Gods of Egypt (2016)

2018 #198
Alex Proyas | 127 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Gods of Egypt

If you remember Gods of Egypt, it’s likely because it was excoriated on its release back in 2016.* Many were predisposed to hate it before it even came out thanks to its whitewashed cast: as the title might indicate, it’s set in Ancient Egypt and many of the characters are Egyptian gods, but most of the lead cast are white; and of those that aren’t, none are Egyptian. Even if that didn’t bother you, it was slated for its poor dialogue, flat performances, bland direction, reliance on green screen, and cheap-looking CGI. Oh dear. But every film is for someone and there’s someone for every film, and it turns out I’m one of the few (the very, very few) who actually rather enjoyed Gods of Egypt.

Based more on legend than any relation to history whatsoever (in one rather stunning sequence, we see that the world is, in fact, flat), it’s set in a time when super-powered gods walked the Earth among humans. Well, less “among”, more “ruling over”. A squabble between the gods sees nasty-piece-of-work Set (Gerard Butler) steal both the throne and eyes of heir-apparent Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), before going on to steal the abilities of other gods to make himself more powerful. Human thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites — between this and Pirates 5, dude must’ve thought he was gonna be a star… ’til they came out) doesn’t care for the gods, but he wants to free the love of his life (Courtney Eaton and her cleavage — I don’t want to be lecherous, but seriously, her costumes are all boobs, boobs, boobs), and the only way to do it involves stealing back one of Horus’ eyes and using it to persuade the god to take on Set.

Gods and men

And that’s the part of the plot that’s kinda reasonable. No, really: it gets a whole lot madder as it goes on. In fact, everything about it is so consistently batshit crazy — the concepts, the plot, the visuals — that it wins you over with its utter barminess. Or maybe it won’t win you over. Maybe you’ll think all those things make it utterly awful. As I said at the start, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. But the “you couldn’t make it up (except someone did)” mentalness of it will win over a certain kind of viewer. A viewer like me.

I’m not really going to deny any of those criticisms I cited in the opening paragraph, because it is kind of a terrible film… but if you embrace it, it’s also campy fun. It’s a film where the men are burly, the women are breasty, and the CGI is blurry, but there’s a certain irreverence that stops it from being stodgy, and a light-hearted tone to the dialogue that occasionally hits home. For all the whizzy video game-ish visuals, it’s an old-fashioned adventure quest at heart, capable of pulling off the occasional thrilling sequence or amusing verbal exchange.

All of that said, one does have to wonder how director Alex Proyas ended up here. If you don’t recognise the name, he was once known for visionary noir-ish filmmaking in the likes of The Crow and Dark City. At some point he wound up sidelined into less invigorating fare, like Will Smith vehicle I, Robot and Nic Cage vehicle Knowing, but while neither were groundbreaking they had a certain something (and, personally, I quite liked them both). Here, though, the direction is so… uninspired. Anyone competent could’ve made it. And people say filmmaking is collaborative and directors don’t deserve all the credit, but bear this in mind: Gods of Egypt and critically-beloved Oscar winner Mad Max: Fury Road share 295 cast & crew members.

Robot god... on a budget

I don’t know who deserves credit for the film’s 3D, but it’s consistently excellent and occasionally spectacular. That’s the benefit of almost all the film being created in a computer, I guess. But still, the colourful visuals and wide-open locales really help with the effect — what looked gaudy and ludicrous in 2D trailers… still pretty much is, let’s be honest. But it’s less bad when it’s doing so much to help create an epic-scaled dimensionality.

I know I should hate this silly, cheap-looking, over-CGI’d, whitewashed hot mess… but I actually thought it was a lot of daft, campy fun. There are plenty of very good movies that I’ll likely never get round to watching again — probably some great ones, even — but I’d wager Gods of Egypt is going to end up in my Blu-ray collection someday. In 3D, of course.

3 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Gods of Egypt is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* I was going to say “summer 2016”, but that wouldn’t be entirely correct: weirdly, although it was a February/March release in much of the world, it somehow got given summer status in the UK and Ireland (and, er, Spain…?) ^

Geostorm (2017)

2018 #70
Dean Devlin | 109 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Cantonese, Russian, Hindi & Spanish | 12 / PG-13

Geostorm

Geostorm met with widespread derision when it hit the big screen last year, but, despite the many negative reviews (it has just 12% on Rotten Tomatoes), I heard someone say it was actually an entertaining popcorn blockbuster. I forget who that was, sadly, because they were wrong. Very wrong.

