Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Matrix Reloaded

Free Your Mind.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 138 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th May 2003 (US & others)
UK Release: 21st May 2003
Budget: $150 million
Worldwide Gross: $742.1 million

Stars
Keanu Reeves (Point Break, Man of Tai Chi)
Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Contagion)
Carrie-Anne Moss (Red Planet, Unthinkable)
Hugo Weaving (Babe, Transformers)

Directors
The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas)

Screenwriters
The Wachowskis (Assassins, Sense8)


The Story
With just 72 hours until the machines arrive to destroy mankind’s last city, all ships are ordered to return home for its defence. But Morpheus still believes the answer to their salvation lies in the Matrix itself and what Neo is meant to do there.

Our Heroes
Neo is just a man, but within the Matrix has abilities and power beyond any other. As he journeys deeper in the fake-world’s workings, can he free mankind? Will his love for fellow freedom fighter Trinity get in his way? Is their captain, Morpheus, misguided in his belief that Neo is The One?

Our Villains
As hordes of machines drill down to the human city of Zion, a more pressing threat is Agent Smith, who has found a way to multiply himself and is on the warpath within the Matrix, with his sights set on Neo.

Best Supporting Character
The Merovingian is a snobby Frenchman (is there any other kind, ho ho) who holds prisoner a key program our heroes need access to. First, they’ll have to endure his philosophising; after, they’ll have to fend off the men he sends to kill them.

Memorable Quote
“Now consider the alternative. What if I am right? What if the prophecy is true? What if tomorrow the war could be over? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth dying for?” — Morpheus

Memorable Scene
The freeway chase. It’s so long it almost doesn’t count as just one scene, but it’s spectacular quarter-of-an-hour long action sequence packed to bursting with impressive stunts and effects.

Technical Wizardry
See above. The logistics of filming the sequence are mind-boggling. Now they’d just throw it all together in a computer with a bit of green screen for the actors, but back in the early ’00s they built a massive stretch of freeway and filmed most of the practical stunts for real — and it’s all the better for it, of course.

Truly Special Effect
Some of the CGI is a little ropey 15 years on (though the digital body doubles looked just as bad at the time as they do now, to be honest), but all of the real-world stuff with Zion and its ships still looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Depending on your point of view, the climax is either philosophically engaging or impenetrably incomprehensible. I feel like repeat viewings and time have made it more understandable, but it’s still suffused with more big ideas than people expect to find in their blockbuster movies.

Making of
The Matrix Reloaded” is a funny title when you think about it. I mean, it’s very much “from our perspective” — in the film’s world the Matrix has never stopped running, so it’s not being reloaded; it’s an allusion to computer-y stuff and the fact this is a sequel, nothing to do with the actual content of the film. Though I guess it’s not really any weirder than just sticking “2” on the end or whatever, so…

Previously on…
In 1999, sci-fi actioner The Matrix blew everyone’s minds. In the run-up to this sequel there was also The Animatrix, a series of anime short films that explained some of the backstory to the films’ world and detailed certain events that occurred between the first film and its sequels.

Next time…
The video game Enter the Matrix occurs alongside Reloaded, featuring characters and situations from the film in a parallel storyline. It included around 45 minutes of live-action scenes shot by the Wachowskis, which has since been made available on the film’s DVD/Blu-ray/etc releases. Later the same year, The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy, while MMORPG The Matrix Online continued the story. There have also been other video games and some comic books, but for a modern media franchise it’s been quite tightly controlled beyond that.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Director)
1 World Stunt Award (Best Overall Stunt by a Stunt Woman (for motorcycle work in the freeway chase))
3 World Stunt Awards nominations (Best Fight (for the chateau hallway), Best Stunt Coordination Feature Film, Best Overall Stunt by a Woman (for a car stunt in the freeway chase))

Verdict

The Matrix sequels are generally viewed as a big disappointment, which isn’t wholly accurate or fair (for one thing, this first sequel actually has pretty solid ratings online, from both critics and viewers). It was always a big ask to follow-up a movie as original, groundbreaking, and straight-up entertaining as the first Matrix, and that the Wachowskis chose to do so by doubling down on the mythology and underpinning ideas obviously wasn’t successful with too many people. So perhaps making the plot 50% a straightforward quest-against-time narrative and 50% impenetrable philosophy lectures wasn’t the best idea, but the action sequences are still absolutely stunning. And, actually, if you bother to engage with the film on its own level, there’s some interesting stuff here.

The Meg (2018)

2019 #77
Jon Turteltaub | 113 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Meg

Jason Statham vs. a giant prehistoric shark — what more do you need to know?

