Gemini Man (2019)

2020 #141
Ang Lee | 117 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Gemini Man

Gemini Man is a film that, at every point I can remember it being talked about, was discussed more for its various technical feats than anything else. Partly that’s because there are a couple of angles. Firstly, the most obvious: it stars Will Smith as an ageing assassin who must fight… a 25-years-younger Will Smith, achieved with motion capture and CGI. Secondly, director Ang Lee shot it in 3D 4K HFR — that’s High Frame Rate, if you don’t know, with the picture running at 120 frames per second rather than the 24fps we’ve been used to for the past 90-odd years (excepting The Hobbit trilogy, though only if you saw one of the relatively-limited HFR theatrical screenings). Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Gemini Man often feels more like a tech demo with a plot grafted onto it than it does a fully functioning movie in its own right.

Consequently, I’m going to spend more of this review writing about the film’s presentation than its content. To some degree, that speaks for itself as criticism. But if you are interested in the film and don’t give a toss about how exactly you’re seeing it (or don’t have a choice), feel free to whizz down to the last two paragraphs (just after the picture of Young Will Smith) where I finally offer some thoughts on the film itself.

Back to the tech, then. There’s currently only one way to see Gemini Man in its intended format: at the cinema. I say “currently” — obviously such opportunities expired when its theatrical run ended, and I don’t imagine it’s likely to get a re-release. Every other option is a compromise. Want to see it in 3D? Not only will you need the appropriate home cinema setup, but you’ll have to import the disc from Germany, the only country where it was granted a 3D Blu-ray release. Want to see it in HFR? That’s easier, because the 4K disc is widely available, though obviously you still need the appropriate kit. (I presume the digital 4K versions are HFR too, but I don’t actually know that.) Mind you, even that’s something of a compromise, because tech limitations mean the home release is 60fps rather than the full 120 (to be fair, so were most HFR cinema screenings).

Action Man

I watched it in 4K 60fps, and, oh, it’s weird. So so weird. Distracts-you-for-the-entire-film weird. Virtually-the-only-thing-I’m-going-to-talk-about-in-this-review weird. The disc even begins with a notice/warning that it’s at 60fps rather than 24fps, so presumably they know how weird it feels. The most obvious effect of more frames per second is that motion is smoother, with reduced motion blur, but that applies on a micro level to lend an unnatural clarity to everything. The effect on motion is often called “the soap opera effect”, because such cheap drama has traditionally been shot at TV’s higher default frame rate. Of course, so is much other television, or even behind-the-scenes footage on films; so while it’s not a wholly inaccurate nickname, the effect reminded me more of TV documentaries. The film begins with a train journey in a lusciously green-looking Belgium, before travelling around the globe to other sunny locations with glamorous establishing shots. It looks less like a Hollywood action movie, more like Will Smith is the new host of Cruising with Jane McDonald.

When it’s not playing travelogue, it looks like a tech demo. I don’t think that’s just the added smoothness, but everything about how it’s shot: it’s very bright and saturated, the kind of look you get in marketing promos, not feature films. Even paused it looks a little odd. Partly that’s the boost given to the colour palette by HDR, but at this point I’ve watched plenty of other films with HDR to be familiar with its effects, and I think this was beyond normal. The other thing the visual quality reminded me of was low-budget films by very new/amateur filmmakers, and that’s definitely to do with Ang Lee’s shot choices — lots of stuff at eye level, gentle pans and tilts, in locations so dull they might have been found around someone’s hometown. It doesn’t help any that all the fonts they’ve used for captions look like the editing software’s bland default. And further, it’s also the effect of shooting on high-resolution digital video — it’s ultra-clear, with none of the grain of real film, but, again, that’s a look more familiar from low-budget productions. Would HFR work better if it was shot on real film? You’d get back some of that tactile grit, rather than telltale digital smoothness.

Biker Man

What about when the film gets to its big action sequences — the kind of thing that obviously a no-budget newbie couldn’t afford. Would the change of milieu fix the mental associations? Yes and no, in that it just adds other ones: the first big sequence, the bike chase you probably saw in trailers or clips, looks like a computer game. Again, it’s a mix of elements: the digital sheen, the smooth frame rate, the shot choices (lots of POV or close following, like a game’s third-person camera), and an unnatural-seeming speed — it looks like some of the CGI has been animated too fast, though that could be HFR’s fluidity making normal motion look odd because we’re not used to it.

