Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

2018 #96
Mandie Fletcher | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

“Most movies are a script in search of some money,” said Jon Plowman, producer of every episode of Ab Fab, “but this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of Ab Fab, lots of financiers threw their hats in the ring.” A cruel critic might therefore be tempted to accuse the cast and crew of doing this poorly-received film continuation of the popular TV series “just for the money”, but I think that would be disingenuous — I think there was a real desire to put an appropriate capstone on the beloved sitcom. Whether that merited a 90-minute theatrical release, or would’ve been better served as a 60-minute TV special, is another matter…

Primarily, I think Ab Fab: The Movie is targeted at fans of the series, and isn’t really designed to stand on its own feet as an independent movie. I’ve only seen some of the TV show, and I think that was essential to understanding who all the characters were, how they were connected, and why they behaved in certain ways. Even then, I felt like there was stuff flying over my head because I haven’t seen all of the original episodes and/or because it’s been some years since I did watch any.

So, I’m no expert on Ab Fab, but it’s always been my impression that when it started it was satirising the fashion world of the era (i.e. the ’90s). However, as it’s gone on it seems to have become about itself, as it were — its own characters and in-jokes, rather than any commentary on the wider world. That’s what we get here, therefore: basically, a 25th anniversary special amped up to full-blown movie status. One of the selling points for it as a big-screen variant was that it’s Eddie and Patsy on the French Riviera, continuing the age-old tradition of big-screen outings for British sitcoms being just “send the characters abroad”. Despite that, the first half is still set in London, and it’s pretty funny. When they do finally head overseas, it doesn’t exactly drag, but it seems a bit desperate.

Wheels on fire, off screen

In terms of broader relevance, creator/writer/star Jennifer Saunders has spoken about how the film was supposed to be about ageing; about, apparently, the “reality” of these youth-obsessed characters getting old when they don’t know how to. Well, there’s not much reality in it it, given the typically outlandish situations the already-exaggerated characters find themselves in (for example, the emotional climax comes while Eddie and Patsy are trapped in a tiny van sinking in a swimming pool). That doesn’t mean such OTT antics aren’t amusing, but expecting an examination of the human condition from them is a bit… unlikely.

A more notable feature is the insane number of cameos — “around 60”, according to this list on IMDb. I guess the notoriety of Ab Fab attracts big names… though plenty of them, er, aren’t. Basically, if you’re not a Brit, assume everyone who pops up for only one scene and opens their mouth is some degree of famous here. There are some international (i.e. American) faces too, though, to remind you of the series’ worldwide cult appeal.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it definitely leans into being a fan-friendly exercise, which I’m not sure was appropriate for a belated big-screen debut. It’s not an ideal starting point for the uninitiated, then, but it’s not a terrible send-off for existing fans.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on BBC One tonight at 9pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

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Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970)

aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana

2018 #253
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 15

Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming

Unlike the Zatoichi films, where the English titles basically ignore the Japanese originals most of the time, the Sartana films come with English names that are pretty literal translations of the original Italian… except this one, whose original title translates as A Cloud of Dust… A Cry of Death… Sartana Arrives. Personally, I like that better — it’s more dramatic. Neither title particularly evokes the film itself, mind, which is notable as the final instalment in the official Sartana series.

The film starts very well, with the opening 20 minutes devoted to an entertaining prison break situation: Sartana (the likably cocky Gianni Garko) gets himself thrown in jail on purpose, because another inmate has (somehow) called for his help. He’s been accused of murdering his business partner to pocket the loot from a deal-gone-sour, and now everyone wants to get their mitts on that money, including the corrupt sheriff that’s locked him up. So Sartana breaks him out, sends him into hiding, and sets about investigating what really went down.

The plot seems relatively straightforward at first — it looks like it’ll be some kind of murder mystery, with Sartana cast as the detective. There are even multiple flashbacks to the night of the crime, with different accounts revealing different information for the detective to piece together — so far, so Agatha Christie. (Roberto Curti’s essay in the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release boldly compares it to Rashomon, but that’s a bit generous — the flashbacks don’t really offer conflicting versions of events, but piece together a timeline from characters having turned up at different times.)

