30 July 2017

Review: Charlie's Angels / Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

(Dir: McG, 2000 / 2003)

Everything about this pair of films is ridiculous. Let's make that clear from the outset. But that's an intended part of their charm – if indeed you believe they possess any charm. Although in reality it's hard to argue with the charm that Drew Barrymore's Dylan, Lucy Liu's Alex and Cameron Diaz's Natalie offer, as the titular angels. They are almost the sole reasons these are fun films to watch, as their effervescent energy makes us laugh and makes us believe they can do anything. There's no reason to think they couldn't stop any criminal with their impressive skillset and seemingly endless bag of tricks. Which means two things you're never in any doubt that they will win, so any threat feels meaningless (especially by the time you get to Full Throttle), and it forces the film into the most utterly preposterous set pieces (again something more prevalent second time round). Suspending your disbelief is an important part of watching films, and the degree to which you need to do so is very much based on how the filmmakers choose to present a story, but these films go beyond that, requiring you to accept everything that's thrown at you. They (just about) get away with it because it's all pitched as fun, but that doesn't stop it becoming frustrating after a while, as one crazy scene leads to yet another. 

Both films are very much defined by the era in which they were released. CGI was getting better, hence the pushing what these girls can do, but it frequently looks like they're standing in front of a green screen. McG's background as a director of music videos is a blessing and a curse. On the plus side there's loads of fun music choices, albeit a little too much obvious signposting of what's on screen through song titles/lyrics, but these both feel like ninety minute music videos. That may entertaining at first, but it's ultimately wearying as they schizophrenically jump all over the place. Both films are rife with cameos, which is a highlight, but the faces popping up definitely date it when watching back in 2017 (this also serves as a cautionary warning that no film ever needed Tom Green being Tom Green!!).

Objectively, neither Charlie's Angels nor Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle are good films, but it's impossible to deny that they aren't somewhat fun to watch. At the time these came out the TV series was a distant memory, but this was a reinvention for the MTV generation. Barrymore, Liu and Diaz are a very enjoyable trio, playing off each other well and bringing unique personalities to each character, and that primarily makes these films watchable – along with the many other decent casting choices (Murray, Moore, Rockwell, Glover, Wilson etc). But the ADD approach becomes tiresome, even if does keep things energetic and the stories moving. The first is the better of the two, but mostly because Full Throttle pushes itself too far into over-the-top territory (living up to it's name). But sometimes fun is just about enough.

29 July 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Dir: Matt Reeves, 2017)

An example of a pleasing film watching scenario – you've seen the previous two films in the series and you liked them both as they were very good. But you've struggled to get excited about watching the third. You're not sure this series needs stretching out any further, and the trailer for this new film is doing a far from stellar job at selling you what's on offer this time. More fighting and battles, blah blah blah. Excitement levels are at zero. But you have an opportunity to go to the cinema that you're not going to pass up, and times mean it has to either be this, or that rebooted yet-again superhero desperately trying to tie into an existing interconnected universe – excitement levels for that option so far below zero. So you make the obvious decision. And then, unsurprisingly, you emerge from the cinema pretty damn excited about what you've just seen.

We've had two films to get to know the character of Caesar, watching him learn, grow and grapple with the humanity being forced upon him. So it's satisfying to see War for the Planet of the Apes make the very brave, and wise, decision to turn him into the full on lead character. In the first film he was always just a key character, a plot device if you will, as James Franco and Freida Pinto led the story, whilst the second film saw him become a major character alongside Jason Clarke and Keri Russell's leads. But here, with one small exception, it essentially boils down to apes good, humans bad. The film follows Caesar and his cohort as they try to defend themselves, with most of the screen time dedicated to Caesar. That's a testament, not only to how good the special effects are, but to how good Andy Serkis' motion-capped performance of the character is. The film never feels like it needs a human to base the story around, as Caesar is so well realised that everything you would normally expect from a human character is on offer as you feel his every emotion, be it joy or apoplectic rage. The same applies to the supporting apes – Maurice, Rocket, etc – whom we have seen before and who continue to impress. Plus new addition Bad Ape (portrayed by Steve Zahn – one of those 'of course it is!' realisations) who adds much needed moments of light relief.