The advantage of wondering all this while watching the film at home was that, afterwards, I could pop in the regular Blu-ray and compare a few scenes in 24fps 1080p SDR. Immediately, it looks a lot more like a regular movie. Is that indeed the loss of HFR’s smoothness, or is it the drop in resolution, or the loss of HDR enhancement? Without being able to view different permutations it’s hard to say which one causes the jarring effect, or if it‘s the incremental change made by each that adds up to a radically different picture when combined. That said, obviously I’ve watched 4K HDR films before, and it’s never struck me as odd-looking as much as this film (I’ve seen some strange applications of HDR, but that tends to be in individual shots/scenes, not an entire movie). The bike chase also looks more normal on the whole, though some of the bits I alluded to before still looked dodgy, so I can only conclude it’s a mix of the animation (because I’m sure it’s not a real stunt) and the HFR.

If all that wasn’t distracting enough, there’s the fact that one of the film’s main stars is a de-aged Will Smith. We’ve seen plenty of de-ageing in films now, whether it be Marvel’s flashbacks or Scorsese’s varied eras in The Irishman. This feels more extensive, though — they’ve not just airbrushed Smith’s age-related blemishes, but recreated his youthful visage with full motion-captured CGI. The end result is both incredibly realistic animation and also not quite there. Maybe that’s just because I know it’s not real — I wonder if someone unfamiliar with the film’s setup wouldn’t register it. It looks more convincing than I remember Peter Cushing being in Rogue One, and I remember stories of kids who didn’t realise he was CGI. I guess the best praise is that, as the film went on, I realised I’d just accepted Young Will as his own character, not a second Old Will in disguise. There are scenes where he’s called on to do Proper Acting and it works. Unfortunately, it’s almost ruined by one scene at the end where the effect suddenly looks like a ten-year-old computer game. Was this a last-minute re-edit, I wonder, leaving them without enough time to do the CGI properly? It’s a shame to have dropped the ball at the last hurdle.

Young Man

And if you can get past all the technical distractions (which I guess most people will, as “the tech” is not why most people watch films, and on any format less than 4K the visual oddness evaporates anyway), what about the film itself? Well, it’s a passable action-thriller with a sci-fi tweak. For the level of the latter, think something like Face/Off rather than, say, Blade Runner. I’ve seen quite a few people compare it to a ’90s action movie and that’s pretty fair — subtract the fancy cameras and CGI and that’s what’s left. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re so young that ’90s action movies are Old and consequently Bad. There are a couple of very impressive and exciting action sequences — the bike chase, primarily (which I bet looks fab in 3D). That said, the Blu-ray’s visual effects featurette reveals they faked a bunch of stunts that Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie would’ve done for real as a third-tier action sequence, which takes the shine off a little. (On the other hand, it also reveals that there’s some fucking incredible CGI in this movie — stuff you’d never imagine was an effect but is, including a full-on close-up of Old Will.)

So, the reason the tech presentation remains the film’s strongest talking point is that the film underneath is decent but nothing particularly special. That said, I do think it’s been given a hard rap by critics and viewers alike — whether or not you’re interested in the experimental visuals, it’s a fine sci-fi-tinged action blockbuster, with all the attendant qualities and demerits that implies.

3 out of 5

Gemini Man is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Men in Black 3 (2012)

2017 #167
Barry Sonnenfeld | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Men in Black 3

Maybe it’s something to do with my age, but when Men in Black II came out it felt like a bit of a belated sequel to the mega-hit Men in Black — it had been five years, after all, which is quite a long time for a comedy sequel. Well, Men in Black 3 was another ten years after that… As it turns out, MIB2 is a kind of typical first sequel: memorable-but-small characters get massively increased roles; things are referenced just for the sake of referencing them; jokes are repeated or amped up. MIB3 is more like the typical belated sequel: it stands somewhat divorced from the first two, with the minor stuff all gone, and some more significant changes necessitated by the passing of time.

What hasn’t changed are the leads, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) — although the latter’s about to, because when an alien criminal he locked up in the ’60s escapes from prison and travels back in time, K is wiped from existence. As the only one who can remember K, it’s up to J to also travel back to the ’60s, rescue the younger K (Josh Brolin), and also save the Earth.

MIB3’s biggest problem is that it’s not funny enough. The first two were sci-fi comedies with the emphasis on the comedy, whereas this is more of a light sci-fi adventure. In some respects it tries to substitute emotional weight for the lack of laughs, aiming for a pay-off that’s designed to put a cap on the whole trilogy. It kind of works, I suppose, but it also feels like a bit of an ill fit. It’s nice that the film’s trying something different, I suppose, but I’d rather the tone was closer to the other movies — more humour, tighter pacing. Director Barry Sonnenfeld used to have an obsession with making his movies shorter (I remember he once said he’d be the only director where a “director’s cut” would actually mean a truncated version of the movie). I don’t know if he’d given up on that notion by 2012, but trimming ten minutes out of this likely wouldn’t hurt.

Someone forgot the dress code...