Okay, well, despite the obvious pulp-blockbuster nature of this premise, it’s actually based on a novel, which was originally published in 1997 and so I guess arrived in a wave of post-Jurassic Park interest in man vs. prehistoric creatures thrillers. Well, Jurassic Park and the other obvious comparison, Jaws, were also both adapted from novels, so perhaps it’s not so weird after all. I’d never heard of the book before, but apparently it has a dedicated fanbase (there are multiple sequels), who were disappointed with this film because it makes some radical changes to the source material. Clearly, I’m not the right person to make that comparison.

Judged as a film in its own right, then, I thought it was a ton of fun. You know what you’re getting into with that pitch, and doubly so if you’ve watched the trailer. This isn’t some thought-provoking docu-drama about “what if we really discovered a prehistoric creature still lived?” This isn’t even Jaws, a relatively grounded adventure movie about normal people defeating a larger-than-average killer shark. This is a movie about a super-high-tech underwater research facility that accidentally unleashes a prehistoric monster and then all the scientists and submariners and whatnot on board have to track it down and stop it. This is a move about Jason Statham fighting a giant shark.

Stath vs shark

All of that said, some people have criticised the movie for not being quite as daft or out there as they wanted from a B-movie-inspired effects spectacular. I guess that’s a real “your mileage will vary” situation. Personally, I had a lot of fun with it. It keeps things more grounded than the utter batshit craziness of, say, Sharknado, but it’s clearly still allowing itself to have fun with the situations and concepts. It also doesn’t feel too samey, which considering there are only so many ways to interact with a giant shark is some kind of achievement.

Other criticisms I’ve read include that it’s too slow to get going, focusing on undersea rescues rather than getting straight to Stath-on-shark action. Again, this was something I actually liked about the film — that it allowed at least some time to build the Meg up as a mysterious unseen force (and, in the grand scheme of things, not that much time — this isn’t Jaws). It also gave the film a certain scope and scale. It’s not like this shark rocks up and they defeat it in an afternoon — the plot spread out over a couple of days, at least. I don’t know, there’s just something I like about that pacing.

Also, the film is a Chinese co-production, and so features many major and minor Chinese characters, and the climax is set in the vicinity of a Chinese beach. I’ve seen people criticise this aspect of the film because… um… Yeah, not liking that aspect smacks of racism, let’s be honest. I’m not saying everyone who dislikes The Meg is a racist — that would be stupid — but some reviews I’ve seen come with this slightly weird sense that part of the reason they dislike it is because it’s 50% (if that) a Chinese blockbuster.

Who fancies Chinese for dinner?

At the end of the day, I come back to what I said at the start: it’s a movie about a giant prehistoric shark being unleashed and attacking humans, and Jason Statham has to fight it. That’s all. It delivered on that in spades for me and I had a great time with it. And I guess tied to that pulpiness, if you have the option and enjoy the effect, I thought it looked fantastic in 3D.

4 out of 5

The Meg is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

2018 #63
John McTiernan | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English & German | 15 / R

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Making a sequel to what’s regarded as one of, if not the, greatest action (and Christmas) movies of all time is basically a hiding to nothing — however good your work, if it’s not a stone-cold classic too then it’s a relative failure. Nonetheless, there are those who’d argue this second sequel to Die Hard is practically as good as the first one, and they’d practically be right.

After having to defend a skyscraper in the first film and an airport in the second, this time it’s an entire city that’s relying on John McClane (Bruce Willis): a terrorist known only as ‘Simon’ (Jeremy Irons) insists McClane engage in a series of outlandish games in a twisted version of Simon Says, with each successfully completed task preventing the detonation of bombs around New York City. But ‘Simon’ actually has a whole other plan, and there’s a reason he sought out the involvement of McClane…

I’m being coy about Simon’s true identity because the film plays it as a big reveal. I don’t know if it was a surprise twist back in ’95 — it’s not given away in the trailers, but I don’t know about other pre-release material. If it ever was a secret, well, I don’t think it is anymore. I’ve certainly known it almost as long as I can remember. It’s a shame, really, because while it doesn’t exactly ruin the film, it does somewhat undermine the first 45-or-so minutes where it’s played as a mystery.

Dirty cop

That’s doubly disappointing because the the first half-or-so of the film is absolutely excellent: fast-paced (it hits the ground running and doesn’t let up), exciting, engaging. Willis is teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson, which makes for a fun double act. Jeremy Irons is reliably excellent as the villain. Okay, it’s not as classic a role as Alan Rickman in the first one, but then what is? But once Simon’s identity and plan are revealed, the pace and ingenuity begin to flag a little. It doesn’t get bad by any means, but it fails to maintain that early momentum throughout. It’s at least one action sequence too long — literally, because the finale is, pace-wise, an unnecessary addendum. Maybe something could’ve gone earlier to keep it tight, too.

Really, these are niggles; stuff that holds it back from absolute perfection. The inadequacy is only apparent becomes it comes after the first half, which is fantastic. Nonetheless, they niggled me enough to hold me back from giving With a Vengeance a full 5 stars, sadly. (However, I hasten to add that, although this is the same mark I gave Die Hard 2, With a Vengeance is a lot better — in retrospect, I’d probably give the first sequel a 3.)