The focus on these characters and their mish-mash of communication means we have a major Hollywood film with a surprisingly small amount of dialogue. Some apes speak but with limited vocabularies, some sign which we see translated as subtitles, creating a somewhat refreshing experience as it puts more focus on their actions and the visuals. That's not to say it's entirely lacking dialogue – Woody Harrelson's very human Colonel is certainly verbose. This a chew the scenery role for Harrelson as he pushes the character into over-the-top territory, but it works in the context of the film, offering a balance when most of the characters are apes, pushing you to root for them rather than humans. And what we see of his character as the story climaxes makes him more interesting than most villains in this type of film.

Limiting the dialogue puts more burden on the sound design and music, but it pushes these to work harder and the film feels more evocative because of it. Maybe watching in a Dolby Atmos equipped screen helped, but everything from the tribal drumming to the sounds of the natural environment, monkey calls to explosions and the violence of battle all work in harmony, greatly enhancing the film. Despite the trailer making out it's all battles, this is definitely not the case. The opening scene operates along these lines and is superb, but there's more going on in between this and the inevitable climax, as the story shifts between aping a few different classic film tropes. This helps to keep things moving and holds our interest, never feeling like ideas flung to the wall in the hope they stick.

If you've seen the first two films, the quality of War for the Planet of the Apes should come as no surprise. What is surprising is how effectively it works by mostly jettisoning the human element and having CGI apes as emotionally complex and sympathetic lead characters. It's because of brave decisions like this, and just an overall high quality of film-making, that War ends up being the best part of this trilogy. Subtle allusions to the original films are fun and signpost where a future story could go, but that's not something we need. Sometimes a neatly wrapped up trilogy is just enough.

16 July 2017

Review: Blackhat

(Dir: Michael Mann, 2015)

Michael Mann is one of those directors to whom you sit up and pay attention when they release something new. It's not as if he's a genius auteur or anything, but he has a habit of making interesting films, preoccupied with the part of men's souls that drives them to either journey right to the edge in order to stop someone they perceive is doing wrong, or continue unwaveringly down the path of crime with a fatalistic determination. He shoots with a stylistic eye that emphasises the starkness of reality, but in a hyper-real manner that you would never quite experience. It's equal parts jarring and intoxicating.

Two years ago he released Blackhat, his most recent exploration of these thematic areas. This time we're rooting for convicted hacker Nick Hathaway, in the shape of Chris Hemsworth, whose ability to do special things with computers has the government needing him to stop a similarly skilled individual remotely attempting real world destruction for personal gain. Nothing we haven't seen before of course, but Mann's signature style and his pacing imbues everything with energy, as we globe-trot between the US and Far East. The strong Chinese angle and attendant geopolitics helps keep things feeling a little fresher, particularly setting a lot of the film in Hong Kong. And of course you'd expect some high quality action scenes that eschew over-blown bombast (something else Mann is renowned for), which are happily received here.

Back in the mid-nineties as the internet became widespread, Hollywood latched onto the hacker angle as a new, potentially dangerous threat. It's a part of our modern world that we quickly came to accept, so when Blackhat came out it seemed a rather passé story angle. But watching again just two years later and seeing everything that's currently going on in the world, it suddenly feels more relevant. As ever, Hemsworth is very enjoyable to watch, especially the interplay with his Chinese compatriots Leehom Wang and Wei Tang (both of whom are good), but at times he doesn't always seem to fit the character. It's wrong to presume the computer geek archetype shouldn't extend to someone so physically imposing and possessing such chiseled good looks, which may be a small part of the problem and should be seen as a failing on the viewer's part rather than the casting, but such feelings also likely stem from his particularly wide skillset, especially how good he is in a fight/firefight (regardless of how that's briefly addressed when we first meet him).