The best bit is definitely Brolin as Young K, doing a bang-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones while also adding enough to make the part his own. As for the rest of the new cast members, Emma Thompson’s role is fine if you consider her appearance no more than a cameo, but Alice Eve is underused as her younger self. Jemaine Clement chews the scenery double-time as the villain, while the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg has a fun supporting role as a character who can see all possible futures.

MIB3 is not as weak as the much-maligned first sequel (which I don’t hate as much as some, but it isn’t great), but it can’t equal the freshness of the original, either. Little surprise it didn’t lead to a full-blown revival of the franchise… though, as it still did well at the box office and the series’ popularity endures, it’s also no surprise we’ll be getting a spin-off-ish fourth movie next summer.

3 out of 5

Bad Boys II (2003)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Bad Boys II

Country: USA
Language: English & Spanish
Runtime: 147 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 18th July 2003 (USA & Canada)
UK Release: 3rd October 2003
Budget: $130 million
Worldwide Gross: $273.3 million

Stars
Martin Lawrence (National Security, Wild Hogs)
Will Smith (Ali, I Am Legend)
Jordi Mollà (Blow, Riddick)
Gabrielle Union (Bring It On, Think Like a Man)

Director
Michael Bay (The Rock, The Island)

Screenwriters
Ron Shelton (White Men Can’t Jump, Hollywood Homicide)
Jerry Stahl (Twin Peaks Episode 11, Urge)

Story by
Marianne Wibberley (The 6th Day, National Treasure)
Cormac Wibberley (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, National Treasure: Book of Secrets)
Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup)


The Story
Miami’s finest (or, at least, funniest) narcotics cops attempt to stop the flow of ecstasy into the city, before the cartel masterminding it can escape to Cuba.

Our Heroes
Wisecracking Miami narcs Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowery. If you don’t like them, this isn’t the film for you — it spends an awful lot of time just hanging out with them rather than getting on with the plot.

Our Villain
Cuban drug lord Tapia. I guess they realised the first film’s villain didn’t get enough screen time, because there’s a lot more invested in this one. Unfortunately, he’s not very interesting, and Jordi Mollà’s performance is terrible.

Best Supporting Character
Marcus’ little sister, Syd, a DEA agent. She’s dating Mike, which is a secret from Marcus, and is undercover trying to catch Tapia’s gang, which is a secret from them both. (See also: Next Time.)

Memorable Quote
“We ride together, we die together. Bad boys for life.” — Mike Lowery

Memorable Scene
After a car chase, pile-up, and shoot out with our heroes, the gang of criminals hijack a car carrier to continue their pursuit of Syd. Marcus and Mike give chase along the freeway, at which point the criminals decide to start offloading cars…

Previously on…
The first Bad Boys was Michael Bay’s feature debut, and propelled Will Smith’s career towards movie stardom.

Next time…
A third film has been in on-and-off development for years — the last news seems to be that it might start shooting later this year. Definitely in the works this year is a spin-off series based around Marcus’ sister, Syd.

Verdict

Probably the Michael Bay-iest Michael Bay movie that Michael Bay ever Michael Bay-d— er, made. If the first Bad Boys suggested where Bay’s style would go, Bad Boys II is him in full flow. It’s got all the hyper-kinetic editing, vague sense of space, and demonstrates the same lack of restraint over length (as well as, well, everything else) that Bay would show again and again during the Transformers series. It’s just. So. Long. There are loads of skit-like comedy asides that could be cut. Keep some, sure — it’s an action-comedy, that’s the style — but all of them? I guess it’s something of a hang-out movie in that regard, more about spending time with the characters than getting on with the plot.

It’s also packed to bursting with major action sequences, some of which border on classic but, again, are let down by Bay’s direction. For example, the freeway chase is good, but with a better sense of space and interrelation between its various elements (rather than the tumult of semi-connected images we do get) it could’ve been exceptional. Similarly, the climax is massively overblown in a way that only Bay (well, and now the Fast & Furious films) could do, and yet I didn’t recall a second of it from my previous viewing. It goes to show there’s more to making something memorable than just going Big.

This Letterboxd review sums it up well: “It’s impossible to love, but also hard to hate. It’s ambitious, relatively well shot, too long to call a piece of chuck-on fun, and generally just weird.”

For the record, although I’ve given both films a 3, the first is up towards a 3.5 and this is down towards a 2.5.