But my biggest regret is that my insistence on watching film series in order, and my general tardiness about actually doing that watching (it feels like With a Vengeance has been on BBC One all the damn time throughout my life — I coulda watched it decades ago — but it took me a good few years to see Die Hard, and I didn’t watch Die Harder ’til after I started this blog), means I haven’t got round to seeing this until now. I mean, I should be on my third or fourth viewing already! Damn.

4 out of 5

Knocked Up (2007)

2018 #64
Judd Apatow | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Knocked Up

I don’t really know why I watched this. Well, I do: it’s because it’s been on one of my 50 Unseen lists for over a decade (as have 14 other 2007 films, of course, but I intend to get round to most of those too), and at the time it was available on two different streaming services, so it sort of sat there going “why don’t you watch me? Go on, watch me!” until I did. And then I actually quite enjoyed it.

It’s about career-driven Alison (Katherine Heigl), who ends up having a drunken one-night stand with freeloading pothead wannabe-porn-website-designer Ben (Seth Rogen). She gets pregnant, and suddenly the mismatched pair are connected for life. Despite the raucous setup, it’s actually a surprisingly sweet, warm, heartfelt movie… with dick jokes. Maybe that’s why this Judd Apatow-masterminded stuff has been such a success: it manages to simultaneously hit two demographics (essentially, rom-coms and frat-coms) that used to be mutually exclusive.

Alongside that main story there’s a subplot featuring Alison’s sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd). They’re established as supporting characters, but that feels like underselling it — they’re practically co-leads, given the amount of screentime that’s spent on their storyline. You could probably trim much of their stuff out and make a more efficient, more comedy-length movie; but then you’d really be losing something, because it’s actually quite good, mature, genuine material. But it’s just that’s not what this movie is — or, at least, not what it purports to be — and so it’s, like, why is that here? Why isn’t it off somewhere as its own movie? (Debbie and Pete were later the stars of a spin-off, This is 40, which was billed as a “sort-of sequel” — considering they’ve got such major roles here, I can see why. It makes me wonder why they didn’t get Heigl and Rogen back and just go the whole hog, but that’s a question for another review.)

Anyway, being too long was Knocked Up’s biggest problem, in my opinion — chop out 20, even 30 minutes (heck, do it properly and get rid of more, even) and I reckon it’d be better. It’s also a bit needlessly crude, I guess, but I’ve seen far worse and less funny examples of that. It makes up for it by how well-handled the more dramatic parts are. Overall, I liked it a lot more than I expected I would.

4 out of 5

Seth Rogen’s new romcom, Long Shot, is being destroyed by Avengers: Endgame in cinemas everywhere now.

Ice Age (2002)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Ice Age

Sub-Zero Heroes

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 14th March 2002 (Indonesia & Mexico)
US Release: 15th March 2002
UK Release: 22nd March 2002
Budget: $59 million
Worldwide Gross: $383.26 million

Stars
Ray Romano (Welcome to Mooseport, Paddleton)
John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet, Land of the Dead)
Denis Leary (The Thomas Crown Affair, The Amazing Spider-Man)
Goran Visnjic (Practical Magic, Elektra)

Director
Chris Wedge (Robots, Epic)

Co-Director
Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age: The Meltdown, Ferdinand)

Screenwriters
Peter Ackerman (Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, eight episodes of The Americans)
Michael Berg (New Jersey Turnpikes, Ice Age: Continental Drift)
Michael J. Wilson (Shark Tale, Ice Age: Collision Course)

Story by
Michael J. Wilson (Alyce in Wonderland, The Tuxedo)


The Story
A trio of mismatched prehistoric animals endeavour to return a baby human to its tribe before the oncoming ice age cuts off the path to their camp.

Our Heroes
The aforementioned trio are overenthusiastic Sid the sloth, wannabe-loner Manny the mammoth, and Diego the sabre-tooth tiger, who has ulterior motives…

Our Villains
A group of bloodthirsty sabre-tooth tigers who want to kill the baby human in revenge for… something. I forget. Diego is their inside man.

Best Supporting Character
Weird squirrel-like creature Scrat — he was all over the marketing and is consistently associated with the franchise, so you’re probably vaguely familiar with him. He’s got nothing to do with the main story, instead popping up for asides of silent comedy. His opening scene was only added to the film because otherwise the first sequence featuring snow and ice wasn’t until over half-an-hour in, but he was so popular with test audiences that he was given more throughout the rest of the movie.

Memorable Quote
Sid: “For a second there I actually thought you were gonna eat me.”
Diego: “I don’t eat junk food.”

Memorable Scene
Walking through an ice-cave shortcut, Sid sees various other prehistoric creatures frozen in the ice: an ugly fish, a dinosaur, an evolutionary series that ends with him… and a flying saucer. (See also: Next Time.)

