On Long Pauses and Other Developments

Yeah, it’s been a bit quiet around here lately.   My fault entirely, of course; I found myself working on a 2pm to 10pm shift for a while, which, timing-wise, probably couldn’t have been designed any better to make it difficult to go to the movies.   There are weekends, of course, but somehow those always seem taken up by the stuff that I’d normally have done in the week.    So the end result of all this is that quite a few movies that I’m sure I’d have found myself at have bypassed me – War for the Planet of the ApesWonder Woman, Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (a better title than the frankly unwieldy Dead Men Tell No Tales, I think) and Alien Covenant, to name a few.    On the other hand, work does mean money.    It’s a trade off.    But I’ve now moved shifts, settled into some new hours (6am to 2pm) and so things are a bit easier to manage.

So, what’s been going on while I’ve been off doing stuff?

Well, probably most significantly, given what I’ve waffled on about in the past is that DC/Warners finally have the DCEU’s first undisputed hit in Wonder Woman, which came out to both critical and commercial success.   Given the general mess that they’ve seemed intent on making of their shared universe property, it’s really encouraging to see them put out a movie that is, by all accounts, just sheer good entertainment.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this success has exactly inspired a new sense of focus in the powers-that-be there.   Given that the one definite bright spot so far is a female-led movie, one might expect that they might look in that direction for inspiration.   Reports coming out of Warners are muddled to say the least, but it looks right now that Gotham City Sirens, a proposed movie focusing on Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Poison Ivy, is going onto the back burner in favour of a new movie dealing with the dysfunctionally abusive relationship between Harley and the Joker.

Weirdly, this isn’t the only Joker-related movie that’s been announced in the last month or so.    Also in the pipeline is a Joker origin movie, slated to be produced by, I kid you not, Martin Scorsese, and heavily influenced by Scorsese’s crime movies.    Personally, I’m not of the opinion that the Joker really needs an origin story – I think part of his allure is that he just is what he is, without the need to spell out some early life trauma that made him crack – but I can’t deny that there’s some interest value in what might come out of such an unlikely collaboration.    That’s not really the weird bit, though.   What is strange is that, according to reports, this movie is not intended to be part of the DCEU and will feature an entirely different Joker to that currently being portrayed by Jared Leto.    With the DCEU still finding its feet, I’m not sure it’s a particularly sensible move to be making what are effectively competing movies about two different versions of the same character.   But we’ll see what happens.   Right now they seem to be talking about different movies every month, so who knows what’ll ultimately see the light of day.

So, anyway, hopefully I’m back and can get on with the occasional post.   I’ve already managed to get to a couple of movies that I feared I might end up missing, Spider-Man Homecoming and Dunkirk, so there’ll be reviews on those coming.    A fair amount of other stuff coming up, most notably for me the next entry in the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, which is looking great, and Marvel’s latest, Thor: Ragnarok, which is looking insane in all the best possible ways.    Stuff to look forward to…


On Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

It’s not the first time I’ve used the phrase “difficult second album” to describe the second movie in a series, but it’s hard to imagine a movie that it applies more aptly to than the sequel to Marvel’s unexpected hit Guardians of the Galaxy.   And the end result, well, doesn’t appear to have been particularly difficult at all.

Opening a couple of months after the ending of the first movie, the incessantly bickering Guardians are taking advantage of their new-found fame to hire themselves out as problem solvers to the galaxy at large.   Recruited by the Sovereign race to protect valuable batteries from an interdimensional monster that likes to eat them, things rapidly go sideways when Rocket’s larcenous tendencies get the better of him, and before they know it, the Guardians are on the run again.   Complicating matters are Gamora’s estranged sister Nebula, turned over to the Guardians by the Sovereign as part of the deal, Ravager leader Yondu, facing mutiny from within his own ranks because of his perceived weakness when dealing with Peter, and Ego, Peter’s long-missing father, who comes looking for his son.

At first glance, it’s fairly apparent that writer/director James Gunn has approached the sequel with a fairly sensible “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra.    The ingredients that made the first one such a blast to watch are pretty much all present and correct.   Offbeat action and epic levels of snarkiness are once again backed by a carefully selected soundtrack drawn from the best of the sixties and seventies.    On a basic level, more of the same is the order of the day and, given how well it worked last time, this is most certainly not a bad thing.

Gunn, however, isn’t content to simply cover the same ground and chooses to focus the emotional core of the movie on the concept of family, both of the Guardians themselves as a dysfunctional family, but also Gamora’s relationship with Nebula, who gets some of the more emotional moments as we learn more about their upbringing, and Peter’s contrasting relationships with his newly-found biological father Ego and Yondu, who raised him after taking him from Earth.

The movie is, like its predecessor, a huge amount of fun to watch.   The cast are clearly having enough fun that it seems mildly unfair that they’re getting paid for it and have a solid, if quirky chemistry that carries the film over any weaker patches.    Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana pick up neatly where their characters left off, but both display some development – Peter is trying to be more responsible, while Gamora is doing her best to lighten up a bit.  Dave Bautista’s Drax gets most of the best lines with his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to social interaction, Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is still a loose cannon, but cares far more about others, no matter how much he tries to hide it, and the, frankly, ludicrously adorable Baby Groot gets to headline a couple of key sequences, including the opening credits, and steals most of the other scenes anyway.   Kurt Russell’s roguishly charming Ego neatly handles most of the movie’s exposition without making it feel wearing and both Karen Gillan and Michael Rooker find new depths in characters that were fairly one-note in the original.    Pom Klementieff provides a sweet innocence as Ego’s lonely sidekick Mantis.   Elizabeth Debicki has to cope with a relatively underwritten role as Ayesha, leader of the Sovereign people, but proves an effective enough presence as she pursues the Guardians to get her revenge.   And Sylvester Stallone shows up in a small role as a Ravager leader, who, along with other characters played by Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Michael Rosenbaum and, I kid you not, Miley Cyrus, seems to be being set up for a larger appearance further down the line.