Bad Boys (1995)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Bad Boys

Whatcha gonna do?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th April 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 16th June 1995
Budget: $19 million
Worldwide Gross: $141.1 million

Stars
Martin Lawrence (Blue Streak, Big Momma’s House)
Will Smith (Six Degrees of Separation, Independence Day)
Téa Leoni (Deep Impact, Jurassic Park III)
Tcheky Karyo (Nikita, GoldenEye)
Joe Pantoliano (Empire of the Sun, Memento)

Director
Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers)

Screenwriters
Michael Barrie & Jim Mulholland (Amazon Women on the Moon, Oscar)
Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Hostage)

Story by
George Gallo (Midnight Run, The Whole Ten Yards)


The Story
When millions of dollars’ worth of heroine is stolen from police evidence, the two cops that brought it in must find the thieves and retrieve the drugs, while also protecting the only surviving witness who’s seen the crooks.

Our Heroes
Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowery, a pair of wisecracking cop buddies, one a family man with a wife and kids, the other a smooth womaniser. Never seen that before.

Our Villain
Drug lord Fouchet. Murder happy and clearly a master at planning heists. Other than that, we barely get to know him.

Best Supporting Character
A witness to some of Fouchet’s crimes, Julie ends up in witness protection with Marcus, who she thinks is Mike, which they have to hide from Marcus’ family. Hilarity ensues!

Memorable Quote
Mike Lowrey: “Now back up, put the gun down, and get me a pack of Tropical Fruit Bubblicious.”
Marcus Burnett: “And some Skittles.”

Memorable Scene
After a shoot-out at the airport, Fouchet escapes in a sports car. Marcus, Mike, and Julie give chase, with the normally slow Marcus driving, as they find themselves in a game of chicken with the concrete crash barriers at the end of the runway…

Making of
Bad Boys was a relatively low-budget production, but, fortunately for director Michael Bay’s ambitions, he was already a wealthy man from directing commercials and music videos — so when the budget ran out before shooting a key part of the climax, he was able to pay for it out of his salary; and when they needed a swish car for the heroes to drive, Bay lent his own Porsche 911 to the production.

Next time…
A sequel came eight years later, with a third in on-and-off development ever since — the last news seems to be that it might start shooting later this year. Definitely in the works this year is a spin-off series based around a character from the second film.

Verdict

The debut feature from director Michael Bay, Bad Boys displays a lot of the things he would become known for: fast-cut action scenes; a sense of style over substance; a little light lasciviousness… Even from his first film, some of his flourishes look over the top. Maybe they’ve just aged badly — it certainly feels of its time, i.e. the mid-’90s (with some ’80s holdovers). Anyway, it’s kept aloft by the buddy act of its two stars, who are pretty funny at times. Bay allows the film to run a mite too long though, and the villain is underdeveloped, both of which hold it back even more than Bay’s sometimes-cheesy direction.

Bright (2017)

2018 #1
David Ayer | 117 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15

Bright

The director of L.A.-set crime thrillers Harsh Times, Street Kings, and End of Watch returns with another L.A.-set crime thriller, only this time with orcs. Yes, orcs. Also fairies and elves and dragons and all that.

But you knew that because you surely can’t’ve missed hearing about Bright these past few weeks. It’s Netflix’s first attempt at making a big-budget summer-tentpole-style blockbuster and they’ve been pushing it hard, but it was savaged by critics, only to then have proven immensely popular with viewers (it’s Netflix’s most-watched original production ever) and had a sequel speedily commissioned.

It’s set in an alternate present day where magic and the aforementioned fantastical creatures all exist. In L.A., humans are your regular run-of-the-mill people, elves are the well-off upper class living in a segregated oasis, and orcs are the poor underclass — a couple of thousand years ago there was a Lord of the Rings-style war to vanquish the Dark Lord, in which orcs picked the wrong side and still pay the price. Nonetheless, the LAPD has recently inducted the first orc cop (Joel Edgerton). When he and his partner (Will Smith) happen across a magic wand, a rare and immensely powerful device, they find themselves hunted by an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) who intends to resurrect the Dark Lord.

Orc of Watch

Bright is, straightforwardly, a mash-up of crime thriller and fantasy blockbuster. Visually and tonally it could be a sequel to End of Watch, were it not for the fantastical creatures. With them in the mix, the plot, creatures, terminology, etc, feels broadly familiar from other fantasy adventures. The unique point, obviously, is in combining these two disparate genres into a homogenous whole. In this regard, Max Landis’ screenplay is a mixed bag: I like the basic concept, and a lot of the ideas within it are decent too, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

For example, the alternate present-day L.A. is imagined just by switching out one real-life race for a fantasy one. So black people become orcs in a simple one-for-one switch. These race analogies are thuddingly heavy-handed, to the point where you wish they hadn’t bothered because then at least they might’ve done it by accident and it would’ve been subtle. Exposition is equally as on the nose, with characters spelling out world history and terminology to each other purely for the viewer’s benefit. It’s a challenge to convey this kind of information to the audience in a fantasy movie, but that’s not an excuse for doing it badly.