Letting the Side Down
Most of the time the deliberately stylised designs help the film get away with the early-’00s quality of its CG animation (and some flourishes, like fur, actually look rather good), but the tribe of humans move rather stiffly, and consequently look a bit like a computer game from the same era.

Making of
Believe it or not, Ice Age was originally pitched as a drama. Fox insisted that if it was animated it had to be a children’s comedy (because that’s what all major Western animation is, right? And when it isn’t, it flops, like Fox’s previous animated movie, Titan A.E. Incidentally, that failure is also why they abandoned plans to make Ice Age in 2D cel animation). The original dramatic concept is presumably why some slightly-too-serious stuff remains in the storyline.

Next time…
Four true sequels, plus the usual wealth of connected short films and TV specials that accompany popular kids’ animation franchises nowadays. A sixth film and/or TV series may be in development. Interestingly, each of the things Sid sees preserved in the ice (see Memorable Scene) is connected to one of the sequels. I’ve no idea if that was deliberate or a huge coincidence; though, either way, I’m sure it can’t’ve been planned from the outset.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Animated Feature)
7 Annie nominations (Animated Theatrical Feature, Directing in an Animated Feature, Writing in an Animated Feature, Character Animation, Character Design in an Animated Feature, Production Design in an Animated Feature, Music in an Animated Feature)
1 Saturn nomination (Animated Film)

Verdict

Ice Age was one of the first computer-animated franchises, though it doesn’t seem to have stuck in the collective consciousness as well as, say, Toy Story or Shrek. Personally, I first and last saw it sometime shortly after its original release, but all I could remember was enjoying it well enough. Well, all that is probably because it’s not as good as the best of Pixar or DreamWorks. It’s amenable enough, but it lacks the sharpness of concept, dialogue, character, and story that makes those movies truly memorable. I can see why I remember liking it but couldn’t recall much else. So, I’m not sure it deserves to be better-remembered than it already is, but it’s not at all bad for anyone who chooses to seek it out.

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

2019 #67
Anthony & Joe Russo | 181 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 12A / PG-13

Avengers: Endgame

A trilogy each of Iron Mans, Captain Americas, and Thors; a pair of Ant-Mans and two volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy; an Incredible Hulk, a Doctor Strange, a Black Panther, a Spider-Man, and a Captain Marvel; plus, of course, a trio of previous Avengers — they’ve all been leading us here, the culmination of 11 years and 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an unparalleled achievement in moviemaking; a combination of blockbuster scope with TV-esque serial storytelling that is so 21st century. Within its three hours and one minute running time, Endgame encompasses and represents almost all of the tendencies of other MCU movies — for both good and ill. This is not a perfect movie, and this will not be a 5-star review, which I’m saying upfront because massive spoilers may follow. There’s not much to discuss about the film if we limit ourselves to what’s been revealed in trailers and promos, because they’ve purposely kept almost the entire movie a secret, so I’m just going to talk freely.

If you’ve seen the movie then a plot recap is unnecessary. But in case you just don’t care and have decided to read on regardless: Endgame picks up days/weeks after the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War (maybe I missed or misunderstood something, but I swear one character said it had been 23 days then later someone said it had been two days). The surviving Avengers, plus newly-summoned addition Captain Marvel, manage to track down super-villain Thanos and set off to retrieve the Infinity Stones and use them to bring back the 50% of the universe’s population he turned to dust. Unfortunately, Thanos has destroyed the stones. All hope is lost. Cue title card: five years later.

Thanos no more

Okay, we’ll return to the plot in a minute, because this is the first structural oddity of the film. This opening salvo — made up of a pre-Marvel logo sequence in which we learn what happened to Hawkeye and his family, a pre-titles sequence which sets up the plan to beat Thanos, and the pre-timejump action I just described — is almost a self-contained unit dealing with the hangover from the last film. It wouldn’t fit as a closing act to Infinity War — that movie ended at the perfect point in the story — but nor does it really belong at the start of Endgame, which begins properly after the “five years later” card. I have mixed feelings about it, because I like that we see both the heroes’ immediate attempts to rectify the situation, but also that they can’t, so we get to see how they’ve coped (or failed to) over the ensuing years. But, structurally, it felt a little clunky to me; a bit of business from the previous movie that has to be wrapped up before this one can start. I’m not sure what the solution is. If movies still bothered with opening credits, something as simple as separating it all off as a pre-titles sequence might’ve been the answer.

