Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^

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Gone Girl (2014)

2015 #18
David Fincher | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Gone Girl“Horrible people do horrible things to each other” is the Post-it Note summary of this dark drama-thriller from director David Fincher, adapted by screenwriter Gillian Flynn from her own novel, which is short on heroes and overloaded with villains. An alternative brief summation is, “modern society is shit.”

Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike) are a married couple living an affluent-seeming life in middle America. One morning she goes missing, their house showing signs of a violent struggle. Nick calls the police, naturally. He has an alibi, but there are gaps — both to the police and for us, the viewer. Flashbacks reveal the courtship and subsequent middle-class-hardship of the Dunnes, their picture-perfect marriage built pretty much like one might build a picture of a perfect marriage. As the media descends on Nick’s small hometown, he’s swept up in the narrative of a nation deciding his guilt or otherwise in tweet-sized bursts of opinion, due process be damned. The heightened situation and an ever-lengthening chain of increasingly incriminating evidence bamboozles Nick into some ill-advised decisions, which only compounds the public’s negative perception of him. And halfway through there’s a killer twist that turns everything on its head, sending the film spiralling out in all kinds of new directions.

Depending on which set of critical reactions you choose to follow, Gone Girl is either Fincher’s latest masterpiece — possibly his most masterful masterpiece — or Fincher-by-numbers, a director treading water with a film so tailor-made for him that it’s all a bit too obvious. I think the latter is to reduce the greatness of Fincher’s work — and Flynn’s too, not to mention the talented cast and everything else that’s superb about this movie. Girl, goneHowever, that opinion may stem from the same point as my view on the more praise-filled reactions: that Gone Girl is not a film as great as Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac, but that it is, along with The Social Network, a half-step behind them. Who knows, perhaps if I re-watched the pair they’d catch up with the pack; but then Se7en is my oft-cited “favourite film ever”, so good luck with that.

So, the people who have written Gone Girl off as a thriller made of audacious twists but, ultimately, no more than that have, I would wager, missed something. Analysis pours forth already — Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko and several other lesser films, wrote a lengthy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous final film that had a mixed-to-poor reception on its release but, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, seems to have been re-evaluated as something of a classic. Kelly’s piece is worth a look for those who don’t mind pieces that include multiple uses of the word “heteronormative” (no, wait, come back — he’s not as bad as most people who insist on using that phrase! And you’ll be pleased to know “cisgender” doesn’t even come up once), but do be aware it thoroughly spoils the plot of Gone Girl (and, I presume, Eyes Wide Shut, but as I’ve not seen that I’m not sure how much I’ve been spoiled).

Comparisons to Kubrick are nothing new for Fincher, of course; both directors being equally famed for their technical virtuosity and obsessive perfectionism, notoriously expressed in their renown for insisting on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes. (There’s a bit in the Gone Girl commentary where Fincher addresses this reputation head on, highlighting a shot that was achieved perfectly on the first take, so they didn’t do another.) However, A.V. Club’s list of the 100 best films of the decade so far (which places Gone Girl at #40) has a different suggestion: “isn’t there a bigger hint of Hitchcock in his choice of projects, the “disreputable” material to which he applies his immense talent?”

PolicierThis is an argument for which I have a lot of time. The majority of Fincher’s filmography is made up of policiers and thrillers of one form or another, and even when he breaks out of that mould — in The Social Network, for instance — he often brings a similar perspective and toolset. Many of these films are borderline-rote, heavily-generic schedule-fillers at screenplay level, and would have been just that in the hands of a lesser director; in the hands of a master filmmaker, however, they become genre-transcending classics. I think that same sentence could be said about most (all?) of Hitchcock’s best films.

Gone Girl is the latest in that vein. Yes, there are the straightforward thrills of a twisty whodunnit plot, but that’s carried off with infinite panache, the film as crisply edited and with as darkly glorious cinematography as anything else on the Fincher filmography. Beneath and around that, there’s a seam of thematic material for the engaged to sink their teeth into. Some have labelled it as a deconstruction of marriage, which is a bit broad. Although there’s no functioning relationship on screen to serve as a counterpoint, I think we’re all capable of imagining one. Rather, Fincher and Flynn are showing what a certain kind of person will do to fulfil their ambitions, especially when that ambition is only multiplied by contact with a similarly desirous other. This is a ‘perfect storm’ of two people — perhaps two fundamentally unlikeable people — setting out to achieve their goals with a “rest of the world be damned” attitude; an all-or-nothing game where the stakes are both life-or-death and, at the end of the day, the chance to live the American (1%-er) Dream. Is that worth what they go through? It is to them.

No news is good newsIs it for the masses, too? Maybe. In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins reckons that “ideas of the essential unknowability of other people and the fluid nature of trust… form the basis of the entire movie [and] this is where the 24-hour TV news cycle comes in… As events in the film play out, panel shows, news pundits and twitter feeds are swift to offer their unique spin on things, spouting wild conjecture as if it’s copper-bottomed fact.” I can’t help but be reminded of the social media reactions surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case: so many people on Twitter were so convinced they they knew what happened, and what should be done about it, that they had pre-judged him and were shocked by the trial’s outcome, leading to condemnation of the judge and/or the entire South African legal system, which must of course be inferior to the American one (because it’s different and therefore the American one is by default superior).

It’s this kind of reaction that the film is, in part, observing and commenting on; it is, as Jenkins dubs it, “the ocean of fickle public backwash… the collective hunger to say something, anything, [that] will, in the end, prevent justice from prevailing.” The role of the media may seem like a subplot, or even a sub-theme, early on, but by the end it has become vital to the film’s third act: key decisions are made to influence the media and public; further decisions are based on the media and public reaction to that influence; and, come the climax of it all, it’s the media and its consumers — more than the police, or even Nick Dunne and his relatives themselves — who decide the outcome.

