Men in Black: International (2019)

2020 #85
F. Gary Gray | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.00:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Men in Black: International

When Men in Black: International* hit cinemas last summer, many, many, many critics used a neuralyzer-related pun prominently in their review. (Someone did a Twitter thread compiling all the near-identical jokes. It reached 120 examples.**) For those unfamiliar with the MIB franchise, the neuralyzer is a small device that can wipe people’s memories, used by the MIB to keep their activities secret. The repetitive and inevitable joke was that International is so bad you’ll want to be neuralzyed afterwards. Now, I swear the film itself is trying to get in on the gag: the only photo printed on its disc is of a neuralyzer, as if the Blu-ray itself is going to wipe your memory when you take it out of your player. If only it did…

International is essentially a spin-off from the previous trilogy of MIB movies: whereas they followed Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) on adventures in New York, this time we follow newbie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) as she’s relocated to London and paired with hot-shot-agent-gone-off-the-boil H (Chris Hemsworth) on a globetrotting adventure to unearth a mole in MIB.

Reinvigorating the franchise with new blood isn’t a bad idea. The third film was a marked improvement on the second, but neither recaptured the glories of the first, and K and J’s story was pretty well played out. Hemsworth and Thompson are good picks for the leads, too, given he displayed noteworthy comedic chops in the Ghostbusters reboot and the pair had clear chemistry in the well-liked Thor: Ragnarok.

Back in black

But clear-eyed plans alone don’t make a good movie, as Men in Black: International proves. It’s not that the movie is bad per se, it’s just mediocre; bland; uninspired. It’s devoid of wit or charm — which, considering the cast, is kind of remarkable. I mean, it’s not just Hemsworth and Thompson — two appealing, capable leads. There’s also Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson, and Rebecca Ferguson pops up (I didn’t even know she was in it ’til she did), and there’s Rafe Spall (limited by having to be a blatant red herring), and the voice of Kumail Nanjiani. Whoever’s your favourite out of that talented cast, they’re wasted. Neeson is a particular bit of miscasting. Calling the head of London branch “High T” is a perfectly adequate joke, playing on Britishness and poshness… until you cast a guy with a pronounced Northern Irish accent, which just kills the gag dead. Nanjiani fares best as the voice of a little CGI creature, who’s probably meant to be cute but errs more towards annoying, though I didn’t hate him.

Of course I didn’t hate him — nothing in this movie is emotive enough to be hate-worthy. But by being so bland, it becomes objectionable. MIB2 wasn’t great, but at least it was kind of entertaining in its poorness. International is playing it so safe that you can’t even groan at it, or be delighted when something half-decent emerges from the mire, or be amused by it in spite of itself.

I guess this is what happens when you hire a primarily action director to helm a movie that should primarily be a comedy. F. Gary Gray did start off his career with a comedy, Friday, but that was 25 years ago. He’s better known for the likes of The Negotiator, the Italian Job remake, Law Abiding Citizen, and The Fate of the Furious. He hasn’t turned this into a straight-up action movie — it does still try to be amusing — but it’s clear the focus is in a different place to before. It’s partly because it’s far too long and lacking in pace. It’s always stick in my mind that the director of the previous MIBs, Barry Sonnenfeld, once said he’s the only director whose Director’s Cut would be shorter than the original film because he’s always looking to strip things back. I suspect that may be part of why the previous movies worked, and it feels like International could really benefit from the same approach.

Cute and/or annoying CGI creature? Check

It certainly seemed to me like it was several more drafts away from completion. The twist is so obvious you can guess it just from looking at the cast list, underscored by a prologue that fades to white before it resolves and so may as well scream “what happened next is not what you’ll think”. More vitally, why is M a rookie agent? You’d think it would give an obvious and easy character arc, but that’s not really played. Instead, there are loads of times throughout the film where she Knows Stuff, so they have to explain it with “it says it in the handbook” or something similarly hand-wavy. The fact she managed to find the MIB, rather than them choosing to recruit her, is a cute origin but then has nothing to do with anything. It would’ve been better if she was a desk jockey forced out onto her first field assignment. Sure, that’s a tired characterisation too, but at least it’d be something a bit different for the franchise, and a bit more in keeping with how the movie wants to use her.