Sartana locked up

A whodunit offers a nice, clear structure: you interrogate all the suspects, you work out who did it. Make the confrontations shootouts instead of verbal sparring and you’ve got a Sartana movie… right? Sadly, no — it’s not long before the story devolves into the series’ usual double-cross-athon runaround. The initial clarity gives way to another massively over-complicated and sometimes unfollowable plot involving a large cast of characters, all of whom turn out to be involved somehow and eventually wind up dead. It feels a bit rinse-and-repeat at this point.

Fortunately, the devil’s in the details — not the details of the plot, which, as I said, are baffling, but in the film itself. There are some amusing moments, like the guy who keeps claiming he’s the best shot in the West before being shown up by someone else, or a novelty wind-up cigarette lighter than Sartana finds some clever uses for. Then, for the finale, Sartana whips out his massive organ in the middle of the street to show off its hidden talents. By which I mean a church organ which, by some clever manipulation of the keys, turns out to be full of deadly tricks. The series has always had a penchant for gadgets and impossible displays of skill, but this is certainly the most cartoonish.

Greed

Arrow’s blurb for Light the Fuse says it’s “equal parts playful, violent, inventive and entertaining.” I don’t disagree those parts are present and of equal size, but their size is relatively small. They claim it “brings the series to a fine conclusion”; that it “sees Sartana sign off on a high [in] one of the best entries in the series”. I’d almost go so far as to say the opposite — it was one of my least favourite. There’s fun along the way, to be sure, but the plot borders on the meaningless and therefore becomes a tad boring. It’s not a bad film, as this series goes, but it certainly feels like a generic one.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

aka just Mowgli

2018 #252
Andy Serkis | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Hollywood has a long history of different people coming up with the same idea resulting in competing films — asteroid-themed Armageddon and Deep Impact is perhaps the best-known example. But often when the ideas are too similar, one of the projects gets scrapped — Baz Luhrmann ditched plans for an Alexander the Great biopic once Oliver Stone’s got underway, for instance. When Disney and Warner Bros both announced CGI-driven live-action adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, I don’t know about anyone else, but I figured one studio would blink and we’d end up with just one film. That didn’t happen, and both movies entered production around the same time, and were even originally scheduled to come out the same year. In this respect it was Warner who blinked first, putting their version back to allow more time to finesse the motion-capture-driven animation, while Disney got theirs out on schedule. Unfortunately for Warner, it was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, putting their version in a rather precarious position.

So when the news broke that Mowgli (as the film had been retitled to help distance it from Disney’s) was to be released direct to Netflix, well, I don’t think anyone was surprised: the streaming service has become a regular dumping ground for movies that studios have lost confidence in, seemingly happy to pay for any castoff a major studio throws their way. Apparently that’s not what went down this time, though: Mowgli had a theatrical release date set and the promotional campaign had begun, when Netflix approached Warner saying they loved the film and wanted to buy it. I guess the certainty of a large Netflix payday, vs. the gamble of box office success on a film that could be seen by the general public as a Johnny-come-lately cash-in rip-off, was an easy choice for Warner to make. And so here we are.

A legend in the jungle

Mowgli (as it’s always called in the film itself, the subtitle presumably being a Netflix marketing addition) has a story that will be broadly familiar to anyone who’s seen any other version of The Jungle Book, most especially that recent Disney one: the eponymous boy is orphaned when his parents are murdered by man-eating tiger Shere Khan, but he’s rescued by black panther Bagheera, who takes him to be raised by a pack of wolves. Shere Khan wants to kill the man-cub, however, and looks for an opportunity to separate him fro the wolves’ protection. The difference, then, lies in the details: where Disney’s version was PG-rated and family-friendly, director Andy Serkis has given this a darker, PG-13 spin. It’s not an Adult movie by any means, but it’s definitely suited to slightly older children. That said, there’s a revelation at the 80-minute mark which is horrendously misjudged, and is liable to upset children of all ages (i.e. including some adults too).

That moment aside, the film’s more realistic tone manifests in multiple ways. One is characterisation, most notably of the bear Baloo. As we know him from Disney’s takes, he’s decidedly laid-back and chummy, casually teaching Mowgli some ways of the jungle. Here, he’s more of a drill sergeant for the wolf pack, explicitly training Mowgli (and his wolf brothers) in the skills required to fully join the pack. He has a softer side — he definitely cares for the man-cub — but this never manifests in the Disney-ish way. Elsewhere, there’s a drive at some kind of psychological realism for our hero. With Mowgli driven out for his own safety (again, an example of the animal characters being somewhat harsher than in Disney), he ends up in a human village. There, he comes to realise he doesn’t truly belong in the world of animals… but nor does he truly belong in the world of men. This internal conflict about his place in the world comes to underpin the climax, and arguably makes it superior to the over-elaborate forest-fire spectacle of Disney’s film.