Anyway, back to the plot. It’s five years later and the world is still coming to terms with the snap. There are too many characters in too many different places to recap what everyone’s up to — that’s part of why this film has a three-hour running time, because there’s simply so much to tackle. But in many ways this is the best part of the movie, especially if you’re invested in these characters rather than just here for action or spectacle. It’s a bit grim, obviously — no one’s going to be cheery about half the world being wiped out — but it digs into the differing reactions this would provoke in ways that are character-specific and mostly plausible. I say “mostly” because, when Hulk (or whatever he is now) turns up, I didn’t quite follow the logic of why he’d turned himself into this Banner/Hulk hybrid. Still, seeing how the characters come to terms with their new reality is an effectively thoughtful way to start off.

Crying Cap

But that’s not going to fuel a superhero blockbuster, is it? Here the little mid-credit scene from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes into play. Marvel have always used their credit stings to connect up the films, but has it ever been so vital as this? They’re normally little teases, basically trailers to remind you which film is next, but what happens in that Ant-Man 2 scene is vital to the plot of Endgame. Basically, Scott has been stuck in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, but this provides them with an opportunity: it might be possible to use it for time travel, allowing them to go back in time and undo Thanos’ actions. Or something. Endgame’s relationship with time travel is… variable. Time travel movies are always complicated, and because it’s not a thing that’s really possible they get to set their own rules for how it works. The problem is, Endgame isn’t very clear what those rules are. It makes a great show of saying “it’s not like in the movies” and reeling off a slew of pop culture references (Back to the Future is mentioned more than once), but then it struggles to clearly define how it does work in this movie. And once the characters set off into the past, any explanations it did give seem to go out the window.

It’s in this long middle act that Endgame was most often problematic for me. Act one is largely committed to being solemn, and act three is largely committed to being Epic, so it’s in the middle that the film shoots for the MCU’s trademark “light and breezy” tone. Unfortunately, sometimes this is so shoehorned in that it rubs against the serious stuff, resulting in a tonal mishmash. I’ve frequently advocated for movies that mix seriousness and comedy side-by-side, because real life often does the same, but there are points where Endgame undercuts its own stakes or undermines its characters for the sake of a one-liner or a comedy bit, rather than embracing the seriousness of the situation and letting comedy evolve naturally when it’s warranted.

There can be only one...

Conversely, some of the humour is accidental. One of the more egregious examples for me is when Black Widow and Hawkeye are faced with the Soul Stone dilemma: one of them has to die as a sacrifice for the stone to be released to the other. They both decide to sacrifice themselves, which leads to a protracted series of attempts to stop the other from committing suicide first. The constant back and forth of who had the upper hand gets almost to the point where it’s comical — I began to wonder if it was meant to be a comedy bit. But then, just as it was reaching the height of absurdity where I was about to conclude I should be laughing rather than just thinking “this is silly now”, it abruptly stops when one of them ‘wins’ and we get a Tragic Death Scene. It’s clearly meant to be a shocking, affecting moment of heroic sacrifice; instead, I found it a jumble of intentions that neutered any genuine feelings.

Another moment that’s well-meaning but fumbled comes during the big climax, when all the Lady Superheroes unite to do something. It’s a moment of such brazen, uncalled-for “feminism” that it feels like pandering, and that’s a bad thing. I’m searching for a better word to use in that last sentence, because overall feminism is a good thing, but this particular moment is so out-of-nowhere, so fundamentally meaningless (there’s no need for it to be just the women involved), that it’s egregious. When crybaby fanboy trolls scream about unnecessarily forcing political correctness onto genre movies, they’re unerringly wrong… except this time they’ll be right, because that’s exactly how this plays. There’s a broadly similar moment in Infinity War, when a couple of the female heroes defeat whichever of Thanos’ sidekicks is the female one, and I thought that worked, partly because no one made a big deal of it. Here, it’s clear they’re making a point. I’m not sure what the exact goal of it was — to say “women are as capable as men”; to say “look how many female heroes we have now”; or something else — but there are better, subtler ways to make that same point.

Nebulous plotting

Where Infinity War found room for almost all of the MCU’s ongoing franchises and characters (an impressive feat), Endgame cements its finale status by re-centring us on the original lineup from the initial Avengers team-up… er, plus a couple of other characters, who are important to varying degrees for various reasons. It’s that kind of “it’s almost this… but not quite” construction of content and/or theme that belies a certain lack of focus or forethought. If this is a last hurrah for the original team, why is Ant-Man vital to the story even being possible? Why does Nebula get one of the most significant subplots, intimately connected to her character arc from Guardians Vol.1 and 2? Why is brand-new (to the movies) character Captain Marvel repeatedly required to come in and save the day?

This extends to the time travel too: when they go back, it’s into the timelines of specific movies, but why those movies were chosen isn’t always clear. Avengers Assemble? Makes sense — it was where the crazy project of the MCU proved it was working, making that film both the end of the beginning and a beginning in itself. Guardians of the Galaxy? I mean, I guess — it’s where Marvel proved they could turn even the most obscure property into a massive, popular hit; plus it’s where a lot of the Thanos storyline really got going. Thor: The Dark World? …wait, what? Seriously?! Yes, perhaps the greatest trick Marvel have ever pulled is making Thor 2 — one of their least well regarded films — a moderately essential component of this finale. You need to have seen that movie to fully understand what’s going on here, and now you can’t really skip it in your rewatches either.