OWA - Orcz Wit Attitudes

Ayer seems an apt choice for director — of course he is, because he made End of Watch and Bright really is very similar to that movie. He doesn’t seem to have a complete handle on the material, though. The pace feels all wrong — not terrible, just slower than it should be, like scenes need tightening up, maybe a few more deletions here and there. It feels like it’s been mis-paced in the same way as many a Netflix original series, which makes you wonder if this is a problem with someone who oversees stuff at Netflix rather than individual film/programme-makers. Conversely, it could be because most regular people just won’t notice it — these productions aren’t slow in the way an arthouse movie is slow, they’re just not moving through situations and dialogue at the rate they should; killing time by letting scenes roll on that bit longer than they have any purpose to, that kind of thing.

As the film goes on, it trades this early wheel-spinning for other problems: choppy editing; disjointed storytelling; ill-defined characters and motives. Noomi Rapace is severely underused as the villain — she has so little to do that the role could’ve been played by anyone. Edgar Ramirez isn’t quite so poorly served as an FBI-type elf also on the trail of the wand, but one wonders if someone was already thinking about sequels when shaping these supporting roles. At least Smith and Edgerton make for decent leads, even as they battle against the script’s character inconsistencies and dead-end subplots (for instance, a chunk of time spent on Smith’s home life at the start has barely any baring on later events).

Urban elf

Bright is hampered not by its potential-filled genre mash-up premise, but instead by the filmmakers chosen to execute that idea. They fitfully realise that potential, but it’s diluted by a rash of clichéd or plain undercooked filmmaking. The final result is a long way from perfect, but it’s also pretty far from being the disaster of epic proportions that critical and social media reaction seems suspiciously keen to paint it as (the Cannes-like “Netflix make TV not movies” sentiment is strong in some quarters). It’s a middle-of-the-road blockbuster movie, with some very solid plus points that are let down by some irritating negatives.

3 out of 5

Bright is available on Netflix now and forever.

P.S. Random pointless thing of the week: there are British and American variations of the Bright poster. Spot the difference.

Independence Day: Special Edition (1996/1998)

2016 #102a
Roland Emmerich | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not sure when I last watched ID4 (as it was so often branded and marketed, for only semi-clear reasons — sure, US Independence Day is July 4th, but other than that the “4” has nothing to do with anything), but it’s been a damn long time — my DVD copy, which I know I never watched (I have the shiny new remastered Blu-ray now), has a postcard inside advertising the forthcoming Planet of the Apes remake, in cinemas Summer 2001. The time I best remember seeing it was in cinemas on its initial release. Independence Day was a phenomenally huge deal back in 1996: it felt like that shot of the White House being destroyed was on TV on loop; there were making-of TV specials (I remember the behind-the-scenes footage of how they did those incredible, much-discussed effects as clearly as I remember anything from the film itself); I listened to the Radio 1 Independence Day UK audio drama on tape (it was… so-so), read the tie-in comic book adaptation, and also the tie-in novelisation — which was the first book I ever gave up on without finishing because I thought it was so badly written. Ten-year-old badblokebob, literary critic. The film itself was also the first 12-rated movie I went to see in the cinema, so it was even more of a big deal for me.

Revisiting it 20 years later, with a sequel imminent, ID4 obviously no longer has that attendant hype, but it does hold up pretty well in its own right as a blockbuster disaster epic. At least, it did for me — I read a review on Letterboxd from someone who watched it for the first time this January, saying that, in the age of the modern spectacle-based blockbuster, Independence Day doesn’t compete. Which feels weird, because it was all about the spectacle when it came out; but of course, things date, and what counted as sheer cinematic spectacle in 1996 is (it would seem) underwhelmingly run-of-the-mill in 2016. It’s fair to say that not all of the model effects still hold up, but there’s a physicality to them that really works. The best ones are still among the best movie effects ever.

The film’s first half is superior to its second. Co-writer/director Roland Emmerich and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin conceived the film off the idea of 14-mile-wide spaceships just appearing one morning, and the realisation of that concept (and the ensuing destruction) is where the film really shines. That’s not to say there’s not good stuff after the aliens unleash their devastating destructive power — the famous presidential speech comes just before the climax, for one — but it’s from the midpoint on that some things begin to get a tad muddled, some subplots are rushed along, and other events get needlessly elongated. That said, it’s all relative: the 2016 version of this story with this many characters would surely run for five hours as it endeavoured to give them all a starring-role-level storyline and turn every effects-fuelled alien encounter into a 20-minute action sequence.