Not burning bright, but he is in a forest of the night

The realism extends to the overall visual style, too. Where Disney’s live-action version was all shot on L.A. sound stages, with the young actor playing Mowgli frequently the only real thing on screen, Serkis and co travelled overseas and actually built sets on location to shoot a significant portion of the film. Accompanied by cinematography that often goes for a muted colour palette, it seems clear the aim was to make a film that is perhaps not “darker” in the now-somewhat-clichéd sense, but more grounded and less cartoonish than certain other adaptations.

Unfortunately, Serkis made one design decision that threatens to scupper the entire endeavour: having motion-captured famous actors for most of the animal roles (including the likes of Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Naomie Harris, and, of course, Serkis himself), someone thought it would be a good idea to try to integrate the actors’ features into the animal faces. The result is… disturbing. There’s so much realism in the overall design, but then they have these faces that are part realistic, part cartoon, part like some kind of grotesque prosthetic. It is so bad that it genuinely undermines the entire movie, for two reasons: one, it’s a distraction, making you constantly try to parse what you’re watching and how you feel about it; and two, a more serious take on the material asks for us to make a more serious connection to the characters, and that’s hard when they look so horrid. The section in the human village — which, by rights, should be “the boring bit” because it doesn’t involve fun animal action — is probably the film’s strongest thanks to its location photography and real actors making it so much more tangibly real. It suggests how much more likeable the entire film would be if they’d gone for real-world-ish animal designs — like, ironically, the Disney film did. (Now, that might’ve got away with cartoonish semi-human animals thanks to its lighter tone. Or it might not, because these are monstrous.)

Monstrosity!

It sounds petty to pick one highly specific element and say it ruins the film, but I really felt like it did. It’s a barrier to enjoying the bits that work (Rohan Chand is often superb as Mowgli; the always-brilliant Matthew Rhys is brilliant as always; there’s some welcome complexity and nuance to several characters and situations), and therefore it does nothing to help gloss over any other nits you want to pick (Serkis is miscast; Frieda Pinto is completely wasted; Cumberbatch is a little bit Smaug Mk.II; that revelation I mentioned back in paragraph three is brutal and I can’t believe it was okayed by the studio). Also, on a somewhat personal note, I felt there were times you could tell Serkis had made the film in 3D, but Netflix haven’t bothered to release it in that format (outside of some very limited theatrical screenings) — as someone who owns a 3D TV because, you know, I enjoy it, that miffed me.

On the whole, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustratingly imperfect experience. I believe it’s fundamentally a unique-enough variation on the material that it could’ve escaped the shadow of Disney’s film, but a few misguided creative decisions have dragged it down almost irreparably.

3 out of 5

Mowgli is available on Netflix worldwide now.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

2018 #250
Boots Riley | 111 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Sorry to Bother You

It felt like everyone was on about Sorry to Bother You early this year, after it was released in the US in July. It’s taken ’til now to make it to UK screens — I don’t know if that was a conscious delay, or if the outpouring of recommendations from critics and audiences on social media had something to do with creating demand for distribution. Anyway, it’s fortunate that, as a small movie, most of the discussion (that I saw) was about urging people to see it and not giving away the twist (naturally, this review is equally spoiler-free), because it is indeed a helluva turn to come across unaware. As for the rest of the movie, well, I was less convinced.

Set in a like-our-world-but-not-quite present day Oakland, the film centres around Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a down-on-his-luck chap who lives in his uncle’s garage with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He manages to land a lowly job as a telemarketer, but struggles to sell anything. As his equally unsuccessful colleagues attempt to unionise, Cash discovers the key to the job and is soon on his way up the company, where there are dark secrets to be discovered…

That’s the simple version, anyway. First-time writer-director Boots Riley clearly has a lot on his mind, and it seems he wanted to say it all in this one film. The unifying theme seems to be “mega-corporations treat their workers like slaves and will go to extraordinary lengths to exploit them”, which is a worthwhile point but hardly a revelatory one. In the film, the concept is primarily satirised by the company Worryfree, which offers customers a home, employment, and food for life, in exchange for living in their facilities, working their jobs, eating their food, and not getting paid because they’re providing all you need. As a business concept you can kinda see the appeal, actually, but obviously it’s a form of slavery really. Capitalism is bad, y’all.