Thor after being told which movie he had to revisit

Talking of connectivity, Infinity War surprised by being a standalone movie, not just a Part 1. Okay, it was a standalone movie which ended with our heroes losing, which you could call a cliffhanger, but if you look at it from the other side — i.e. with Thanos as the main character — it’s a whole, completed, no-more-story-to-tell tale. Therefore it’s a fresh surprise (kinda) that Endgame is very much a Part 2 — and also, in fact, a Part 22 — freely nodding to and paying off stuff from previous movies on the assumption you’ll know what it’s referencing, more like the last instalment of a serial than a standalone film. Anyone who’s skipped a film or two (or three or four, etc) on the way to Endgame is likely to miss all the nuances, at the very least, and perhaps be left with more serious questions too. Newcomers definitely need not apply. But if there’s anyone who’s a fan of part of the MCU but not all of it, they’ll need to find their way into and through Endgame one way or another, because a whole bunch of stuff is wrapped up for good here; some heroes won’t be getting another standalone movie to put a button on their story.

I feel like this review has focused on the negatives and debatable drawbacks of Endgame, but that’s partly because a lot of the discussion right now seems unrelentingly praiseful. I mean, as I type this the film is ranked as the 5th best of all time on IMDb, a position it’s actually risen to over the past 24 hours (it debuted around 19th). I didn’t think it was perfect, or quite as good as that (for comparison: I thought Infinity War was more consistent and successful as a movie, and IMDb raters have currently ranked that 61st), but I did enjoy it overall. I don’t think it needed to be as long as it is (at times it meanders through scenes or comedic bits rather than getting on with things), but it doesn’t drag or bore. It’s a bit of an irreconcilable dichotomy that I think both it didn’t feel excruciatingly long and also that they should’ve tightened it up and brought the running time down.

The end for Tony?

Still, that runtime means they felt there was space for more than just action sequences. Allowing the film to focus on the emotions of the characters (at least some of the time) is suitable payoff for the investment people have in them. Indeed, as I said earlier, in many ways the first act is the film’s best stuff. This isn’t just an empty effects spectacle. But when it is a spectacle, it can be spectacular. Okay, the climax, where two sizeable armies rush at each other on a brown battlefield under a grey sky, degenerates into a massive free-for-all of whooshing pixels where it’s frequently hard to discern exactly what’s going on and who’s doing what to who (it actually reminded me of Aquaman, only with less colour. I’m sure such a comparison to a DC movie will be sacrilege to some Marvel fans, but it’s the truth). But within and around that there are still things that are a thrill, not least the big moment when the previously-dusted heroes turn up en masse in the nick of time. And when all is said and done, the end credits offer a special acknowledgement of the main Avengers who started it all, which was quite possibly my favourite bit of the whole movie.

There are no mid- or post-credit scenes, making this only the second MCU movie without them. (The first was The Incredible Hulk, which basically had its post-credit scene before the credits started. I’m sure they’d’ve placed that scene differently if they’d known it would become a trademark of the franchise.) It’s an appropriate decision: we know this isn’t the end (the next Spider-Man movie is out in a couple of months; many more officially-unannounced Marvel films are on the horizon after that), but this is supposed to serve as an ending nonetheless, and so letting it actually end, rather than attaching a tease for the future, is welcome. Though, really, how much of an ending is it? Yeah, it officially closes off the first era of MCU films, but a bunch of those characters are continuing into the future, and even some of the ones primarily associated with the first era — characters who died here — are coming back in prequels and the like.

Goodbye to MCU

However, the lack of credits scenes did allow me to enjoy some schadenfreude: I knew going in there were no scenes, but that there was a “meaningful sound effect” at the end of the credits. I had nowhere else to be, so I stayed to see what it was. Everyone else who stayed, however, was chattering about what the end credits scene might show. The credit roll came to an end, everyone went quiet in anticipation, that “meaningful sound effect” played, and I started getting ready to leave while all around me stared at a black screen while the cinema’s filler muzak played, thinking they were witnessing the beginning of another scene. It took them a good 30 seconds to twig. (Maybe I should’ve said something… maybe the usher stood at the front of the auditorium should’ve said something… maybe he and I are both just horrible people…)

That literally brings me to the end of Endgame. There’s much more that could be said about it, and will be said about it. For me, an interesting thing now will be to see what is its long-term reception. As I said, right now it’s riding high on a wave of audience euphoria, but it’s only just come out: most of the people who’ve seen it already are the really keen ones; the diehard fans. What will wider audiences think? What will the diehards think when they get a chance to revisit it, removed from the heat of initial emotion? Will the consensus remain that Avengers: Endgame ranks in the echelons of the very greatest movies of all time, or will cooler heads prevail?

