Transformers: Age of Extinction 3D (2014)

2017 #90
Michael Bay | 165 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I thought I was done with Transformers movies. I watched Dark of the Moon back in 2014 and hated it — I gave it two stars and later couldn’t remember why I’d given it more than one. Fortunately that rounded out an initial trilogy, so when this fourth movie came out I didn’t feel I had to bother, especially when the reviews were even worse. When it made its debut on Sky Movies, rather than watch it I summarised other writers’ insightful/amusing commentary — though I acknowledged that “maybe one day I will cave and check out this renowned piece of cinematic excrement, because I am a completist and having seen three of the films I feel compelled to watch every new entry that turns up”.

Obviously, that day has come. The reason is 3D.

Regular readers will know I caved to imminently-obsolete technology back in April and bought a 3D-capable 4K TV (I wrote about it here). Long story short, the third and fourth Transformers movies were shot in 3D and are well-praised on the format. So after I rewatched the third in 3D and enjoyed it more than I remembered, the fourth called.

Here come the Transformers... again

On a purely technical level, Age of Extinction is a masterpiece. As well as 3D, significant chunks of the film were shot for IMAX, and the IMAX 3D stuff is incredible. Sometimes director Michael Bay uses it for just regular scenes, like Mark Wahlberg driving his truck or walking around an old theatre, and even those bits are a riot of depth and dimensionality. So when it opens out to show wide scenery, or for the action sequences… wow! And Bay chooses to use IMAX, like, all the time — as I said, for low-key regular stuff as well as the “epic” stuff you know it’s made for — so much so that it’s kinda weird they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in an expanded aspect ratio. (There are at least three aspect ratios used. I believe the fifth movie has five or more.) Some people hate shifting aspect ratios on Blu-ray, finding it odd when the screen suddenly fills up. Age of Extinction has the opposite effect, feeling odd when black bars appear to make it 2.40:1 for the odd shot here or there. Personally I love a shifting aspect ratio, but generally that’s because it’s the expansive IMAX stuff intruding now and then to impressive effect — when it does the opposite, it has a lessening effect.

And to round out my praise for the film’s technical merits, the sound design is positively thunderous. On a pure show-off level, this may well be the greatest Blu-ray I’ve ever seen.

As for the film itself…

Just normal people, standing around normally like normal people do

Age of Extinction is not really a movie for anyone interested in such trivial things as plot or character or internal logic. They certainly don’t concern Bay. He’s almost solely driven by the visual. It’s almost a different way of approaching the movie. If you can take it that way, I think it at least explains how some of its apparent missteps come about. For example: Wahlberg’s 17-year-old daughter is dating a 20-year-old fella — barely worthy of a raised eyebrow here in the UK, but a Shocking Thing in the US where the age of consent is (mostly) 18. But in Texas, where the film is set, they have this thing called the Romeo and Juliet law which, long story short, makes the relationship okay. Except the guy has this law printed on a card in his wallet. How skeevy is that?! I mean, why does he need it on him at all times in the form of a handy little card? What’s that for? But you see, here we are applying real-life logic. In BayWorld, having a little card with the law on it is a handy way to quickly dramatise the existence of said law and get it on screen. No, I agree, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense — as I said, if you think through the implications of why the character might possess this card, it makes the guy a massive creep — but the way Bay uses it in situ, I can kind of see what he was thinking. This kind of reasoning — of moviemaking driven more by visual thrust and expediency rather than plot coherence or character motivation — can be expanded to explain almost every plot hole, logic gap, or sudden time jump in the whole movie.

Elsewhere, It’s like someone set a challenge for how many explosions it’s possible to have in one movie. It’s just… mind-boggling. The film makes little sense as a story, or a series of events with cause and effect, or a paced action sequence with ebb and flow — it’s just a relentless assault of set pieces; things that would be a showcase stunt or effect in another movie just piled atop each other in a never-ending tumble of action. It’s, in its own strange way, impressive.

SPLOSIONS

It’s hard to describe the cumulative effect of these features, because the impact it has on the viewer is so rooted in the visual, the aural, the… not emotional, because there’s little feeling. The adrenal? As in adrenaline-generating. It makes no sense, and yet it makes its own sense. It’s almost avant-garde.