Too young for this shit

Naturally, with a black writer-director and black main cast, there are connections to be drawn out to history and the present black experience, and here the film finds somewhat more subtle and fertile ground. For example, the key to success in business turns out to be for Cash to use his “white voice” when selling — sounding literally like a white man, to the extent that Riley has these scenes dubbed by a white actor (in Cash’s case, David Cross; other character’s white voices include Patton Oswalt and Lily James). As I say, it’s only “somewhat” subtle, but it’s effective. The film’s best scene, for my money, sees Cash attend a party thrown by Worryfree’s founder (Armie Hammer, perfectly cast), who urges Cash to rap — because all black guys can rap, right? Cash can’t. He tries. It’s painful. Then he hits upon an idea… I shall say no more (partly because I’d just have to censor it), but it’s both hilarious and true.

As for the aforementioned big twist, it’s absolutely barmy and out of left-field. Its utter craziness I have no problem with, but for me the film seems to fall apart after that point, as if including such a batshit insane idea was felt to be enough. Riley doesn’t seem to quite know where to go with it, except, frankly, some pretty obvious places. Arguably, the twist is too out there — it’s shocking and funny at first, but it completely disconnects the film from reality (and the connection was a little loose in the first place, thanks to the way all other parts are satirically presented). It makes the bad guys into cartoon villains with a crazy plan, rather than the scheming corporate overlords we recognise from real life. There’s plenty of other stuff in the film that doesn’t have 100% fidelity to reality, but they work in the name of satire. The twist isn’t really satire, it’s barminess for the sake of barminess; and in that sense I’m down with it, but it also means it somewhat undermines the film’s satirical goals, and that’s a shame.

Does he look worry-free to you?

While the finale might be the most obvious example, this lack of focus permeates the film, with scenes that are a total aside or subplots that go literally nowhere. The most egregious example is perhaps a mystery VIP room in the shitty bar the characters drink in. It’s featured in one early scene, doesn’t introduce any characters or plots, and isn’t related to any of the film’s themes — it just is; a sketch-like vignette of silliness. Most viewers probably forget about it, even, because it occurs so early on and has literally nothing to do with anything else that happens, but that’s exactly what’s wrong with it, and why it should probably have been cut.

Riley clearly has a surfeit of ideas, which sometimes works to the film’s merit — there are effective, memorable visuals and concepts, a few solid characters (Stanfield is great as just an ordinary guy getting swept along by shit; the kind of person most of us would be, I feel), and a bunch of funny lines and exchanges. But there are so many different things all being rammed onto the screen at once that it becomes a tumult of stuff that the first-timer in charge can’t quite control (as a counterpoint to Stanfield, the regularly-brilliant Thompson struggles gamely to bring some depth to her thinly-sketched girlfriend/performance artist character, and can only partially succeed).

Sorry to Bother You seems to lack the behind-the-scenes acumen to make everything come together as a single, focused movie. It’s certainly an interesting film (well, apart from when I began to get a bit bored, frankly, as it dragged itself through that surprisingly predictable finale), and I can see why it got Film Twitter talking back on its US release, but I don’t think it coalesces into a fully satisfying whole.

3 out of 5

Sorry to Bother You makes its belated debut in UK cinemas tomorrow.

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay (1970)

aka Buon funerale amigos!… paga Sartana / “Have a nice funeral on me, Amigo” …Sartana

2018 #229
Giuliano Carnimeo* | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Italy & Spain / English | 12

Have a Good Funeral, My Friend… Sartana Will Pay

Gianni Garko’s back in the saddle as the titular roguish hero for the fourth official Sartana movie, which is apparently regarded as the best one — that’s what the guys on Arrow’s commentary track say, anyway, and it’s borne out by viewer ratings on websites like IMDb. I can’t say I felt similarly, though after listening to that audio commentary, their enthusiasm and highlighting of the good stuff did help increase my enjoyment.