4 out of 5

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas everywhere (except Russia) now.

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018)

2018 #246
Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

I don’t think I’d even heard of the Teen Titans Go! animated series until promotion for this big screen version started. Best I could tell, a lot of entitled fanboys hate it — it’s too childish and comical, whereas they’d prefer the ‘grown-up’ seriousness of cancelled animated series Teen Titans — and consequently weren’t at all impressed by it getting the honour of film adaptation. Whatever — I thought the trailer looked funny, and, fortunately, the end product lives up to it.

The Teen Titans are a superhero team made up of erstwhile Batman sidekick Robin, half-robot Cyborg (who, in other iterations, is a member of a certain major-league superhero team), shapeshifter Beast Boy, half-demon sorceress Raven, and alien princess Starfire. After they’re criticised for not having their own movie, the Titans set out to get one made. First step: get an arch-nemesis, for which they target Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke.

Although ostensibly a children’s series, and therefore presumably a children’s movie, Teen Titans Go is actually full of gags and references aimed at older viewers, without resorting to cheap double entendres or the like designed to fly over kids’ heads, but instead focusing on the wider universe of superhero movies — it has less respect for the fourth wall than a Deadpool movie. It’s often genuinely witty, and burns through plot and jokes at a joyously fast pace (possibly a legacy of its short TV episodes). It also might be the first time I’ve ever seen a fart gag and thought, “that’s actually quite funny and kinda clever (for a fart gag).” That’s a special kind of achievement in itself.

4 out of 5

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

It placed 23rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

It Comes at Night (2017)

2018 #55
Trey Edward Shults | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

It Comes at Night

Described by Kim Newman in his Empire review as “existing between a Sundance and a FrightFest film”, which is a neat way of putting “arthouse horror”, It Comes at Night went down very poorly with many viewers, seemingly because it was mis-sold by its trailers. As someone who went in pretty much cold, however, I thought it was very good.

Sometime after some kind of contagion has wiped out civilisation, we’re introduced to a family — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — who’ve sequestered themselves in a secure house deep in the woods. But their existence is disrupted by the arrival of a couple (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) and their young son seeking refuge. Although Paul is deeply distrustful, he agrees to take them in. But is there some one, or some thing, else waiting for them in the woods?

Well, I should be careful there, lest I slip into doing what the trailers did. I watched one after the movie, and it certainly wasn’t a great representation of the film. So was it wrong to advertise it as a horror movie? Yes and no. I mean, it’s not your typical horror flick, but it is moody and creepy and tense, and scary because of it. I’m tempted to compare it to something like The VVitch, though their styles do diverge as they go on (I could say how, exactly, but it might be construed as a spoiler). It partly depends how you define genre. You could argue It Comes at Night is actually a psychological thriller with a dash of sci-fi (thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting) — and it definitely is those things — but, functionally, it’s a horror movie. It’s built to unnerve and scare you. It’s only really once those immediate terrors are out of the way — i.e. when the film ends — that what it leaves you to chew over is its commentary on paranoia and trust.

Distrust

In the case of the latter, and the way it executes its sci-fi-ish setting, it all feels very realistic and plausible. That realism is underscored by the pace, structure, and characterisation. The combination of the writing and an array of good performances mean all the characters come across as believable, supportable people — there are no clear heroes and villains here. And even things that look like clues to solving some mystery turn out to be, if not red herrings, then functional dead ends.

It’s a very well-made film on the whole. The cinematography by Drew Daniels looks incredible. Well, some of the daytime stuff just has a grainy, handheld, documentary-ish feel, which is appropriate and well done if fundamentally unremarkable; but everything in the house after dark — seemingly lit only by handheld lanterns and torches — looks fantastic. And all that darkness is suitably scary, of course. Plus film grammar nerds are going to love something subtle the visuals do later on, if they even notice it — it’s that low-key that it might pass you by, but it’s really effective. (Writer-director Trey Edward Shults discusses what it is, and why they did it, in this interview. I had so much of that article copied into my notes for this review that I decided I may as well just share the whole thing.) I also liked the score by Brian McOmber. Sometimes it feels a mite familiar from other movies of this style, but it remains highly effective — not overblown, but atmospheric, without being a mere background hum.

The best way to see It Comes at Night is as cold as possible — perhaps off the back of a positive, accurate review, say. A lot of the low viewer scores and negative comments do seem to stem from being mis-sold by the trailers, and I hope that, divorced from that, the film will be able to latterly find an appreciative audience; one not interested in gore and jump scares, but in tension, paranoia, and the psychology of fear.