Blackhat may not be up there with Mann's best – the bar is set high of course but it remains a decent watch if you're willing to overlook the flaws, much as was the case with Public Enemies and Miami Vice. He has his signature style so you know what you're getting, and he now makes films infrequently enough that you always look forward to what he'll deliver next. Even when you know a director is seemingly past their best, sometimes that just doesn't really matter.

15 July 2017

Review: Blade II

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

It's been fifteen whole years since Blade II was released, and in the intervening time we've still not seen any character quite like Blade. Lest we forget this is a Marvel character, unleashed upon the world in 1998, a full decade before Marvel made its name as a filmic juggernaut. At that time comic book films consisted of Batman, which had just taken a truly awful turn, Superman, whom we hadn't seen in some time, or the odd misadventure like Spawn. Blade was something else – a story rooted in horror, a genuine action movie star in a role he was seemingly born to play, and a fantastic concept. Everything about that film works with the sole exception of some of the effects (even at the time some of the blood effects looked too fake), but that just dates the film and shows it was budgeted more moderately. And that opening sequence... holy shit... it's not hyperbole to say you rarely see an opening that rivals that in any genre, let alone offers that type of adrenaline rush.

And so four years later we had the distinct pleasure of Blade's return – bigger budget, more action, more vampires, the story continues. Shifting the focus from the darkened streets of New York, which felt more ingrained with the character, to the older city of Prague where he really is an outsider, makes for a different feeling film that implies it's more about Blade getting on and doing the job, jettisoning some of the more stylised elements of that first film the would seem out of place. This time we get a reluctant team up as Blade needs to work with the vampires to stop an even worse menace. Of course he works best alone, but the fun here is watching Blade try to play nice, allowed only to unleash his acerbic tongue, whilst a shaven headed Ron Perlman playing the asshole he does so well, becomes his main foil. These two sparring is of course a part of the film's appeal.

The real draw is of course Blade. In just the first few minutes he is on screen in the first film, Wesley Snipes has so effectively personified this character that it's impossible to see anyone else as Blade (there was a TV series in 2006 and it lasted 12 episodes – was it possible to fill Snipes' shoes?). There's the imposing physicality, the sharp knowing humour, the pathos as he continually battles being something he hates whilst painfully controlling it, and quite simply the fact that he is an incredible fighter. That latter point gets amped up with a superb fight scene in Blade II when he first encounters Leonor Varela and Danny John-Jules' vampire characters – it might be enhanced by CGI but the raw skill and choreography is there and it's enhanced just enough so it's believable for these characters. Put simply, Blade is the main draw of these films and it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing him quite so effectively.

As ever, any character like this needs someone to make their vampire killin' toys and so we are blessed with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Under the dictionary definition of "grizzled", the word's meaning could be very eloquently conveyed by simply showing a picture of Whistler. This is a man who hates bloodsuckers with a seething passion (with good cause) and is the perfect pairing to Blade, part father figure, part mentor, part world weary shit-kicking asshole. (Spoiler alert) Considering the quality of this character it's a shame to complain that he's even in Blade II but his presence is thanks to that awkward cop-out, 'well maybe he wasn't actually dead after all', diminishing some of the emotional impact of the first film where events worked just right in the confines of an isolated story. That was an era when if a film did well then great, maybe the studio might consider making another, rather than the current approach of having two sequels announced before the first has even made it to screens, with a story arc pre-tooled to run across them all. The door may have been left open for more at the end of the first film with a little "you never know" throwaway, but that didn't necessitate the full on resurrection of a key character. Still, we do get to see a young and verbose Norman Reedus fulfilling a similar role a good few years before he turned all silent and moody.

When making a film about vampires, one of the fundamentals is getting the creatures right and having an effective villain. The first film set the bar high with Deacon Frost. Stephen Dorff was perfect casting offering a stylish, effortlessly cool vampyric evil with even some social class politics thrown into has megalomania. Blade II surrounds our hero in a wider swathe of villainy. We get a mixture of the crone-like ancient, the traditional and Luke Goss' Nomak, who represents a new, mutated breed. This new breed are far more savage and terrifying (just look at how they feed), with Goss playing this character more on the low key side only enhancing his effectiveness. The film begins by introducing us to Nomak and it's another effective start, with a surprising sting. Good villains aside, it is a little disappointing that for two films in a row the bad guys end up tying our hero down to try and bleed him dry. Of course they want his enviable daywalker powers, but a little more creativity would not have gone amiss this second time round.