The plot this time sees Sartana arrive at a remote shack just after its occupants have been massacred. Turns out one of the victims owned the land, previously thought to be worthless but now revealed to contain a gold mine, and everyone in the nearby town is eager to acquire it. As the deceased landowner’s daughter arrives to claim the property, Sartana sets about investigating who was really behind the slaughter, and possibly get involved in the land purchase himself.

That’s more or less the basis of the story, anyway. The plot has a “made up as it goes along” feel — it’s basically an endless series of “twists” where every character is revealed to be involved somehow, one by one, and there’s always something happening. I mean, at one point a whole gang of outlaws turn up merely to instigate another shoot-out and extend the running time by about five minutes. If you were to stop and unpick the plot, there’s actually quite a neat twist at the end, but it’s easy to miss its significance when there are so many other double-crosses and reversals going on. On the audio commentary they argue that, although people accuse these films of being badly plotted, they actually fit together and abide by their own rules, they just don’t unfold in the way you might normally expect. That’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

Sartana so cool

The affair is at least enlivened by some inventive and fun moments, which do eventually begin to mount up in such a way that the film seems to improve as it goes on. Highlights include Sartana using playing cards as a weapon, and one of the villains having a trick gun so ingenious even Sartana pauses to admire it.

Another member of the guest cast is a Chinese casino owner, played by Gordon Wang, who’s a bit of a “yellow peril” Orientalist cliché: a scheming gangster who always quotes Confucius and unleashes a barrage of kung fu at the end. Whether you find this offensive or let it slide (or even enjoy it) as being part of the era when the film was made is up to you. I think it could be worse: the guy isn’t a total villain, nor totally stupid (no more so than any of the white characters, certainly), and he does get some solid verbal sparring with Sartana (as well as the more literal sparring of the kung fu climax). At least he’s memorable.

Also memorable is a great Morricone-esque score by Bruno Nicolai (a friend and long-time collaborator of Morricone’s, so that explains that). There’s decent direction from Giuliano Carnimeo, though it’s not as immediately striking as in his two previous Sartana films. There are still a few well put-together sequences, not least the pre-titles massacre. According to Garko (quoted in Arrow’s booklet), cinematographer Stelvio Massi “had a significant weight in the direction of the ensuing Sartana films. It can almost be said that those films were made by two directors, Carnimeo and Massi. Carnimeo had a great sense of humour […] But, as regards the technical part, the camera movements were conceived almost entirely by Stelvio Massi.” One particular example of Massi’s superb camerawork comes in a scene highlighted by the commentary: it’s just a simple three-way dialogue exchange, but Massi lenses it in a single take that uses zooms, pans, and reflections in a mirror to create different close-ups and two shots, all within one take.

Sartana about to pay for more funerals

Maybe Have a Good Funeral is an above-average Sartana film after all. Or maybe the whole series exists within quite a narrow quality range and so it’s swings and roundabouts which you say is better than the others. At least the film’s extravagant title has direct relevance for once: a running gag sees Sartana pay for lavish funerals for everyone he kills — and, naturally, he kills a lot of people. At the other end of the film, the print used for Arrow’s Blu-ray concludes with the word “fine” appearing on screen, which about sums it up.

3 out of 5

* Credited as Anthony Ascott. ^

The Greatest Showman (2017)

2018 #237
Michael Gracey | 105 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Greatest Showman

There’s nothing inherently festive about The Greatest Showman (if it has even one scene set around Christmas, I can’t immediately recall it), yet it was initially released on Boxing Day last year and now kicks off December’s premieres on Sky Cinema, and somehow the association feels entirely fitting. I guess it’s something to do with the tone and style of the film itself: a big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery musical — just the kind of thing many people like to wallow in during the big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery end-of-year festival. It’s almost a John Lewis advert in feature film form, only with upbeat original songs instead of whispery female covers of old hits.

Inspired very, very, very loosely by a true story, the eponymous gentleman is P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a man of low station in mid-19th century America who, via a cunning fraud, manages to buy a building that he turns into a museum of curiosities. With attendance poor, he adds a floor show featuring acrobatics and freaks. It’s slated by the critics, but curious audiences flock en masse. Barnum is suddenly a massive success — but at what cost to his personal life?