At one point it was mooted that this would be an MIB / Jump Street crossover movie, which was a barmy idea; but with MIB in need of a fresh start and Jump Street already being pretty immune to the fourth wall, it could’ve been great. At least it would’ve been different — even if it hadn’t’ve worked, they’d’ve tried something bold. Instead, they went for the much safer option of a straightforward soft reboot, and everything about International screams “safe”. Earlier I said it wasn’t bad, but by being so dull, well, it kinda is.

2 out of 5

Men in Black: International is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* Don’t get me started on that colon in the title. I could practically write an essay just about that choice. ^
** Most of the critics took it well, apparently. ^

A Monster Calls (2016)

2018 #129
J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Monster Calls

Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

All the feels

The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

4 out of 5

A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Schindler’s List (1993)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #80

“Whoever saves one life,
saves the world entire.”

Country: USA
Language: English, Hebrew, German & Polish
Runtime: 195 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th December 1993 (USA)
UK Release: 18th February 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.2001

Stars
Liam Neeson (Darkman, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)
Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Iron Man 3)
Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient, The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Amistad, Lincoln)

Screenwriter
Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Moneyball)

Based on
Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novel (released in America as Schindler’s List) by Thomas Keneally.

The Story
In occupied Poland in the early days of World War 2, German businessman Oskar Schindler opens a factory supplying the German military, staffed by Jewish workers. As the Nazis begin to close the ghettos and ship Jews to concentration camps, Schindler uses his connections and profits to surreptitiously save as many as he can.

Our Hero
Oskar Schindler is a self-interested businessman, womaniser, and member of the Nazi Party. Initially employing Jews merely for financial reasons (they’re cheaper than Polish workers), his innate humanity begins to come to the fore.

Our Villain
Nazis! But in particular Amon Goeth, the sadistic commander of the Paszów labour camp, who’s fond of executing Jews at random, amongst other horrors. Nonetheless, Schindler has to deal with him to ensure the (relative) safety of his workforce.

Best Supporting Character
Schindler’s contact on the local Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, who becomes essential to making his business a success, and facilitating his operation to save the workers.

Memorable Quote
“I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.” — Oskar Schindler

Memorable Scene
During the destruction of the ghetto, Schindler sees a little girl in a red coat (the one splash of colour in the body of the film), wandering alone through the devastation. Later, as the Nazis burn piles of the dead, corpses are ferried to the pyres on small wagons. On one, Schindler sees a small body in a red coat… (There’s a good piece on the psychology of why these scenes are so effective here.)

Technical Wizardry
Spielberg chose to shoot in black-and-white to match actual documentary footage of the era, which was how he ‘saw’ the events. It was also shot without storyboards, Steadicams, cranes, or zoom lenses, and about 40% was filmed using handheld cameras, to emphasise a documentary feel. For a similar level of realism, Spielberg originally intended to make the film entirely in German and Polish with English subtitles, but changed his mind because he thought he wouldn’t be able to accurately direct performances in foreign languages.

Making of
Acting as producer, Spielberg initially tried to attract another director because he felt he wasn’t capable of doing the story justice. Martin Scorsese turned it down because he felt it should be done by a Jewish director, and Roman Polanski rejected it because it was too personal (he lived in the Krakow ghetto, only escaping on the day of its liquidation, and his mother died at Auschwitz). Finally, there was Billy Wilder — depending which version you believe, he either wanted to direct but Spielberg was already prepping the shoot, or he actually convinced Spielberg to direct it. Ultimately, Spielberg waited ten years between acquiring the rights and making the film, when he finally felt capable of tackling it.