However, lest you think Bay is deliberately thinking everything out, just in a different way to the rest of us, there’s plenty of evidence that he isn’t. An obvious one is the film’s weird vein of anti-American-ism. Not overtly so, but it presents the CIA (and other US law enforcement) as corrupt and the government as incompetent because it can’t oversee them properly. This feels very odd from Bay, who’s usually so worshipful of the armed forces. Maybe he’s actually one of that weird breed of right-wingers who think it’s somehow most patriotic to hate the government and all of its institutions? Or maybe Bay is secretly left-wing — I mean, the entire ethos of Transformers is pro immigration and asylum. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what he is, or doesn’t see the inherent contradictions in what he’s putting on screen. Yeah, that version sounds about right.

It’s definitely way too long. In fact, it’s so long that when it finally finished I felt the same as if I’d just binge-watched an entire miniseries. Ironically, for a movie that doesn’t care about plot, there’s too much of it. Ironically, for a movie that uses visual shortcuts for expediency, it allows some scenes to run much longer than they need to. You could easily lose 30 to 45 minutes of this movie, either by ditching some of the plot or ditching some of the repetitive explosions; or, ideally, a bit of both.

It's a sword... that's also a gun!

Despite supposedly being a fresh start for the series, Age of Extinction spins out of the events of the last movie (it’s set five years later, with both Autobots and Decepticons persona non grata after the destructive Battle of Chicago), but doesn’t even mention Sam (Shia LaBeouf’s character) or any of the other films’ humans. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee don’t seem in the least bit bothered to have nothing to do with their former friends. Why? Who knows. Do we care? I guess not. Maybe it’s just that the Autobots, the film’s supposed heroes, are actually horrible, horrible people. Rather than good and kind and fighting for righteousness or something, their behaviour is frequently mean and cruel. A couple of them are desperate to give up on humanity (the only reason they don’t? “Optimus said we can’t”), while another kills an alien just because it looks ugly. That’s literally the only reason.

At least with the humans there are actually seeds of character arcs, and attempted developments and payoffs too — like Marky Mark and Stanley Tucci both being inventors and so sharing a commonality, or the rivalry between dad and boyfriend that eventually sorts itself out (and creates one of the film’s few genuinely good lines). But screenwriter Ehren Kruger still doesn’t really know how to do his job — or, if he does, Bay must’ve come along and torn it up to the point where it doesn’t matter — so while you’re left able to see the germs of an idea and the broad shape of how it should work, it still kinda doesn’t quite gel (unless you’re kind enough to fill in the blanks yourself). Tucci, incidentally, is great. Goodness knows what made him agree to do the movie, but he’s clearly having fun with it.

A robot knight riding a robot dinosaur, as you do

As a narrative movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction probably merits a two-out-of-five, at best. Approached purely as a demonstration of the visual splendour possible with IMAX 3D, it deserves full marks. As a sensory experience that combines both those things and everything else you get with a movie, it’s somewhere between the two.

3 out of 5

The fifth Transformers movie, The Last Knight, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday. I’ll be getting it in 3D, of course, and reviewing it at a later date.

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Vixen (2017)

aka Vixen: The Movie

2017 #137
Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Vixen

Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

At times it’s own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

Queen of the jungle

The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen‘s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

3 out of 5

The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

Antz (1998)

2017 #119
Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Antz

I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

A bug's famous voice

Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

3 out of 5

Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

Blade Runner 2022-2048

You’ve probably heard that three short films have been released as part of the promotion for forthcoming sci-fi sequel Blade Runner 2049. More than just trailers, these shorts go some way to bridging the 30-year gap between 2049 and the original Blade Runner. They were released out of sequence over the past couple of months, but here they’re reviewed in chronological order.

Blade Runner: Black Out 2022
(2017)

2017 #130a
Shinichirô Watanabe | 16 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English

Black Out 2022

The first short is an anime directed by Shinichirô Watanabe, best known for Cowboy Bebop and, I guess, helming two of the Animatrix shorts. Set a couple of years after Blade Runner, it tells the story of some Replicant rights activists and their successful attack on LA, which will lead to a ban on Replicant production.