Well, virtually none, because there’s barely any jeopardy to be found here (apart from a little forced something to push it into a third act). But jeopardy is not the point of The Greatest Showman, which is all about being a crowd-pleasing a good time — like the show-within-the-show, it was poorly received by critics but a huge word-of-mouth success: it never made it to #1 at the US box office, but nonetheless stayed in the top ten for 11 weeks and earned $434 million worldwide; it’s soundtrack album was such a hit that they’ve already released another album of cover versions. It’s a phenomenon, basically, and I do think the lack of worry or tension in the story is a contributing factor, especially in these troubling times. That kind of lightweightness doesn’t please the critically-minded, but it doesn’t bother those simply after a good time. And why should it?

The greatest show

It’s a Musical through and through, the movie equivalent of a broad stage grin and jazz hands. The numbers are of a different ilk to traditional Broadway style, but not misplaced — it’s modern chart-pop style songs and music video choreography, wrapped up in a big showy old-school musical vibe. I know everyone’s latched onto This Is Me as the film’s anthem, and Rewrite the Stars earned a single release because it’s a pop love song sung by kid-friendly Zac Efron and Zendaya, but the one number that really works for me is opener/closer The Greatest Show (it’s even better on the soundtrack, because it isn’t awkwardly sliced in two with the rest of the movie shoved in between, as it is on screen). If that song doesn’t end up being co-opted for opening ceremonies and things like that, it’ll be kind of a shame. And if I was to point to a runner-up favourite, I’d go for The Other Side purely for how its staged: a barroom duet between Jackman and Efron with impressive drinkography. And talking of the songs, the Honest Trailer contains some excellent spoofs of them.

Still probably best known as surly superhero Wolverine, Jackman was an established musical theatre star before his big-screen breakthrough, so this stuff is very much within his skill set — indeed, as his recently-announced world tour could attest, this show of song and dance may be more in his comfort zone than the superhero shenanigans. Either way, that he’s so effortlessly consummate at both proves he’s a performer of underestimated range. Less remarkable as allrounders are former Disney brats Efron (as a bored rich kid roped into Barnum’s enterprise) and Zendaya (whose qualifier for a freakshow seems to be that she’s somewhat dark skinned), but they’re perfectly adequate for their poppy against-all-odds romantic subplot. Less at home is Michelle Williams — not that she’s bad, but seeing her smiling and happy is weird

Drinkography

Altogether, I can see why The Greatest Showman was unpopular with critics but a huge hit with audiences — it’s a proper crowd-pleaser; a big, cheesy, easy extravaganza, similar to its pop-style music. That’s not the sort of thing critics are enamoured of, but it is the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of the masses. On the whole, it didn’t appeal to me — there were things it could’ve done better without betraying what it was aiming for, I think, like that total lack of risk in the plot, but also things I was never going to like, such as the music style — but it did have its moments.

3 out of 5

The Greatest Showman will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

2018 #225
J.A. Bayona | 128 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

It’s three years after the events of Jurassic World and the dinosaurs who overran Isla Nublar have basically been left alone while the rest of the world goes about its business. But now there’s a problem: the island’s previously inactive volcano is about to erupt, wiping out the dinosaurs… again. Former director of the park Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) now works for a charity struggling to convince people to save the dinos, where she’s contacted by Mills (Rafe Spall), a representative of Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the one-time business partner of park founder Hammond who helped initiate the whole bringing-dinosaurs-back-from-the-dead palaver. They’re sending people to the island to rescue as many dinosaurs as they can, but they need Claire’s help. Naturally she agrees, and so along with ex-velociraptor-wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) and a motley crew of supporting cast members, they head back to the island… but it soon turns out Mills & co may have a nasty ulterior motive for wanting to save the dinosaurs…

Although there are shades of the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, in this setup, I think Fallen Kingdom does enough different that any similarities aren’t excessively problematic. Indeed, it’s got its own array of flaws for us to contend with first. It’s like someone assembled all the ingredients specified by a recipe, but instead of following the instructions they just bunged everything together haphazardly, and so the resulting dish seems like it should be right but is somehow just… wrong.