4 out of 5

Samaritan Zatoichi (1968)

aka Zatôichi kenka-daiko

2019 #42
Kenji Misumi | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Samaritan Zatoichi

The 19th Zatoichi movie begins with our hero fulfilling some yakuza responsibilities: on the orders of a boss he’s been staying with, Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is part of a group who try to collect overdue debts from a man. When he refuses to come peacefully, Ichi is forced to kill him. Only then does his sister, Osode (Yoshiko Mita), turn up, and Ichi learns what’s really going on: the debt was just a pretext for the boss to acquire Osode, who’s wanted by a local government official for, you know, the kind of thing corrupt officials want pretty young women for. Incensed, Ichi vows to protect Osode, although she’s not so keen on palling around with the guy who just murdered her brother…

As opening acts go, it’s a strong setup. Okay, it’s similar to ones the series has played before (see Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage), but it finds its difference in the character of Osode. Where most characters quickly decide Ichi is the good guy and get on his side with no regrets, Osode struggles with her grief and her feelings towards the blind swordsman, swinging back and forth between acceptance and, well, not: at one point she gives serious consideration to murdering him and then committing suicide. It feels like a bit more psychological realism than we often get, especially from characters Ichi has wronged, and it’s realised on screen with some effectively different visuals. For example, when Ichi engages in a show of skill at a fairground ball game, Osode is initially as gleefully impressed as everyone, before she comes to realise it’s these skills that allowed him to murder her brother, an event she imagines in starkly-coloured purple/green ‘flashbacks’ as she looks at Ichi with new eyes. It’s a particularly striking departure from the series’ usual grounded visual style (one echoed when Osode has red/blue ‘flash forwards’ to killing Ichi), although the whole film is very nicely shot. Of course, Osode’s ambivalence can’t go on forever: eventually she forgives Ichi and falls in love with him, because she’s only a woman and, in the world of Zatoichi, nothing is more attractive than a blind, tubby, slovenly, rice-guzzling, depressed-by-his-own-conscience, roaming mass murderer.

Grief

Lest you think Samaritan Zatoichi is one of the series’ heavy instalments, fear not, because there’s some quite broad slapstick-ish comedy in counterbalance. The first half of that ball game, for instance, is definitely played for laughs. A later sequence sees Ichi wrapped in reeds to be dumped in the river, but fate gives him a chance to get to his feet, whereupon he engages in a fight with his would-be killers, stumbling around still wrapped up — despite which he still comes out victorious, of course. Ichi also ends up with a sidekick for part of the film, Shinsuke, played by Takuya Fujioka, who was a friend of Katsu and consequently pops up in a couple of Zatoichi films. Apparently he was mainly known for comic roles, which he brings a dash of here, but Shinsuke isn’t entirely useless, nor just played for comic relief, which makes a nice change for the sidekick role.

Other memorable sequences in this instalment include one where Ichi commandeers a horse to catch up with the villains, in which he takes to riding about as well as you’d expect for a blind man (i.e. not very); a dice gambling scene where, in an about turn from every other one featured thus far, it’s Ichi who’s doing the cheating; and a final one-on-one duel that is another classic in a series absolutely filled with them (I mean, how many times in these reviews have I referred to the climactic scene as “one of the best”? It must be a pretty long list at this point.) What’s different this time is how much of a challenge it is for our hero. According to IMDb trivia, it’s the longest one-on-one duel of the series, lasting 2 minutes 14 seconds, which feels like an eternity next to the mere seconds it usually takes Ichi to defeat a solo foe. It’s set as dawn breaks on a new year, and the drums at a nearby shrine begin to pound to mark the occasion, so loudly that they impair Ichi’s senses and, therefore, abilities. The film’s original title translates as something like Zatoichi Fighting Drums, and here we see why. Combining a duel that’s more protracted than usual with a thumping score courtesy of those drums, the finale feels like an epic confrontation… even if the fight’s happening for very little motivation.

Ichi struggles

And here we reach what’s wrong with Samaritan Zatoichi: despite an initial clean and clear setup, the plot gets a bit scrappy. Much of it is driven by the yakuza boss desperately pursuing Osode to please the government blokey, but it turns out he’s actually not that bothered about her. The boss doesn’t believe that, so he wastes time continuing to pursue Osode; but no, government blokey meant it, and it winds up with him not awarding a contract to the boss. Despite that, the boss continues to pursue Osode… Just Because, I think? Or maybe we’re supposed to take it he’s really after Ichi at that point? Other contrivances occur just to keep the plot rolling, too (at one point Osode sets off without Ichi — again, Just Because — which leads to a whole heap of trouble), and I wasn’t joking when I said the final ronin has little motivation: he seems to decide to pick a fight with Ichi just for shits and giggles.

But if you don’t worry about logical character behaviour too much, there’s an awful lot to enjoy in Samaritan Zatoichi. Such niggles hold it back from being amongst the series’ very best instalments, but there’s much else to recommend it, including likeable supporting characters, great fight scenes, and various other memorable set pieces.

4 out of 5