Awards
7 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Costume Design, Sound, Makeup)
7 BAFTAs (Film, Supporting Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score)
6 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley), Costume Design, Make Up Artist, Production Design, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“If E.T. The Extraterrestrial is Steven Spielberg’s fantasy masterpiece, and Jurassic Park is his commercial masterpiece, then Schindler’s List is certainly his artistic masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of vision and passion that raises even the gifted Spielberg to a new level of artistry. And like all great works, it elevates everyone who views it.” — Dennis King, Tulsa World

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“It’s very, very hard-going and not an easy film to watch, but its importance is unparalleled. You sit there for three hours feeling uncomfortable – because these monstrosities really happened, because we live in a world where people are capable of these acts of inhumanity – and you still can’t even begin to imagine what it must have really been like, to live through that, to see your family and friends shot dead in the street or transported away en masse to the gas chambers. And yet, despite all that, you end the film feeling inspired. Someone made a difference.” — Millicent Murdoch, Millie’s Movie Reviews

Verdict

Schindler’s List wasn’t Spielberg’s first ‘serious’ film, but I think it shows a marked increase in quality over his good-but-flawed previous efforts, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. Liam Neeson gives a commanding performance as the imperfect hero, while Ralph Fiennes finds what little humanity there is in Goeth (and there isn’t much) to pull him short of being an Evil Nazi caricature. The stark black-and-white cinematography acknowledges the incomprehensibly horrific events, while Spielberg’s divisive penchant for sentimentality seems well-matched to the tale, offering a measure of hope from humanity’s darkest days.

What’s in #81? What’s in #81?

Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut (2005)

2015 #9
Ridley Scott | 194 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

Kingdom of HeavenRidley Scott’s Crusades epic is probably best known as one of the foremost examples of the power of director’s cuts: after Scott was forced to make massive edits by a studio wanting a shorter runtime, the film’s summer theatrical release was so critically panned that an extended Director’s Cut appeared in LA cinemas before the end of the year, reaching the wider world with its DVD release the following May. The extended version adds 45 minutes to the film (and a further 4½ in music in the Roadshow Version), enough to completely rehabilitate its critical standing.

The story begins in France, 1184, where blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is something of a social pariah. Offered the chance to head off to fight in the Crusades, Balian… refuses. But then something spoilersome happens and he thinks it might be a good idea after all. When he eventually arrives in Jerusalem, he finds a kingdom divided by political squabbling, quite apart from the uneasy truce with the enemy. You know that’s not going to end well.

Kingdom of Heaven is, in many respects, an old-fashioned epic. It’s a long film not because the director is prone to excess and didn’t know when to cut back, but because it has a lengthy and complicated story to tell. It isn’t adapted from a novel, but the structure feels that way, spending a lot of time on characters and what some might interpret as preamble — it’s a long while before the movie reaches Jerusalem, ostensibly the film’s focus, and it completes the arcs of several major characters along the way. The scale of such stories isn’t to everyone’s taste, but, well, what can you do.

A strong cast bolsters the human drama that sometimes gets lost in such grand stories. Bloom is a perfectly adequate if unexceptional lead, but around him we have the likes of Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Alexander Siddig, Brendan Gleeson, and Edward Norton (well done if you can spot him…) There are even more names if you look to supporting roles. Most notable, however, are the co-leads: both Liam Neeson, as the knight who recruits Balian, and Jeremy Irons, as the wise advisor when he gets to Jerusalem, bring class to proceedings, while Eva Green provides mystery and heart as the love interest. Of everyone, she’s best served by the Director’s Cut, gaining a whole, vital subplot about her child that was entirely excised theatrically. It’s the kind of thing you can’t imagine not being there, and Scott agreed: it seems the chance to restore it was one of his main motivators for putting together a release of the longer version.

It is very much a Ridley Scott film, too. The way it’s shot, edited, styled… you could mix bits of this up with Gladiator or Robin Hood and you might not realise you’d switched movie. As a student of film it frustrates me that I can’t put my finger on exactly what qualities define this “Scott style” — and it’s a specific one to his historical epics, too, because it’s less present (or possibly just in a different way) in his modern-day and sci-fi movies — but I’m certain it’s there. I guess it’s the way he frames shots, the mise-en-scène, the editing, the richness of the photography… The quality of the end result may vary across those three movies, but Scott’s technical skill is never in doubt. (I’d wager Exodus is the same, but its poor reception hasn’t exactly left me gagging to see it.)