One area it really succeeds is humour. It doesn’t lose the scale or seriousness of the events, but it keeps the tone entertaining. That feels like a skill a lot of blockbusters used to have that’s gone awry in recent years, though you could use the tone of Marvel Studios’ movies to counterpoint that. Those Marvel films are definitely subject to a different criticism of modern blockbusters, however, which is their mindless destruction of whole cities. It’s a just criticism, and some of the blame for it can surely be traced back to the popularity of ID4. However, here the destruction isn’t so unfeeling: the morning after the aliens’ famous landmark obliteration, President Whitmore mulls over how many people died and how many didn’t have to if he’d made different choices. Both Marvel and DC have had to make that kind of reflection a plot point in sequels to retrospectively justify it happening in the first place.

This was the first time I’d watched Independence Day’s extended Special Edition cut, and I’d advise not bothering. It adds around 8½ minutes of new material, but the scenes don’t add all that much, and some of them are so awkwardly rammed in that it’s almost irritating — for instance, several are inserted in the middle of an existing music cue by merely fading out the score immediately before the new scene, then fading it back in afterwards! They’re deleted scenes that have been shoved into the movie, with the score often fudged to make room and stuff like that, rather than it being a genuine “extended cut”. People seem to love extended cuts on disc, but sometimes a nice deleted scenes section is preferable.

With the way things are nowadays — every hit sequelised; old IPs regularly dragged up for new moneymaking opportunities — it was kind of inevitable we’d get ID4 2 eventually. I’m looking forward to it, but not insanely hyped up. It probably benefits from the 20-year wait story-wise, allowing for a drastically new status quo on Earth when the aliens return, but with blockbusters released all year round now, and CGI meaning every one is overloaded with effects shots that are far more epic than ID4 had, there’s little doubt that the sequel won’t have the same enduring impact on the blockbuster firmament. For its faults, you can’t deny ID4 that.

4 out of 5

Independence Day: Resurgence is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US tomorrow.

Hancock: Extended Version (2008)

2015 #12
Peter Berg | 98 mins | DVD | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15*

HancockWill Smith is the eponymous drunken vagrant, who also has the powers of Superman, in this under-appreciated superhero comedy-drama. Hated by the public for the destruction he causes while ‘helping’, and wanted by the authorities for the same — though they can’t catch him because, you know, superpowers — he gets an image makeover when he saves wannabe entrepreneur Jason Bateman. Bateman’s wife, Charlize Theron, is less sure of Hancock’s merits.

If you’ve only seen the humour-focused trailers, seeing Hancock described as a comedy-drama might come as a surprise. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes story here, it would seem, hinted at in various interviews and articles one can find scattered around. To boil it down, it seems as if screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (yes, him of Breaking Bad) and, in particular, director Peter Berg thought they were making a character drama superhero movie, while studio executives were more interested in it being a superhero action-comedy. Only natural when you hire Will “Men in Black” Smith, I guess. While the marketing went all-out on the comedy angle, the film itself is torn between these two pillars, leaving viewers with mismanaged expectations — resulting in “under-appreciated”.

Tonally, it’s mixed throughout. For instance, it’s been shot with handheld close-up ShakyCam veracity, which works when it’s playing on “what if this were real?” emotional story beats, but feels at odds on the occasions it descends into comedic vulgarity. Some criticise Berg’s style fullstop, saying he’s taken a black comedy/satire and played it straight. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think that’s wholly fair. There’s a lot of stuff here that works as a serious-minded drama, suggesting Berg was on the right track, Comedybut it rubs against comedy stuff that feels like it’s from a Comedy. The extended cut includes an early sex/ejaculation joke/sequence that wasn’t in the theatrical cut because Berg thought it wasn’t funny and test audiences agreed. Goodness knows why it got put back, other than because of length — it accounts for over half of the extensions (more details here).

Essentially, I think the critics are damning Berg and co for not making the movie the critics think they should be making, and not giving them credit for making the movie they were trying to make. The marketing men are at fault here, or the audience for wanting a superhero comedy when they’ve sat down to a superhero drama. Unfortunately, it’s harder to defend when Berg’s work was indeed compromised, though by studio interference rather than by misunderstanding his own mind. Also by the fact his other films include crap like Battleship, so of course you might think he’s rubbish.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a controversial twist/change of direction halfway through. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with twists, but this engenders a bumpy transition, which initially seems not to work — the tone and meaning shift abruptly. However, if you go with it, the film settles back down and it pays off during the finale. A lot of viewers aren’t very good about trusting a movie and going with it these days, though. Again, however, occasional poor decisions make it trickier to defend. For instance (spoilers!), when Mary goes to visit Hancock after it’s revealed she has powers too, she’s dressed up like a supervillain, a complete change of style from her normal casual-suburban-mom look. Why the change? Mary - quite contraryWhy indeed, because a) she’s not a supervillain, and b) even if she were, why get changed?! It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: she’s made to look like a villain because we think that’s what she’s about to be revealed as, and a big hero-vs-villain fight follows too… but she isn’t. It’s not quite up there with the magically-changing Batsuits of Batman & Robin, but it’s the next level down.