Set in the near-ish future, it’s about a giant weather-control system installed in orbit around the Earth that begins to malfunction and cause disastrous freak weather events, which have the potential to build into a so-called “geostorm” — a devastating planet-wide weather fuck-up, basically. And there’s only one man who can stop it… despite the fact he’s not been involved with the system for about three years and during that time it’s been successfully run by a massive team of no-doubt-highly-skilled people.

A lot of films of this type start out okay and get dumber as they go on. Geostorm hits the ground running with shit dialogue and nonsensical plot developments — I’d list some, but God, there are far too many for me to bother. That said, here’s my favourite: when someone advises the US President that they’ll need to send a whole team with various skills and abilities to fix the malfunctioning global satellite weather control system (because, you know, that must be a pretty complicated set of interrelated systems, and no one knows whether it’s software or hardware or whatever else), the President decides they’re only allowed to send… one person. And it isn’t even a specific person who he thinks is a whizz — his next instruction is “find me that person.” And everyone else in the room seems to think this is a reasonable course of action. I mean, there are no words for that kind of stupidity. Well, maybe “Trumpian”, but the film isn’t presenting it as satire. And, as I said before, there’s already a massive staff up there running operations — why would the President not assume the one person with the specific skill-set needed to diagnose and fix the problem is already up there? How do people get paid to write crap this stupid? How could any self-respecting writer generate this?!

From their expressions, I presume they're reading the screenplay

Well, quite frankly, I’m not sure Geostorm was even written by a writer. Exhibit A: About 56 minutes into the movie, one character says “it’s bigger than you and me”, and a supporting character corrects him: “you and I”. But “you and me” is grammatically correct in that situation. Any writer worth whatever you get paid for writing a $120 million movie should know that, ergo there can’t’ve been any writers involved. Or, yeah, the writers who were involved were really, really, really shit. They should be ashamed of themselves.

The film is littered with faults, minor and major, that draw attention to themselves like this. Apparently the original cut received poor reactions from test audiences, leading to extensive reshoots, which I imagine explains some of the inconsistent crap that goes down during the film’s finale. (Spoilers follow, should you care.) One of the significant establishing traits of the film’s primary hero, Jake (Gerard Butler’s character), is he has a daughter who he loves very much — there’s an emotional scene when he leaves her to go off to the weather satellite, and so on. But later, when he has just minutes to live, he seems to have no pressing desire to want to talk to her. He just tells his brother to stay in her life — which the brother wanted to do anyway, but earlier Jake had been stopping him. Written like this that almost plays like character development — how he’s accepted his brother again — but that’s not how it plays out.

Gerard Butler, thwarted by another door

Oh, but it gets worse. (More spoilers!) So, the station’s commander departed ages ago with the rest of the crew, leaving Jake alone to fix the problem and then die when the station blows up anyway (don’t worry about the logistics of that, the film doesn’t). But then Jake gets stuck when he has to… open a door. And suddenly the commander’s there, and she knows what to do to… yes, open a door. So that means she’s been hiding out somewhere on the station, making sure Jake doesn’t see she’s still there, until that precise moment when he needs help… to open a door. Oh, and then, by total chance and plot implausibility, they actually survive the destruction of the station, and get in a satellite and use it to return to Earth. Not an escape pod, a satellite. Why does a satellite have enough empty space to carry two people? There’s no way you could answer this stuff.

Some people, even including some filmmakers, seem to think critics and “pretentious” filmgoers slag off movies like Geostorm based solely on the genre or concept or some other fundamental characteristic. And, yeah, there must be some people who won’t give certain genres a fair shot; but that’s not widely the case, as the praise attracted by better blockbusters proves time and again. No, films like this get slagged off when they’re shittily made. Geostorm is shittily made.

1 out of 5

Geostorm featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

London Has Fallen (2016)

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

London Has Fallen

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

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

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

Going Underground

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

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

God, I bet Trump loves this movie.

2 out of 5

London Has Fallen featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

2015 #45
Dean DeBlois | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Four years ago, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon came as a pleasant surprise: a film I thought looked weak in almost every respect, but which turned out to be immensely entertaining and beautifully made. This sequel has the opposite level of expectation, then, but fortunately it’s (mostly) up to the task.

Part of its success stems from being bold with the concept. Rather than just rehashing the first film’s story, or taking it in only a slightly different direction, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois (his former co-director, Chris Sanders, having moved on to fellow DreamWorks hit The Croods) jumps the story forward five years, in the process changing the status quo of the film’s world enough to keep it fresh. So whereas the last movie ended with dragon-hating vikings having some kind of grudging acceptance of the titular bewinged creatures, here those dragons have been fully integrated into viking society; and the teenage heroes have been aged up to be young adults.