As a story it is, of course, background detail — presumably not essential enough to be included in 2049 proper, but filling in the backstory for fans. It’s the kind of thing you could read about in just a line but is more exciting dramatised. That said, with such a short running time there’s no space to grow attached to characters, so the ultimate effect on the viewer isn’t so different to just reading about the events depicted.

As a short animation, however, it’s a quality production. Animation allows it to do things a live-action short couldn’t — you’d need a blockbuster CGI budget to pull this off for real. It’s a good marriage of form and intent: in the context of a prequel short, it’d be pointless to do an anime of people sat in a room talking. It has a bit of needlessly fiddly story structure at the start (including one of my pet peeves: “two weeks earlier”), but mostly it puts its short running time to decent use. There are a couple of striking, effective images, alongside various nods to the original film — visually, a lot of tributes are paid. Plus, look for cameos by Edward James Olmos’ Gaff and Dave Bautista’s character from 2049.

It may be worth noting that it’s nothing like Cowboy Bebop, either. No surprise — Bebop‘s tone hardly fits the grim world of Blade Runner. If you wanted an anime comparison, it’s more like a Ghost in the Shell short — again, not so surprising given the source similarities.

Despite my complaints about its structure and ultimate purpose, this is probably the best of the three shorts.

4 out of 5

Watch Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 on YouTube here.

2036: Nexus Dawn
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 7 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2036: Nexus Dawn

2049 director Denis Villeneuve introduces each of the three shorts, explaining how he tapped filmmakers he respected to create these little tales. This one is by, to use Villeneuve’s word, his friend Luke Scott — director of Morgan and (most pertinently of all, I suspect) Ridley Scott’s son. We’re in live-action now, as entrepreneur Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) meets with some committee to convince them to re-legalise Replicant production.

It might seem odd, given their very different production styles, but this works well as a pair with 2022. It’s all in the story: the anime is about the final straw that banned Replicants; Nexus Dawn is about how they were brought back. Despite their short form, these films aren’t telling side stories, but revealing major points in Blade Runner‘s future history. There are also several direct references to the black out which further ties the shorts together. It might not be wholly clear in the anime itself, but that event was clearly world-changing. Perhaps that’s why 2022 was initially released last, to pay off the teasing references which feature in both live-action shorts.

For those seeking a tease for 2049, we get an indication of what Jared Leto’s performance will be like. I imagine those who find him inherently annoying will see nothing to challenge their preconception. For the rest of us, he’s okay. He suits the possibly-mad genius role, and thankfully keeps it understated. There’s also a supporting cast of names bigger you’d expect from just a prequel short (Doctor Strange‘s Benedict Wong, Peaky Blinders‘ Ned Dennehy), which I’m not sure adds a huge amount but perhaps indicates the esteem of the Blade Runner name.

Technically, the short itself is well shot — in both content and form, it could conceivably be a deleted scene from the main film. That’s both a blessing and a curse, I guess.

3 out of 5

Watch 2036: Nexus Dawn on YouTube here.

2048: Nowhere to Run
(2017)

2017 #130a
Luke Scott | 6 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English

2048: Nowhere to Run

The final short, again helmed by Scott the Younger, is set just the year before the new film. It introduces us to Dave Bautista’s character, a kindly but down-on-his-luck kinda guy who one day finds himself in a violent altercation that will clearly change his life.

Even more than Nexus Dawn, this feels like a deleted scene — I won’t be at all surprised if this leads directly into the events of 2049. As it’s not dramatising a turning point in history, it feels the most trailer-like of the three shorts. It’s still a little background narrative that’s (presumably) not to he found in the film proper, but it seems to be teasing where 2049 will begin rather than filling in important backstory blanks. Plus, an opening montage of clips from 2049 includes another reference to the black out, again suggesting that the anime is actually the most significant and worthwhile of the three shorts.

Bautista continues to be a surprisingly charismatic actor — even with very little to do here, and keeping it low-key, you warm to him. Perhaps that’s the point of this short: for us to like Sapper, and understand what he’s capable of and why, before his appearance in 2049. Perhaps it’ll even be deserving of a higher rating after seeing Villeneuve’s film. As a film, the side-street setting is probably not that much more logistically complex than Nexus Dawn‘s single room (aside from all the extras involved), but Scott makes it feel more expansive.