While I’m bashing the film, let’s note that the CGI is appallingly weak. It’s hard to know how much that’s time passing and how much it was always weak, but considering it’s from the same year as Iron Man, I err to the latter. This may again be the result of behind-the-scenes travails, though: apparently it was supposed to contain 300 VFX shots, but actually has 525. Did anything go right on this film’s production?

On the bright side, Will Smith’s performance has garnered lots of praise, deservedly so. He could have been his usual charming self, making Hancock a funny goofball character. Instead, he plays the reality of this guy being a damaged loner. It might not make the film as consistently comedic as some would have liked, but it’s a more engaging and rewarding performance on the whole.

VagrantThe film would work a lot better on the whole if the tone had been settled on as definitively as Smith’s performance, rather than trying to have its cake and eat it by mining both the “what if this were real?” and “haha, an unlikeable drunk superhero!” versions concurrently. For my money, however, if you treat Hancock as a fairly seriously-intended movie that was forced to contain more (half-arsed) action and (misjudged) comedy for the sake of box office, it’s not a bad experience at all.

4 out of 5

Hancock is on 5* tonight at 9pm.

* The extended version is officially Unrated in the US. Many a time an “unrated” cut would mirror the theatrical version’s certificate, if only they’d bothered. However, theatrically Hancock was a PG-13, but only after it had been submitted twice before and received an R — which is probably what this version would be, then. ^

After Earth (2013)

2014 #69
M. Night Shyamalan | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

After EarthConceived by movie star Will Smith primarily as a vehicle for his wannabe-movie-star son, and helmed by auteur-apparently-turned-director-for-hire M. Night Shyamalan, After Earth is a far-future sci-fi actioner about a militaristic father and son who crash land on a long-abandoned Earth, which has evolved into a hostile environment from which they must try to escape, while also being hunted by an alien super-predator.

Much derided by critics and audiences on its release, After Earth is not a film without merit. There are some good ideas here, albeit undermined by frequent plot and logic holes, often stilted acting, and a chronic need to over-explain things. There’s nice design work, even if its plausibility is suspect, but bonus points for creating a far-future humanity that feels weird and suitably distant, rather than showing tech in a currently-fashionable style that we could almost make now if only there was the money.

In many respects, it feels only a decent re-write — and a decent child actor — away from being a properly good sci-fi action-adventure. But story and dialogue niggles abound; the kind of things that perhaps seemed fine from the inside of the filmmaking experience, but to a fresh pair of eyes — i.e. the audience’s — get in the way. And when we’re increasingly treated to deep, subtle drama on television, any movie or show that seeks to over explain every plot or emotional beat just seems childlike. Maybe that’s my own fault for watching too much quality programming of late? Maybe people who don’t enjoy Game of Thrones or Mad Men or The Americans (or one of the other increasingly-prevalent shows that don’t feel the need to spoonfeed everything) prefer things to be spelled out for them? I don’t know. I feel like I want better, though; I feel like I want the film to make me keep track of things, rather than repeatedly spell it out; Climate's changedI want to spot the neat callbacks and gradual character development for myself, not have the screenplay or direction screaming “look at the subtle thing we did! Wasn’t it subtle!”; I’d also quite like the film to set up some of its developments better, rather than charge ahead with “now he needs to fly — by-the-way, did we mention he can fly? No? Well, now he is.”

It also suffers from the blight of many a modern genre movie: too much CGI. Things like the monkeys and digital landscapes look like they could be from a film made five, maybe even ten, years ago. Why do filmmakers overreach themselves so? I guess it fundamentally doesn’t matter — we’ll always know they’re effects, however slickly made — but when you begin to notice that, and care that you’ve noticed, surely it’s taking you out of the world? The CGI isn’t all bad by any means — the future cityscape and Evil Alien Monster are pretty good — but the spaceship hangar, for instance, looks like an early-webseries-level virtual-set, so obviously dropped in via green screen that the actors may as well have retained green halos.

Will saw the reviews...Even with these faults, however, I mostly quite enjoyed After Earth. For all the complaints levelled at it, primarily centred around it being a vanity project for the Smiths, there’s actually good stuff buried here — given more intelligent development and a different cast, perhaps it could even have been a genre classic. It certainly isn’t that, but it’s not as bad as some say. And it’s definitely M. Night Shyamalan’s best film for years. Sadly, that’s not saying much, is it?

3 out of 5

I Am Legend: Alternate Theatrical Version (2007/2008)

2008 #47a
Francis Lawrence | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 15

This review contains spoilers.

I Am Legend: Alternate Theatrical VersionI only watched the theatrical version of I Am Legend earlier this year (it’s #35), but, for reasons I won’t elaborate on for once, I’ve found myself watching this alternate version already.