The latter, in particular, necessitates some great design work to age the younger characters appropriately. It’s the kind of thing that looks obvious in retrospect, but it isn’t — how many animations can you think of that have to reimagine their characters as slightly older; enough to make a notable difference, but not as extreme as, say, turning them from young children to adults, or from middle-aged to very old? I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, the team here have done a faultless job. That applies to the film’s visuals on the whole. It looks gorgeous in every way: the design, the animation, the construction of the digital world, the lighting… and so on.

Tonally, DeBlois has been productively inspired by The Empire Strikes Back: it’s still child-friendly, but nonetheless more mature, and with some striking emotional beats. The main plot — concerning an army that enslaves dragons, vs. our hero vikings who live alongside them — is a little hit and miss, with some construction issues (which I’ll come back to). The characters and their emotional arcs, however, are more consistently realised, sometimes with a less-is-more approach. For instance, it’s quite nice that DeBlois doesn’t introduce needless jeopardy into the romance between Hiccup and Astrid: they’re just a couple, and happy — that’s not rammed home, nor do they quarrel over nothing; they don’t split up only to inevitably get back together. Such beats are overworked and over-familiar, and the film has enough else going on not to bother with some fake-out relationship trouble. However, challenging the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, even if only briefly, is a much more emotionally rewarding thread to pull. Of course, to say how it’s challenged would be a gigantic spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The first film quickly and effectively sketched a largish supporting cast, and they’re deftly used again here. Their parts may be doled out in snippets — a couple of lines here, a short scene there — but they build subplots and comic relief, and pay them off too, all without shifting the focus too heavily on to things that fundamentally don’t matter. Perhaps this is, in part, the benefit of a starry voice cast (where the supporting players are bigger names than the leads!)

If there’s a flaw, it’s in some of the new characters. The primary villain is underused, introduced too late in the game to become a palpable threat. More time spent building him up, seeing his evil on screen rather than just being told about it, would’ve been appreciated. So too for the mysterious vigilante dragon-rider, who turns out to have a very significant role. The deleted scenes include a prologue that would have introduced the character at the start, which would have better established the mystery and import of their role. It’s clear why it was deleted (to focus on Berk and keep the initial tone light), but I still think it would’ve worked better in the film. In the final cut, the vigilante is mentioned all of once, then turns up and is unmasked about two minutes later. Really, though, these are niggles — even for them, the cumulative consistency is certainly better than, say, its Oscar conquerer Big Hero 6.

To make another inter-film comparison, on balance I’d say that the first Dragon is probably better, but there’s little between them — they’re just different. By pushing the world and the characters in new, interesting, more emotionally mature directions, this is a sequel that ensures there’s a welcome freshness to proceedings. Too many animated films skimp on that side of things, but thought and care has been put into making this a worthwhile continuation rather than a cash-in re-hash.

4 out of 5

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

2015 #55
Antoine Fuqua | 107 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Olympus Has FallenThe first of Summer 2013’s “Die Hard in the White House” movies, Olympus Has Fallen casts Gerard Butler as the top Secret Service agent who’s also super chummy with President Aaron Eckhart and his kid (Finley Jacobsen). However, after Something Goes Wrong™, Butler is moved to a desk job… but then, when the White House is attacked by terrorists, he’s the only good guy left standing inside. You know the rest, even if you haven’t seen White House Down.

The remarkable thing, watching both movies, is just how many plot beats are so similar. Even when they’re not exactly the same, they’re functionally identical. For example, a plane shoots up Washington merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker; in White House Down, an explosion at the Capitol is staged merely as a distraction to get the President sent to the White House’s bunker. Both films feature a kid sneaking around the building; a former-Secret-Service traitor-in-their-midst; major characters, including the Speaker of the House, managing the crisis remotely… At least the villains are different: White House Down was based on the Middle East conflict, the villains being Americans wanting it to continue; Olympus Has Fallen is based on the Korean conflict, with nasty foreign villains. Maybe that’s why America liked this better: foreign bogeymen rather than unpatriotic Americans. To be frank, the latter is more interesting.