Similarly, I can’t quite identify what’s missing from Kingdom of Heaven that holds me back from giving it full marks. It’s a je ne sais quoi edge that I just didn’t feel. I do think it’s a very, very good film, though; one that would perhaps well reward further viewings.

4 out of 5

A version of Kingdom of Heaven is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. Their listings suggest it’s the theatrical cut, though if that’s true then they’ve put in an hour-and-a-half of adverts…


* For what it’s worth, I actually watched what’s now called the “Director’s Cut Roadshow Version”. This was released as the Director’s Cut on DVD, but in the early days of Blu-ray it couldn’t all fit on one disc, so they lopped off the overture, intermission, and entr’acte and still labelled it the Director’s Cut. As of the 2014 US Ultimate Edition, however, those missing bits have been optionally restored, with the set containing ‘three’ versions of the movie. ^

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

2015 #52
Seth MacFarlane | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Navajo | 15 / R

A Million Ways to Die in the WestThe second feature from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, after the justly popular Ted, A Million Ways to Die in the West is a disappointing mixed bag, half pretty-decent character- and situation-based comedy, half cringingly infantile toilet-humour tomfoolery.

MacFarlane stars as Wild West sheep farmer Albert, whose love of his life (Amanda Seyfried) leaves him for the owner of the town’s moustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris). Albert accidentally befriends new-in-town Anna (Charlize Theron) who, unbeknownst to him, is the girlfriend of the West’s most notorious outlaw (Liam Neeson) and is only laying low in his small town for a couple of weeks. A plot of love triangles and gunfighting ensues, littered with the aforementioned extremes of comedy.

One of the film’s problem is that said story is definitely too long in the telling — it feels like its reaching the end about halfway through, then it just keeps going… and going… The bigger problem, however, is the depths plumbed by its ‘humour’.

If you stick with it, there are some genuinely funny, clever bits. There are even some genuinely funny, not-clever-but-amusing bits. Unfortunately, there’s a shedload of puerile gags that just demean the whole thing, and it doesn’t help that some of the worst are early on, setting up poor expectations. They’re so bad I’m embarrassed to have seen them, so I’m certainly not repeating any examples — though one, involving Harris, the result of laxatives, Challenge acceptedand two other men’s hats, briefly has a funny bit in the middle when he tries to acquire the second hat. The film also uses swearing as a comedic crutch too often. I’m not one of those people who’s only tolerant of swearing if they feel each and every use is absolutely justifiable, and I don’t object to it as just part of dialogue, but too often the film leans on someone saying “oh shit” (or whatever) as if that’s a serviceable punchline.

For movie and pop culture fans, there’s entertainment to be had from some fun cameos and allusions, many of them literally “blink and you’ll miss it” (watch out, for instance, for a Family Guy cast member’s name, and a catchphrase callback the writers inserted accidentally). One cameo in particular has been criticised by some for just being the guy turning up, but… honestly, that would be fine if you didn’t know about it in advance. If you spend the film waiting for him to turn up, the joke (such as it is) is already ruined — the gag is just him being there when you don’t expect it; so if you do expect it, there’s no gag. That’s the problem with a Surprise Cameo at any point after opening night. Would it be better if there was a joke beyond just the Surprise Cameo aspect? Well, yes. Does it work as just a Surprise Cameo? If you don’t know it’s there — if it is indeed a surprise — then, well, yes.

Death by bottle?The movie’s best running gag is its titular one. At first it just seems like the concept is going to be limited to Albert sitting in a saloon and listing ways to die, which isn’t funny; but then it keeps cropping back up, sometimes unexpectedly, which really works. The whole fair thing — a running gag within a running gag — is particularly effective. If the film had traded more on this, less on farting and other bodily functions, it would’ve been much improved.

Indeed, the following comment from iCheckMovies summarises my opinion perfectly:

A peculiar mixture of high and low brow comedy which makes it ultimately a bit uncomfortable. However there’s a sweet romance story hidden in there and a fun western (with some very clever gags) if you can get past its more crude side. Feels very much like it would have been quite a fun PG or 12 rated film if they had cut out the more unpleasant side.