Most of the comments in my original review still apply, as this cut only has minimal differences: there are a couple of very short new scenes in the third act, which were presumably excised because they primarily feed into the different ending, the main attraction of this version. Personally, I prefer it. The whole butterfly thing is too God-messagey, recalling the weakest elements of Signs, but if one can put that aside then the new content fits in much better with several threads that develop in the rest of the film (in both versions — in the original cut they’re just ignored). It feels like this was the intended conclusion but, for whatever reason, someone decided it needed changing. Perhaps it wasn’t explosive enough; or, indeed, conclusive enough, as it dispenses with the safe-haven epilogue and its pathetic attempt at justifying the title — another pleasurable loss as far as I’m concerned.

One other element I’ve reconsidered thanks to this repeat viewing are the CGI humans. They’re good enough in and of themselves, and would make more than passable foes in another action film, but here they ruin the ambiance that’s so carefully built up before their first appearance. Yes, the CGI lions are also clearly fake, but with limited methods to create such scenes they seem more acceptable. The arrival of the Dark Seekers, on the other hand, barges the film from thoughtful sci-fi drama into horror action blockbuster stylistically, in a way that using real actors simply wouldn’t. The not-real Dark Seekers may have superhuman jumping abilities, but the film doesn’t need those either, and could easily have crafted a similarly action-packed climax with real performers.

I Am Legend is still as middle-of-the-road as before, with very little to choose between the two versions. However, thanks to a less irritating final few minutes, this version just has the edge — if you ever intend to watch I Am Legend, be it a repeat viewing or your first, I recommend you plump for the alternate cut.

3 out of 5

The theatrical version of I Am Legend is on Watch tonight, Tuesday 14th October 2014, at 10pm.

I Am Legend (2007)

2008 #35
Francis Lawrence | 96 mins | DVD | 15 / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

I Am LegendWill Smith stars in this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic sci-fi novel from the director of Constantine. The latter is a film I personally enjoyed (and which features a relatively early appearance of the currently prolific Shia LaBeouf) but received some mixed reactions on the whole. By a broadly similar token, I Am Legend has received a fair share of negative reviews, though my opinion is a little more divided.

Things go very well for the first half. It’s nicely paced, concentrating on a depiction of one man’s loneliness taken to the extreme. The script, and Smith’s acting, handle the material well. The deserted and destroyed New York looks as stunning as the trailers promised, while the CGI animals that roam it are as good as any. The flashbacks that punctuate the film are well executed too, drip-feeding clues to what happened while maintaining some mysteries of their own. There are some other good sequences: Neville’s exploration of a pitch-black Dark Seeker-infested building is tense, and the death of his pet dog — his one remaining companion — is moving, even if it was given away in the trailer. That scene is effectively played and shot, showing only Neville’s face as he is forced to euthanize the diseased animal by suffocation.

Sadly, this is where things begin to go down hill. The Dark Seekers — the film’s vampires/zombies/whatever — are crafted with pretty good CGI, but they’re still not life-like enough to work. If it were a mindless blockbuster they would’ve been more at home, but as it’s managed to be an effective drama they feel entirely out of place. It’s true that real actors couldn’t have managed the physical feats the creatures are made to pull off, but do they really need to do those things? I suspect not. The film also leaves several holes in the Dark Seeker’s actions — for example, they copy Neville’s trap, a move apparently beyond their intelligence, but the film neglects to explore why or how they did this.

Instead it moves on to the arrival of some more survivors. Quite where they came from, or how they got into the supposedly isolated Manhattan, is another inadequately explained set of circumstances. After they arrive, the film’s climax comes out of nowhere. It’s as if the screenwriters ran out of ways to keep things going so just bunged on a big climactic action sequence. And what happens in it is pretty silly too, especially Neville’s self sacrifice — why not get in the Magic Safe Hole too and then chuck the grenade out? Perhaps he just has a death wish by that point. It would seem most of the audience did. There’s also a pathetic epilogue, and an even worse final line that attempts to make sense of the title.

I Am Legend is something of a disappointment. The considered and effective first half gives way to an increasingly nonsensical second, marred by numerous flaws that stack up til a near-laughable conclusion comes from nowhere. I’ve been told that the ‘alternate theatrical cut’, with a handful of additional scenes and a new ending, is marginally more effective. I’m sure I’ll watch it someday and share my thoughts. For now, I Am Legend’s two halves of differing quality just leave it in the middle of the road.

3 out of 5

I Am Legend is on Watch tonight, Saturday 11th October 2014, at 9pm. It’s on again on Tuesday, when I’ll (re-)share my thoughts on the so-called “Alternate Theatrical Version”.