The real problem with Olympus Has Fallen is that it’s just as daftly OTT as White House Down, but with none of the self-awareness. There are slow-motion shots of characters screaming “no” as someone dies; bullet-torn American flags are tossed to the ground… It’s just as clichéd, but without the knowing wink that makes the other one fun. Foreign bogeymenIn fact, it takes itself very seriously indeed — Fuqua even puts characters’ names and jobs up on screen, as well as timecodes and locations, as if it’s a dramatisation of a real event. Obviously we all know it isn’t, making it feel incredibly odd. The CGI is just as bad as White House Down’s, though the exterior White House stuff looks more real than the obviously-greenscreen locales of the other film. Strikingly, this cost less than half as much ($70m vs. $150m).

On the bright side, the battle on the White House lawn is a good sequence. It’s played as straight as the rest of the film, but on this occasion it works. That said, it’s still just a big shoot-out, of which equally-strong examples can be found in many other action films. White House Down may come up a little short in the exceptionally-memorable sequences stakes too, but at least things like the car chase around the White House lawn — complete with the President firing a rocket launcher! — are trying a bit harder to be original.

Most of the time, the po-faced-ness would render this no more than an adequate and semi-forgettable actioner. By direct comparison to White House Down and all its irreverent fun, This. Is. AMERICA!however, Olympus Has Fallen looks like a far lesser movie. It’s a shame it made it out of the gate first, and that some viewers are not blessed with enough of a sense of humour, because their comparative success has left some quarters with the impression this is the better movie and White House Down is just a clone. Hopefully that’s a wrong we can eventually right.

3 out of 5

Sequel London Has Fallen is out in October.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

2015 #5
Marc Forster | 124 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Arabic & Acholi | 15 / R

Machine Gun PreacherBetween the mega-hits of Quantum of Solace and World War Z, Marc Forster directed this poorly-received ultra-flop. It’s based on the true story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a drug-addicted violence-prone biker thug, who finds God, goes legit as a construction worker, travels to war-torn Sudan as part of a Christian mission, and ends up becoming obsessed with trying to save kids there. His old skills begin to come to the fore as he has to battle local militia to protect his work, earning him the titular nickname.

As a film, it feels like a true story, but in a bad way: poorly structured, unfocused and, as a result, sluggish and awkwardly paced. Subplots meander around, coming and going at will, contributing very little to the overall effect. Some people get annoyed when movies change the facts of history to suit their purpose, but it’s done for a reason: this isn’t a documentary about what actually happened, it’s a narrative fiction inspired by it. You don’t have to betray the spirit of the truth even, just make it function as a story: focus on the relevant parts, rather than just tossing in every event; structure said events with a rising scale of action, rather than tossing it together willy-nilly with barely an ending to reach.

Great white saviourThe problem with the last point is that, in real life, Sam is still over there, still doing the same thing, while conflicts rage on. But this is a film — you need to find some kind of conclusion. The makers have tried, but its an incredibly half-arsed climax; less a resolution to the entire story and more Sam having learnt one lesson from something that went wrong a little earlier.

Forster’s direction is uninteresting; strikingly workmanlike, even. Despite earning several major awards nominations for Finding Neverland and employing some interesting visual tricks for Stranger Than Fiction, his Bourne-copying Bond film and the standard blockbuster-ness of his zombie epic perhaps suggest he is a little bit of a gun-for-hire. Thematically, he wants to have his cake and eat it: the film both condemns Sam’s violent ways, very nearly almost touching on an interesting theme of him actually being completely unchanged (he’s just found a better/more acceptable outlet for his violence); but it backs out of that pretty speedily, because it also wants him to be a hero, ultimately trying to present that he is as its final summary.

The film on the whole is too preachy, both about Christianity and the situation in Africa. It doesn’t feel like a professional medium-budget movie made by experienced filmmakers with a name cast, but instead like one of those specialist Christian movies, Preacher(gun)manmashed together with a polemical charity documentary about Africa, and then with some Rambo action sequences grafted on for good measure. Each of those genres manage to find their own audiences — usually ones so interested in the topic that they’ll switch off any critical filters they may (or may not) possess — but I’m not sure there’s much crossover between them, and the combination certainly doesn’t work for anyone with taste.

The real-life story is undoubtedly interesting, and the problems in Sudan are undoubtedly troubling, but that doesn’t automatically confer quality on a fictionalised film. It feels like the fact the tale was fundamentally interesting and Important led a lot of people involved to coast, like it was too good a narrative not to automatically produce a good film. Unfortunately, that’s not how moviemaking works, and while they’ve not produced a bad film per se, it is a strikingly mediocre one.

2 out of 5

Machine Gun Preacher is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm.