Fantastic Four (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 out of 5

The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

Ironclad (2011)

2012 #8
Jonathan English | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

IroncladIn medieval times, a group of filmmakers set out to prove you can make a Hollywood-quality historical action epic with independent funding in Britain, while in the present day a ragtag group of seven samurai— sorry, gunslingers— sorry, warriors, defend a small town— sorry, castle, from evil bandits— sorry, an evil king.

I think I got some details confused there.

Set shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, Ironclad tells the true story of King John not being very happy and, with the backing of the Pope, setting about reclaiming England. Violently. Naturally the men who forced him into scribbling on the famous document aren’t best pleased, so while some set off to persuade the French to invade, others hole up in Rochester castle, vital to John’s efforts as it controls trade routes to the rest of the country or something.

Firstly, I say “true story” — I have no idea how much fact has gone into this. Some, at least. Was John really supported by a Viking-ish army? Dunno. Were the Knights Templar really dead set against him? Dunno. Was Rochester really defended by a dozen men? Dunno. But this isn’t a history lecture, it’s a piece of entertainment — aiming for the same ballpark as Gladiator, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on, albeit less grand; and there’s a sort of connection to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood too, which I seem to remember included the signing of the Magna Carta.

Say hello to my little friendAnyway, it seems to me its use of facts are probably strong enough to support it as an entertainment. So some of the story structure may be reminiscent of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but it’s not the first to use that and it won’t be the last (and I’ve never seen either anyway. Bad me). And so the special effects-driven climax may occur on the wrong tower of the castle’s keep — I think we can live with that level of deception.

As to the point of “why not just go round the castle?”, I presume the answer is more or less, “well… he didn’t…” Somewhat thankfully, the commander of the Danish forces puts this very question to the King, whose answer is some muttered speech about how his family built it and… I dunno. I’m not clear why they can’t just use the massive camp next to the tiny castle as their appropriate base of operations, other than the film wouldn’t be half as exciting.

And exciting it of course is. There are stretches some may find dull — there’s little new to be done with the whole Recruiting The Team bit, and once John gets the castle under siege and everyone’s twiddling thumbs and eating horses some viewers will be doing one of the two as well — but there are regular bursts of sword-swinging violence that achieve the film’s primary aims. The fights are generally well staged, even if many resort to the modern vogue for close-up quick-cut handheld shakiness, and they’re certainly gory.

Violence!I’ve seen some complain about the level of graphic detail in this regard, but this is medieval times, they didn’t just bump each other about a bit; and you don’t think a giant axe swung down on someone’s shoulder with all a man’s weight is going to just leave a scratch, do you? Director Jonathan English doesn’t linger on detail as if this were a horror movie. There’s cleaved bodies, severed limbs, squirts of blood and more, and it all feels gruesomely realistic, but individually each moment passes quickly.

This is as appropriate a moment as any to mention that the film should be in the ratio 2.40:1, but the UK Blu-ray (and presumably DVD) was for some unknown reason mastered in a screen-filling 16:9 — I thought some of the shots looked tight! On the bright side it means English isn’t incompetent; on the dark side it means whoever mastered the UK Blu-ray is. (I’ve seen grabs from the US BD and that’s in the right ratio. Completely different special features too — a director’s commentary may well trump the half-hour of EPK interview snippets we get, for those that care.) I found this to be most blatant in dialogue scenes, where characters are barely squeezed into the extreme edges of the screen, with even the occasional moment of pan & scan required to get everyone who’s speaking on screen. I think it must also hamper the impact of the occasional epic shot — and there are a few — which is a shame because I think that feeling is really part of English’s aim here. PhwoarI imagine it also makes some of those fight scenes even more disorientating, which is a pity. Nothing will help the sometimes-too-obvious use of digital video though, which looks as nasty as ever.

The battling cast — led by James Purefoy and supported by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman — all seem to have a whale of a time with their swords and axes and general fisticuffs. Their roles don’t offer too much depth, but only Flemyng (who I never rate) struggles. They’re supported by some talented thesps in the shape of Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, quality actors who maybe don’t always have the greatest taste for quality roles (Dance was recently in that direct-to-DVD Tesco-funded Jackie Collins adaptation, for instance) but always offer gravitas. There’s also Kate Mara, who does a fine British accent as an unnecessary love interest for Purefoy’s warrior monk type.

The real star, though, is Paul Giamatti as King John. Petulant, entitled and fundamentally weak, he rants and raves and chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth into (not literally, but at times I swear he came close). It’s a well-pitched performance — he doesn’t go too far with it, making the King ridiculous and laughable without dragging the whole film down around him. That makes for a good villain.

Despite some occasional cheapness in the cinematography, Ironclad largely achieves its goal of creating a Hollywood-esque historical action movie on British soil (it was shot in Wales). Yes some of the CGI is obvious, and some stuff that looks like CGI was apparently model work, but these are all forgivable, especially when you remember this was made for just $25 million. Villainous villainThe unfamiliar true story also gives it the added edge of not knowing who lives or dies, or whether our heroes even succeed. If the ultimate end feels guessable, I think it’s only in retrospect. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of it’s historically accurate anyway.

And so what? It’s an action movie. And on all points that matter, it scores well.

4 out of 5

Ironclad began on Sky Movies Premiere last night and continues daily throughout the week. I have no idea which aspect ratio it’s in.

It placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.