interview, he says the screenplay for the first film was “one of the worst scripts I ever read […] It was a piece of shit, that script, but the movie’s very funny because Eddie Murphy and [the film’s director] Martin Brest made it funny.” The script for the threequel also wasn’t any good (according to some versions of events, that’s why original co-stars John Ashton and Ronny Cox didn’t return), but Landis tried to put Murphy in funny situations and see what improvisation threw up. Murphy, keen to be taken seriously, worked around that.

I don’t think all blame can be laid on Murphy, though. For an example, look at the sequence aboard a broken-down ride about halfway through the movie — it might just be one of the most tension-free thrill sequences ever filmed. Axel has to climb across the ride, storeys up in the air, to rescue two kids who are dangling from another compartment. It seems to take him forever to get there — far, far longer than those two young kids could plausibly hang on for — while interminable early-’90s electronic music throbs in the background. The park attendants stand around doing nothing. A whole crowd of people stare up at him with bored expressions. I’m not sure if that was deliberate, because I can’t really see what the point of a massive crowd of blank-faced onlookers serves, but I also can’t see how anyone involved in the film could’ve read their expressions as being in any way interested by or invested in the action they’re supposedly watching. Well, at least it reflects how the audience must’ve felt.

In my review of the original Beverly Hills Cop, I wrote about how I only really watched it so I could then see the sequels, because they were directed by Tony Scott and John Landis. Ironically, the first one turned out to be good entertainment, and certainly the most enjoyable of the trilogy. Scott’s sequel isn’t half bad; very much a “next best thing” situation. As for Landis’ effort… Well, Beverly Hills Cop III isn’t all bad — some fun slips through the cracks; the occasional glimmer of what made the previous movies memorable. But when taken as a whole film, it’s a crushingly mediocre experience that can’t measure up to either of its predecessors.

2 out of 5