Letting sleeping T-rexes lie

To be less metaphorical, I think Fallen Kingdom is built on decent ideas and concepts, and it’s executed with some stylish direction by franchise newcomer J.A. Bayona (including a couple of particularly good sequences, like a tense oner in a sinking gyrosphere), but it’s all let down by a terrible screenplay from Jurassic World co-writers Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The story is poorly constructed — not in the sense that it’s unfollowable, but in that it’s wonkily put-together, frequently showcasing scenes that are nothing but exposition, with a pace and emphasis that feels unbalanced. Not unrelatedly, the quality of the dialogue is very weak, lacking in character or plausibility, or, failing the latter, memorableness. Sure, there’s the odd line the talented cast can make work (Howard gets a mini-monologue about the first time you saw a dinosaur that’s almost really good), but most of what comes out of their mouth is perfunctory. If they’d bothered to hire some solid writers, instead of just People Who Have Ideas, then maybe those ideas could’ve been turned into a cohesive whole that’d be a worthy sequel. Heck, even getting someone in to polish up this draft could’ve helped a lot. Instead, Fallen Kingdom is a bunch of decent concepts for plots, subplots, themes, and visuals, haphazardly bunged together with half-arsed execution.

In terms of particularly egregious examples, the standout for me is the subplot with Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie. No spoilers, but her storyline is no more than a (too clearly telegraphed) twist and a thematic resolution, which is in need of an actual story to give it meaning and work it up to being an actual theme of the movie in the way they clearly want it to be. What could be a meaningful finale for her character is rendered moot by the fact it has no genuine build-up, not to mention they had to throw another lead character’s moral development under a bus in order to get there (for a more spoilersome discussion of this point, check out Andrew Ellard’s Tweetnotes).

Clawesome

It’s not just subplots that falter: the inciting incident (volcano is going to wipe out dinos; do we have a responsibility to save what we created, or is this nature course-correcting?) is a very rich premise with potential for debate; but other than stating those two positions, the film does nothing with it. It’s just there, an excuse to go back to the island and get the dinosaurs out, ready for the next part of the plot. This is probably why many viewers seem to find the first half perfunctory, but the second half — where the film takes a sharp turn into a Gothic-ish ‘haunted’ house movie — to be something fresh. Like so many of the film’s other ideas, I think it’s a good concept bungled in execution. It coasts by on imagery alone, Bayona achieving the look he’s after, but without Connolly and Trevorrow backing it up by making the situation work as a story, or for the characters. One example from this section: the scene of Maisie hiding in bed as the the dinosaur inches closer, which was featured so widely in the trailers. It’s a great visual, combining childhood fears and notions of protection (“if I’m under the covers nothing can get me”) with genuine threat and terror… but the film has to jump through hoops to make it happen — it’s only there because someone had an idea for the visual and they shoehorned it in, not because it makes any sense in context.

On a similar level is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as fan-favourite character Dr Ian Malcolm. He’s ostensibly contributing to that save-or-not debate I mentioned, but as that goes nowhere his appearance is equally pointless; no more than fan service — it feels like a tease; an excuse to put him in the trailer. A short featurette included on the Blu-ray gives some indication of what the filmmakers were actually trying for here (some of Malcolm’s dialogue is lifted from the writing of Michael Crichton, the goal being to link back to the franchise’s originator and reiterate his “science gone wrong” theme), but it doesn’t come off. Worst of all, I didn’t feel like Goldblum was actually playing Malcolm — it’s the same actor, obviously, but not the same character. Was he phoning it in? He was only on set for one day, after all. Or maybe it was just terribly written. I mean, on the evidence of the rest of the film…

It's getting hot in there

Fallen Kingdom is not the outright disaster some have painted it as, but it could’ve been much better. There are so many things it almost gets right — for another example, it’s very much planned as Part 2 of a trilogy, but it feels like real effort has been made to make it a film that works on its own; that isn’t merely a two-hour exercise in getting us from where Part 1 ends to how they want Part 3 to begin. That’s admirable (not everyone seems to bother), but undermined by how much the film feels in need of major structural work at a screenplay level. Ultimately, I think your tolerance for “good ideas but poor execution” will dictate exactly how you feel about the finished movie.

3 out of 5

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular, 3D, and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Batman Ninja (2018)

2018 #146
Junpei Mizusaki | 85 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | Japan & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Batman Ninja

“This is madness,” exclaims Batman at one point relatively early on in this anime interpretation of the DC superhero. He could be speaking on behalf of us viewers… although, at that point, he — and we — don’t even know the half of it…

The story begins when a scientific experiment gone wrong hurtles Batman, most of the Bat-family, and Arkham Asylum’s inmates back in time to feudal Japan. Due to a quirk of the machine, the Dark Knight himself arrives years after everyone else, which has given the villains a chance to take control, each establishing their own fiefdom. Batman and his allies must find a way to send everyone back to the present day, before history is irreparably altered.