At first blush Nowhere to Run feels like the least essential of the three prequels, but we’ll see if that changes with hindsight after viewing 2049.

3 out of 5

Watch 2048: Nowhere to Run on YouTube here.

As a final thought, I’ll note that on Letterboxd I rated all three shorts 3.5 out of 5, and on IMDb gave them the equivalent 7 out of 10. Obviously I’ve separated them slightly here, with the anime getting 4 and the other two getting 3s, which would suggest an even finer gradation of marking (that I then rounded up/down). I don’t know if that’s really the case, but I think the reason why I settled on these differing scores is that the two live-action shorts feel like deleted scenes, while the anime feels like it’s expanding on something that would otherwise just be backstory. In other words, it depicts the most significant event in its own right.

Anyway, perhaps these scores will change after seeing 2049. Whether they do or don’t, all three shorts are essential viewing for fans, but probably inessential for the casual viewer — after all, if they really mattered, they’d be in the film.

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas tomorrow.

Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • 21 (2008)

    2017 #114
    Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    21

    21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

    As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

    Counting cards

    Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

    21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

    3 out of 5

    Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

    aka Desu Nôto: the Last name

    2017 #112
    Shūsuke Kaneko | 135 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Death Note: The Last Name

    Picking up immediately after the first movie, this sequel — part two of two — sees Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the owner of a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing their name, join the team of detectives searching for him. Although he had supposedly proven his innocence, Light is still the prime suspect of genius detective ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama). Light aims to discover L’s real name and write it in his Death Note. He’s aided by the emergence of a second Death Note, wielded by TV host Misa Amane (Erika Toda), who has a crush on Light and agrees to help him. They’re observed and aided by their respective shinigami (death-gods), Ryuk (Shidô Nakamura) and Rem (Shinnosuke Ikehata) — but can supernatural beings be relied on in the end?

    Fundamentally, The Last Name resumes Light and L’s cat-and-mouse game in the same style as the first movie — in case you didn’t get it, near the start of the film their figurative chess game is represented by a literal chess game. This time there are the added complications of Light being on L’s team and the second Death Note being in play, which at least adds some variety. Light continues to manipulate the book’s rules to help prove his innocence and achieve his goals, which is perhaps where the films are at their most inventive — for example, you forget about the Death Note if you lose possession of it, but regain those memories if you touch it again, so what if you could find a way to give it up, prove your innocence conclusively, and get it back later? The endless games and counter-games begin to get a bit tiresome after a while (together the duology pushes four-and-a-half hours), but they do eventually make for quite a surprising climax.

    Figurative chess, literal chess

    Produced hot on the heels of its predecessor (see my previous review for how ridiculously tight the production schedule was), it’s no wonder that The Last Name feels very much of a piece with the last movie. The major downside of this is L’s alleged genius-level intellect, which was quite ridiculous last time but is now off the charts as he frequently makes entirely unfounded leaps of logic. All of his ‘deductions’ are correct, of course, because the story wants him to be a genius, but he has no reason to be. No other character ever calls him out on it. Even when events would seem to prove him wrong, other characters, who should know better and stop him, let him keep going. He has a starting hypothesis (“Light is Kira”) and, whenever something disproves it, he pulls a reason out of thin air to keep himself being correct. He guesses right every time, but for no good reason. He should’ve been kicked off the case for being loony several times over.

    Something else that’s more noticeable in The Last Name is how this series treats its female characters terribly. (Spoilers for the first film follow.) At the end of the first movie, it’s revealed that Light murdered his girlfriend in cold blood and feels absolutely no remorse, but he’s still positioned as the hero. In this film, every woman that turns up loves either him or his Kira alter ego. When they’re not working to help him, they prance around in schoolgirl outfits, or lounge about showing off their legs, or are chained up in revealing rags. They’re all a bit dippy, too, happy to do whatever Light/Kira says just because he’s deigned to interact with them. Conversely, almost all the menfolk are positioned as geniuses. It’s not outright distasteful, but you don’t have to think too hard to find it a bit eye-roll-worthy at the very least.

    Me Light you long time

    Although The Last Name seems to conclusively end its story, that hasn’t stopped the live-action incarnation of the franchise rolling on: a couple of years later there was a spin-off movie starring L (I have it on DVD and was going to review it this week, but, frankly, I couldn’t stomach anymore of the brat right now), and in 2016 it was revived with a miniseries that led into a fourth movie (no sign of a UK release for either of those, though).

    As I said at the end of my review of part one, it seems clear these Death Note films were hampered by their hurried production — greater thought at the writing stage could iron out some of the issues I’ve outlined. Conversely, as it’s adapted from an existing work, it’s equally possible the problems are inherent to the material and more time wouldn’t’ve made any difference. Maybe the imminent US version will have reworked it to positive effect…

    3 out of 5

    The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix tomorrow.

    Death Note (2006)

    aka Desu Nôto

    2017 #110
    Shūsuke Kaneko | 121 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Death Note

    Something of a worldwide phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga and is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, but it was also adapted into a series of live-action films, the first of which actually predates the anime.

    In case the whole thing passed you by, it’s the story of student Light Yagami (Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara) who discovers a supernatural notebook, the titular Death Note, that was dropped by death-god Ryuk (voiced by Shidou Nakamura). Whenever a name is written in the Death Note, that person drops dead. Light begins to use it to execute criminals who’ve escaped justice, a pattern of killings that is quickly noticed by the police and the media, who dub the mysterious murderer “Kira”. While much of the public agree with his actions, the police are stumped in their investigations. Also on the case is a reclusive genius detective known only as ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama), who quickly suspects Light of being Kira, initiating a game of cat and mouse between the pair.

    It’s a good setup for a story, a premise that invites moral conundrums and “what would you do?” questions. I can see why it appealed to young people, too — what youth hasn’t wished certain annoying people would just drop dead? (Some places banned the manga because its popularity was leading to kids making their own Death Note books, writing in names of classmates and teachers. Obviously they didn’t actually work, but it was a “psychological health” thing.)

    A little Light reading

    There’s not much plot in that idea, mind: the Death Note is so all-powerful that there’s little drama in Light using it, especially as he isn’t morally conflicted himself — he’s sure he’s doing the right thing, despite people around him voicing their disagreement with Kira. The story therefore comes to focus on the battle between Light and L, a pair of self-proclaimed geniuses who work to constantly outwit each other. This is where the film begins to falter, because a lot of their supposed intelligence comes from leaps of logic designed to make them look clever.

    It’ll also be a problem for any viewers who need a likeable protagonist: although Light starts out aiming to do good, he’s gradually led to be a right evil bastard; on the other side, L is an irritating brat, walking around barefoot, weirdly crouching on chairs, always stuffing his face with sugary treats, and speaking cryptically to the level-headed coppers forced to work with him. I’ve said before that I don’t think a film necessarily needs a likeable hero to work, but it does feel odd that there’s no one to root for here. Partly I don’t think the film’s sure whose side we should be on. It’s made to feel like it should be Light’s, but the film also knows he’s not got the strongest moral compass.

    One L of a detective

    This “duel of the geniuses” eventually comes to a head in a neatly-conceived climax, but one which doesn’t wrap everything up — the film ends on a very “end of part one” note. Although this film is simply called Death Note and the second was released here as Death Note 2, in Japan they were marketed as a “two-part event” and released just months apart. So I guess the cliffhanger ending is fair enough — it’s not an attempt at launching a franchise (an annoying trend when sequels aren’t produced), but is instead no different than The Matrix sequels, or Kill Bill, or so on.

    That said, the production schedule to make that happen is somewhat interesting, especially as it clearly had an influence over the film’s quality. The duology was produced at extraordinary speed. The concept of a two-film adaptation was greenlit in November 2005, Shūsuke Kaneko signed on as director in December, and they were shooting by the start of February 2006. Film 1 was shot in February and March, then came out in the middle of June, just three months later. Film 2 was still being written during Film 1’s post-production, before shooting in June and July, and was released at the start of November, just two months later. There were six assistant directors, including people who’d already graduated to helming their own films, just to handle the volume of work required to fit in the tight schedule — two major movies from script to screen in under 12 months. It’s no wonder the production looks a bit TV-ish at times, with somewhat dull cinematography and Ryuk realised through cheap and cheerful CGI. More vitally, the script or edit probably could’ve done with greater attention, to iron out some of those logic leaps and improve the pace in the middle.