In the director's chair we have Guillermo del Toro, the ultimate geek director, making his second Hollywood movie. Mimic, released a few years earlier, had some good ideas but could have been better executed, but del Toro's potential had already shone through with Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, both of which were on the more subtle side. There is a definite personality that comes through in his films, but beyond the creature effects it is mostly lacking in Blade II, as such it could be from almost any director. Surely that's due to the nature of it being a comic book sequel, where such strong, previously defined characters need to dominate. Two year's later he'd give us the great Hellboy and his fingerprints are all over that because he was instrumental in defining how it should translate to screen. Lack of personality aside, del Toro's involvement ensures we have a decent film, even if it doesn't quite live up to the first.

Blade II is a worthy successor (unlike Blade: Trinity, but the less said about that the better), although this review seems to have ended up as a comparison between the two, but in hindsight that's inescapable because the first is just so damn good. It's the axis of high quality characters being really well portrayed, decent stories, and tonally aiming at the appropriate level. These films have bite and don't tone anything down. Had they come out in more recent years one can only imagine how unsatisfyingly toothless they would have been. Thanks to the recent huge successes of both Deadpool and Logan, the tide may be turning with studios no longer running quite so scared of comic book movies with more appropriately adult content that's actually representative of the source. Both Blade and Blade II show how things should be done correctly.

2 July 2017

Review: The Mummy

(Dir: Alex Kurtzman, 2017)

In this day and age where studios only appear to be interested in acquiring well known intellectual property to turn into the latest franchise cash cow, Universal Studios are sitting on one of the most potentially interesting. Many decades ago it was the studio renowned for the classic monster movie, and although it has dabbled with these over recent years (Dracula Untold, The Wolfman, Brendan Fraser's The Mummy series), it has decided to resurrect these with a new determination. That new determination means we will be seeing a regular stream of films under the newly created 'Dark Universe' banner featuring a number of these well-known characters, which is great news if the quality is there, but they're also angling for the interconnected universe approach that studios seem to believe everyone wants (maybe because the Marvel films are so successful – lest we forget that's mostly because they got the characters right in their first phase they've been fooled into thinking this is what we the audience actually want?). And with The Mummy, the first of these features is unwrapped for us.

The problem with the The Mummy is that it's torn between it's thematic roots as a horror film and the reality that it's played as more of a straight forward mystery/action/adventure. It's lack of firm commitment to any one of these ideals makes it all rather bland. It's not remotely scary, or even threatening, with the over-reliance on cgi creating uninspiring horrorish visuals. The few action scenes are perfunctory but it's the mystery angle that seems ripe for deeper exploration, yet the promise of which is never wholly delivered upon. It's telling that the most interesting moments in the whole film are the flashes back a few thousand years to the genesis of the titular character (Sofia Boutella) in Egypt, but this is all too brief. 

Similarly there's great potential in the secretive monster-fighting organisation Prodigium, headed up by Russell Crowe's 'is he good/bad' polymath character, but it comes off as an awkward setup (presumably) for how the connected universe will start linking together. Perhaps going full bore focusing on them, rather than distracting with Tom Cruise's character Nick Morton, would've made for a more satisfying introduction. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Morton character, with Cruise essentially playing Cruise as a roguish explorer type – something I'm on board with as I like watching him on screen – but he's not always the right fit for this film. Or perhaps that's to say he's not what the film needs, and so it bears the weight of his involvement. The action moments and him running around stopping something catastrophic are his bread and butter now, but he stands out a little too much when the film decides to focus back on its horror roots. At least the fun comments back and forth with Annabelle Wallis' character Jenny Halsey work, adding a touch of humour, particularly as her character is otherwise hardly memorable. It seems both Boutella and Crowe got to have a little more fun with their roles, and that comes across with both feeling like good casting choices.