That’s just the start of the bonkers stuff that goes down in this film — never has the term “bat-shit crazy” been more appropriate. I mean, as if the basic setup wasn’t inherently barmy enough, by the time it gets to (spoilers!) a climax where the villains’ mansions morph into giant robots that then combine into a Joker-headed super-giant robot that fights against a giant monkey-samurai made up of hundreds of flute-controlled little monkeys, you’ll be wondering just how strong the filmmakers’ drugs were. And that’s not even the end of it. I don’t think there’s any rational way to assess the quality of the plot here — either you go with it and revel in the madness, or you just give up because it’s too much.

Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Ninja!

The sense of possibly-drug-induced unreality is only heightened by the chosen animation style. The film’s clearly been produced with 3D computer animation, but rendered in a style designed to emulate 2D cel animation. It has the frenetic hyper-real movement made possible by the former, while otherwise trying as hard as possible to look like the latter, which makes for a weird disconnect. When you marry that up to the over-detailed, sometimes grotesque character and location designs, plus an overabundance of eye-popping colour, it becomes a surreal sensory overload. Oh, and at one point it changes style completely, just because it does, into some kind of sketchy watercolour thing, but only for a little while.

Batman Ninja is a strange movie all around. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was certainly an experience. Would our collective culture be better off if such madness was reined in, or is the world a better place for having this kind of battiness? You may have to judge for yourself, though I think only the bold or the foolish need apply.

3 out of 5

Batman Ninja is now available on Netflix UK.

Hitchcock (2012)

2018 #20
Sacha Gervasi | 92 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Hitchcock

Arguably the most famous film director of all time, it was inevitable that one day there’d be an Alfred Hitchcock biopic. Indeed, as is so often the case in Hollywood with an obvious idea waiting to happen, two turned up at once (the other being BBC/HBO TV movie The Girl). Rather than taking an overview of the man’s life, however, both focus in on the making of a single film — in this case, arguably the one he’s most famous for today, Psycho.

That’s half of what the film’s about, anyway. It’s a mixed success. I’ve no idea how true it is, but the setup — the acclaimed Master of Suspense who’s so established that people are judging him over the hill, determined to do a striking new project no one else believes in to prove he’s still got it — is a good’un. It’s especially effective precisely because it’s about Hitchcock and Psycho: it’s the film that defines him for many people now; so, yes, we know the ending, but that lends dramatic irony — how do we get from that starting point to the acclaimed classic we all know? However, it all feels slightly hamstrung by the filmmakers failing to get the rights to directly recreate any shots from Psycho itself, making it feel like the film is having to constantly pull punches there.

Shooting Psycho

The other half of the film is about a blip in Hitch’s marriage — a storyline which is mostly fictional, unsurprisingly. That Hitch was a pervy old letch shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but the way the film decides to draw links between the director and twisted murderer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) is a bit weird. It feels like the scenes of murder, etc, have been included for mere titillation rather than actually revealing anything about the titular moviemaker.

The latter storyline leads to a reconciliatory ending that is cheese personified. By the scene just before that wraps up the Psycho storyline in a much more effective manner, with Hitchcock listening to the film’s premiere screening from the lobby, ‘conducting’ the audience’s screams during the shower scene. It’s probably the highlight of the movie; the main insight into why Hitch ever did what he did, perhaps. (Well, that and all the lust.)

In the title role, Anthony Hopkins is completely submerged as the big man, helped by a pile of prosthetics. Sometimes I think Hopkins is a distinctly overrated actor, but he’s put the effort in here. As his under-appreciated wife, screenwriter Alma Reville, Helen Mirren is superb as ever. The cast is rounded out by a bunch of decently-served small roles, performed by the likes of Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Danny Huston, and, in particular, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. She seems to fit the era perfectly. Inexplicably drawing the short straw is Toni Collette, in a totally nothingy role as Hitch’s assistant.

Hitchcock blondes

With a running time that barely crossing 90 minutes before the credits roll, Hitchcock feels very slight. This is a small incident in the long and storied life of the great director; and while it may touch on various themes that concerned his whole career, thereby acting as an exemplification for all of them, it still feels more like a vignette than a full-blown biopic.

3 out of 5