    Demonic CGI

    The final work still manages to be an enjoyable thriller with a supernatural conceit — a film which definitely has its moments, especially as Light begins to work with the Death Note’s rules to creative effect — but it needed more polish, the legacy of its speedy production resulting in an array of niggles.

    3 out of 5

    The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix this Friday.

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Money Monster (2016)
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – Big Screen Edition (2009)
  • Headshot (2016)


    Money Monster
    (2016)

    2017 #36
    Jodie Foster | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Money Monster

    Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a silly financial advice TV show, produced by his mate Patty (Julia Roberts), who one day is taken hostage live on air by a guy (Jack O’Connell) who followed one of Gates’ tips and lost big.

    Director Jodie Foster’s topical thriller takes aim at both Wall Street finagling and satirising media consumption, but has bitten off more than it can chew. Some of its points are on target, they’re just so obvious it barely matters. At least it works quite effectively as a straightforward throwback-style thriller (it’s a bit ’90s), especially on a couple of occasions where it subverts expectations — like getting the hostage taker’s pregnant wife on the phone to talk him down, only she starts laying into him; or when the charming TV host pleads with the public to raise a company’s stock price in order to save his life, but the price goes down. That said, in the grand scheme of the movie these are quite minor niceties — the overall narrative goes exactly where you’d expect it to.

    Perhaps its greatest point comes at the end: the Wall Street guy is exposed as a total villain… and everyone just goes back to their lives. We all know these people do bad shit, but because everyone’s just kind of accepted it (and the people with power to perhaps do something about it are disinclined to attempt it, for $ whatever $ reason $), they’re allowed to just keep on going. You can shout about it all you want and however you want — by making a thriller movie with big-name stars, perhaps — but the best you can hope for is a shrugged “yeah, we know, it sucks”.

    3 out of 5

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    Big Screen Edition

    (2009)

    Rewatchathon 2017 #19
    Michael Bay | 150 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen IMAX

    “Big Screen Edition”? This is the version of the second Transformers movie that was released theatrically on IMAX, and later made available on Blu-ray exclusively at Walmart in the US. Which is why I’m only watching it now, when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy. As well as including two big sequences at a more IMAX-esque ratio, it’s also extended — by 30 whole seconds!

    30 seconds isn’t much in the first, and even a die-hard fan would struggle to spot them because they’re frames-long additions here and there. The full details can be found here, should you care. The expanded aspect ratio of the the IMAX scenes are more noticeable. I love a changing aspect ratio, and these are effective at adding scale to the two sequences they’re used in — the midway forest battle that (spoilers!) results in Optimus’ temporary death, and part of the climactic battle. On the downside, two action scenes in a two-and-a-half-hour movie isn’t very much, really.

    As for the film itself, I don’t know if I enjoyed it more than the first time, because I gave it quite a kind review then, but I kind of liked it (enough) for what it is — a big, dumb spectacle. It’s still too long, poorly written (in part a victim of the writers’ strike), and has all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable bits. It’s not a good film, but it is a decent(-ish) movie.

    3 out of 5

    Headshot
    (2016)

    2017 #92
    Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Indonesia / Indonesian & English | 18

    Headshot

    The Raid’s Iko Uwais stars in this actioner as Ishmael, a man who washes ashore with amnesia thanks to a bullet wound in his head — so far, so Bourne. Bad people are out to get him, of course, and when they kidnap the kindly doctor who nursed him back to health (Chelsea Islan), Ishmael goes on a violent rampage to save her and uncover his past.

    Beginning with a focus on the sweet kind-of-love-story between Ishmael and the doctor, Headshot has a slightly different feel to your usual beat-em-up-athon at first, almost like an indie romance drama. That changes pretty sharpish, of course, and we’re thrown into an array of highly choreographed punch-ups. It’s pretty entertaining as that, with some inventive bits here and there, but nothing to challenge the pair of films Uwais is best known for.

    Put it this way: I enjoyed it while it was on, but I sold the Blu-ray on eBay the next day.

    3 out of 5