I haven’t written much about Gone Girl’s production elements, because I think with a Fincher film you can trust they’ll be exemplary and you can focus on the dramatic/thematic points instead. One thing that does merit highlighting, however, is Rosamund Pike’s performance. She is incredible, offering a performance with more layers than a pack of onions, all of which she negotiates with supreme skill. Given the story, Amazing Rosamund Pikea lesser actress could’ve given a performance with fewer notes and the film still would’ve functioned; or they would have struggled to contain the numerous sides to Amy’s personality in the form of a plausible human being. Pike does that, and more. She goes on my list of “people who were robbed of an Oscar because it was someone else’s ‘time’” (alongside Paul Greengrass’ United 93 snub in favour of The Departed).

Ultimately, Gone Girl works as a twist-laden dramatic thriller, with reveals and developments that are best discovered unspoiled for the full rollercoaster experience. Underpinning that, however, is the kind of observation and deconstruction of our modern world that has elevated several of Fincher’s best films. Even if Gone Girl isn’t quite among the films in that very top tier, I think it can stand proudly beside them.

5 out of 5

Gone Girl debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm and 1am.

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. ^

Cloudy 2: Extra Toppings (2013)

2014 #67a
David Feiss | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U

Steve's First BathOn Blu-ray, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 comes with a selection of four “mini-movies” — that’s “shorts” to you and me. When the film debuts on Sky Movies Premiere tomorrow, each screening will be preceded by three of these, under the Extra Toppings title.

Kicking things off is Steve’s First Bath, in which Flint explains to Sam why his attempts to wash the monkey led to their big romantic date taking place at a pickle restaurant. Then, in Super Manny, everyone’s favourite pint-sized cameraman has to get to the studio on his day off, but his journey is blighted by the misadventures of a cute kitty. Finally, Attack of the 50ft. Gummi Bear! sees Flint’s latest invention cause havoc when his favourite confectionary bear gets super-sized.

Also on the BD, but not Sky Movies (though it is on YouTube), is Earl Scouts, in which policeman Earl takes a strawberry and pickle camping (Foodimals, not normal ones, natch) to teach them a valuable life lesson.

Super MannyThe best of the bunch is Super Manny, because Manny’s always fun and it’s the most inventively zany. Worst is Earl Scouts, because it’s just a poor Tom & Jerry / Itchy & Scratchy riff — Sky viewers won’t be missing much by not seeing it. Attack of the 50ft. Gummi Bear! falls somewhere between those two stools, as I suppose does Steve’s First Bath, though slightly less objectionably so — there’s fun to be had in how it sets up Flint’s grand uber-romantic date, then how it’s trashed by Steve and the robot built to wash him.

All of the films are animated in good ol’ 2D, in a rough collage-y style reminiscent of the main films’ credits sequences. Clearly someone felt troubled about doing 2D spin-offs from a 3D-animated film, though, because most start with a CG opening that over-eggs the need for excuses to be in 2D. Why not just get on with it? The only bookend sequence that actually ‘works’ is Steve’s First Bath; though, fortunately, Gummi Bear doesn’t even bother with one.

Attack of the 50ft. Gummi Bear!On the whole, the shorts are passably entertaining if you like slapstick-y 2D animation and want to kill quarter-of-an-hour (or 22 minutes with Earl Scouts thrown in). But there’s nothing particularly innovative or original about any of them — certainly not worth going out of your way for.

2 out of 5

Cloudy 2: Extra Toppings is on Sky Movies Premiere tomorrow at 1:15pm and 6:45pm. The premiere showings of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 follow at 1:35pm and 7:15pm. You can read my review here.

Commentary! The Musical (2008)

2009 26a
Jed Whedon & Joss Whedon | 42 mins | DVD

Commentary! The MusicalCommentary! The Musical falls somewhere between DVD extra, TV episode and short film. Whatever it should be classed as, it’s utter genius.

You’ve surely heard of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the project Joss Whedon created during the infamous US Writers’ Strike. (That in itself you could debate the status of. Three-part miniseries? Short film? Feature film? (At 42 minutes it’s over the Academy’s boundary.) And endlessly on.) Well, on the Dr. Horrible DVD can be found this — an alternate audio track, on which the cast and crew discuss the making of the feature… except it’s all scripted and the majority is sung. Not your traditional audio commentary then.

As an audio commentary, it does little to illuminate the production of Dr Horrible — though, surprisingly, it does do some — but instead focuses its energy on spoofing commentary tracks, DVD extras, and the American film and TV industry in general. Specific targets include the Writers’ Strike and its lack of success, rivalry between lead actors, the importance of ensemble cast members, Asians in US TV and film, the dissection of art by DVD extras, and many more. It’s almost all incredibly funny — inevitably there are a few duff gags and dull songs, although they are uncommonly rare — and it moves at a rate of knots, meaning it rewards multiple listens to pick up every gag. Having already re-listened to a couple of tracks, I can attest to noticing funny lines that I was too busy laughing through before. In a spot of technical impressiveness, the commentary is often surprisingly scene-specific, sometimes even shot-specific. When you consider the effort that must’ve been involved to script and time both songs and spoken dialogue to make this happen, it’s even more impressive.

It’s this careful scripting and the sure-handed attentiveness to theme that marks Commentary! The Musical out as a fictional work in its own right, rather than ‘merely’ a DVD extra, in much the same way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the short-lived (and easily forgotten) Rob Brydon series Director’s Commentary are original works. With its well-targeted thematically-appropriate comedy and plentiful gags, it’s pure delight for fans of DVDs, or anyone else with a mind open to the concept.

5 out of 5