All of this is to say that The Mummy is a distinctly average film. It offers shallow entertainment for an hour and three quarters and is almost entirely forgettable. If such a generic approach is indicative of what to expect from how The Dark Universe is reviving these monsters then we'll be looking at an utterly wasted opportunity (especially considering the next two that have been announced – Javier Bardem in The Bride of Frankenstein and Johnny Depp in The Invisible Man). But time will tell.

1 July 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

(Dir: Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Even though June has barely passed, it seems that Wonder Woman is the movie of summer 2017. It is a highly entertaining film but it's hard not to see that being the case partly because of the gender politics (I won't go into how obviously ridiculous it is that we've not had a Hollywood produced, female-led superhero movie since Elektra in 2005, let alone that women are not being given the director's chair for these films, as the film's box office success is more effectively making that argument). It might also be tempting to think that the DC universe is now offering some appeal to audiences, but as a film set around the First World War it's immediately set apart from the present day environment where the previous films have been establishing themselves, meaning something crazy must be happening – people want to (finally) see this character on-screen!

The strengths of Wonder Woman lie within those two facts – Gal Gadot as Diana, the titular character, and the setting(s). Gadot portrays her with a mixture of myopic certainty about her purpose in life and the mission at hand, whilst convincingly selling a sense of innocence and wide-eyed wonder once she leaves her sheltered existence. And she kicks ass too, totally convincing in the copious action scenes, proving more thrilling to watch than her counterparts in this universe. But anyone who has watched Batman Vs Superman should not be surprised by that.

Starting the film in an idyll soaked in Greek mythology sets the character up nicely (ironically there are shades of Disney's Moana here), before bursting that bubble with London and Belgium circa World War I. The manner in which the Greek mythology abuts to these time period feels a little awkward at times, but setting the film outside of modern day was the right decision. The film can entirely forget the DC world building (aside from the obligatory short bookends) and just concentrate on this character and her story.

Not all is perfect of course. In any other film, Chris Pine's Steve Trevor character would've been a solid lead (much in the way he plays similar characters), but here he has to play second fiddle. It's nice to have two strong characters heading up the film, but you can guarantee if he was the lead then any female character would've just been token love interest. Small spoiler alert... it also commits the cardinal sin (in this viewer's eyes) of having her fall for him. It would've been unbelievable if he hadn't fallen for her (she is Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, after all!), but having such a strong character succumb to love in this manner is the ultimate terrible cliché, diminishing the character and reminding us of the disparity between how male and female characters are usually portrayed. The only thing that saves this element of the story is the aforementioned wide-eyed marveling Gadot brings. 

Villainy is something these DC films have struggled with so far, and not doing too much better here. Danny Huston sells the menacing General Ludendorff convincingly – a good casting choice – but it's a little too easy to have a boo hiss German general as your personification of evil. Plus some unexplained gas to make him all powerful is a little too conveniently fantastical. Elena Anaya's chemist Dr Maru is potentially more interesting but definitely under-explored. And when the threat is brought back closer to Diana's roots, it never sits quite right, leaving you wondering of the better ways this could've been brought to fruition.

Wonder Woman is a highly entertaining film, with a fascinating lead character and solid action (even though some of the CGI is a little ropey at times). What helps immeasurably is setting it away from the rest of the DC universe by going back a hundred years. Making comparisons to what Marvel are doing feels lazy and should be avoided, but this comparison is inescapable – Wonder Woman really does feel like a reimagining of Captain America: The First Avenger, but set one world war earlier. Just count how many of the story beats are remarkably similar between the films! That is not a criticism as (entirely subjectively speaking) that first Captain America film is one of Marvel's best. Both films are glowing examples of why letting these characters have their own space to breathe and shine is so much more satisfying than some overblown superhero melange. Here's hoping Warner Bros/DC don't now screw up what they do with this character, or suck her up into their all pervading darkness.