That last sentence, in particular, is right on the money. The film’s good bits are genuinely likeable; if not a classic (as the Radio Times weirdly reckons), then a perfectly enjoyable comedy. The frequent doses of crude and toilet ‘humour’ drag the overall likability down massively, however. I think a PG-13 cut would be forced to be a superior movie. Black sheepI dread to think what the 19-minutes-longer unrated version is like.*

I’d like to be able to recommend A Million Ways to Die in the West. The bits I liked, I really enjoyed. The bits I hated, however, I really despised. The best I can say is that your mileage may vary — is it worth suffering the lows to have the highs?

3 out of 5

A Million Ways to Die in the West debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.

* Though it does at least bother to explain why there’s suddenly a reference to Albert’s mother being dead late in the film — it screams “we deleted a scene!” in the theatrical version. ^

The Lego Movie (2014)

aka The LEGO Movie

2014 #132
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO MovieDespite looking like a 100-minute toy commercial with an irritating theme song, plus a moral message about nonconformity that seems like it’ll get bungled (but doesn’t), The Lego Movie is so much more — and better — than that.

Boundlessly creative, clever, and witty with the possibilities of its titular topic, featuring technically incredible animation (the close-up detail!), and boosted by a talented cast including leading man du jour Chris Pratt — plus a completely unpredictable final act twist — the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs co-directors have, against the odds, produced another charming and immensely enjoyable animation.

The song is awful, though.

4 out of 5

The Grey (2011)

2014 #85
Joe Carnahan | 112 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The GreyLiam Neeson shoots wolves for an arctic drilling company, but when his flight home crashes, he must attempt to lead the small band of survivors across an icy wilderness to the mere hope of safety — pursued all the way by murderous wolves…

Promoted as Neeson’s latest Taken-style actioner, The Grey is more of a survival horror, but with wolves instead of some mystical entity — though given the apparent lack of accuracy in the wolves’ behaviour, perhaps they’re supernatural after all. Between chases and escapes there’s a fair bit of existential pondering, including some literal staring at the sky and talking to an unresponsive God — “Bergman for Blokes”, you might say.

Couple this with an ambiguous ending, and the whole is unlikely to please the action-orientated folk the marketing targeted. You might think it’s better suited to an artier crowd, but, conversely, the equally-present genre elements may weigh too heavily for their tastes. At least one over-ambitious sequence rendered through mediocre special effects does little to help.

It’s very much a film of two co-existant halves, then. For anyone who can reconcile those disparate faces as they come, co-writer/director Carnahan has (some iffy special effects and suspect wolf behaviour aside) crafted an effectively tense, almost scary, movie.

4 out of 5

Darkman (1990)

2014 #38
Sam Raimi | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

DarkmanBefore he made the insanely successful Spider-Man trilogy, horror auteur Sam Raimi helmed this cinema-original superhero-esque fable, about a scientist caught in the crossfire between a corrupt developer and the mob who sets out for revenge.

Although ostensibly a comic-book-y action/vigilante flick, Raimi brings his horror chops (note the certificate), as well as a left-field filmmaking style that gives the film a unique edge. Add Liam Neeson as an action hero decades before Taken, throw in that je ne sais quoi of ’80s/’90s-filmmaking-ness (it’s the lighting, the effects… I don’t know), and you have an atypical, enjoyable, overlooked genre minor-classic.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

2014 #78
Jonathan Liebesman | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG-13

Wrath of the TitansThe 2010 Clash of the Titans is primarily remembered for its bad early-3D post-conversion, but must’ve made enough money to greenlight this sequel. I deemed Clash passably entertaining and expected no more here. Sadly, Wrath can’t deliver even that.

A confused story connects workmanlike action sequences and mediocre CGI (the cyclops resemble Shrek characters). A romantic subplot consists solely of The Hero kissing The Female at the end. New ideas sporadically rear their head, but Liebesman can’t ring anything interesting from them. Clash’s strong points — creature design; retro-styled gods — are AWOL.

The end result is all bluster and no heart.

2 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.