Visually, the film is striking to watch, verging on the psychedelic on a number of occasions.   The effects, as with most modern blockbusters, if we’re being honest, are pretty flawless and Marvel are showing no signs of flagging on that front any time soon.   And the soundtrack is just fun, with such tracks as Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky” and Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” popping in and out at appropriate moments.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is, in pretty much every way, a worthy successor to the first film.   It doesn’t quite have the freshness of the original, which pretty much came out of nowhere as a surprise hit, but compensates with a greater emotional core and the same sense of fun.   And Baby Groot, who I may have mentioned is absurdly adorable.    If you didn’t like the first one, this one’s unlikely to change your mind.    But if you did, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a blast with the sequel.

Oh, and, as usual with Marvel’s films, don’t forget to stay through the credits for the mid- and post-credit scenes.   In keeping with the Guardians’ usual policy that there’s no kill like overkill, there are five of them…

On Logan

It’s quite strange to think that Hugh Jackman first played Wolverine seventeen years ago.   Equally odd to think that he wasn’t the original casting for the role, which originally went to Dougray Scott, before a scheduling conflict with Mission Impossible II caused him to drop out, putting Jackman, then a TV and theatre actor who was practically unknown, at least outside his native Australia, into the role.   It’s very much become a signature role for him and it’s as good as impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.    He’s appeared, to some degree or other, in all bar one of the ten movies currently in Fox’s X-Men franchise and has a lead role in seven.    The movies haven’t always been great, some far from it, but Jackman has, at the very least, always been pretty watchable in them and it’s never been difficult to detect his sense of commitment to the part.

So it’s understandable that, having made it very clear that this would be Logan’s swansong, everybody involved would be looking to make it a good one.     And, fortunately, that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The movie opens in a pretty bleak place, if we’re honest.    Not Days of Future Past bleak, for followers of the franchise, but still not a particularly happy place.     Mutantkind is dying out, as no more are being born, and the few survivors are generally doing their best to stay out of sight.    Logan is making ends meet as a limo driver in Texas, using the money to illegally buy drugs for the ailing Charles Xavier, who he keeps stashed in a secure location over the border to prevent his powerful seizures from killing anybody nearby – one of the film’s bleakest concepts is that the X-Men are no more, slain en masse when Charles’ first seizure took hold.    Working with mutant tracker Caliban, Logan keeps Charles safe, from both others and himself, but it’s clear that Logan, whose healing factor is failing after nearly two hundred years of keeping him alive, has given up.   With the adamantium lining his bones gradually poisoning him, he’s pretty much just waiting to die, and caring for Charles is about all he has left.

Unfortunately for him, he’s still pretty recognisable (probably not helped by the fact that the X-Men have apparently allowed comic books to be published about their adventures) and, as such, the call to adventure isn’t far away, as Logan finds himself being sought out by a woman who begs him to take her, and Laura, the eleven-year-old girl travelling with her, to a safe haven in North Dakota.    While he initially refuses, not wanting to get involved in the troubles of others, her offer of a substantial amount of money, enough for the boat that he wants to buy for him and Charles to live on for the rest of their lives, he ultimately relents, only to find the woman murdered by forces who want Laura, revealed as a young mutant genetically engineered from Logan’s own DNA, back, no matter what they have to do to get her.    And so, Logan and Charles set out on a road trip to get her to safety.

Logan, as a film, is pretty much unashamedly shot as a Western.    The plot mirrors almost exactly the concept of the aging gunslinger, reluctantly called out of retirement to take part in righting some final wrong.    The overall aesthetic also strongly recalls the traditional western look, with a relatively muted palette, particularly the early sequences in Mexico and Texas.    The film even includes a quiet sequence with Charles and Laura bonding over the classic genre movie Shane, something that resonates through the rest of the film.

Casting-wise, everybody is on form.    Jackman is positively magnetic in his final outing as Logan, taking the character to a whole new place where you feel every last ounce of tiredness that he feels as his body gradually fails on him.    Patrick Stewart, who has also strongly suggested that he is unlikely to play Xavier again after this, pulls out all the stops portraying his failing mind, being at turns cantankerous and confused, with occasional flashes of the wise mentor that he once was, and it’s positively heartbreaking when he begins to remember what happened to his beloved X-Men.    The supporting cast generally do good work, although often in rather underwritten roles.   But eclipsing all others is Dafne Keen, the eleven year old newcomer playing Laura.    By turns curious about the world around her and utterly bestial, she readily steals every scene she appears in.    Mute for much of the film (an intentional choice by the director to steer well away from the “snarky kid sidekick” archetype), she does more with a look, a grimace or a snarl than most would with a good line.    Her gradually growing bond with Logan forms much of the heart of the film and she handles it with considerable aplomb.

Of course it wouldn’t be a superhero film without a considerable amount of action, and Logan is no exception to that.    And, be warned, it is brutal.    Freed of the family-friendly requirements of most other films of the genre, the film pulls no punches whatsoever in depicting what would happen when we’re talking about a mutant with six razor-sharp claws as his primary weaponry.   Blood is spilled in copious amounts, limbs are removed, heads are impaled, it’s all pretty graphic.    But it is done well, with a good eye behind the camera as director James Mangold puts his actors (and stuntmen) through their paces.     After seven films of largely bloodless violence, Logan finally gets to cut loose and they don’t hold back.   It’s not just Logan, either.   Laura, despite being about half the height of most other characters in the movie, is a force to behold in combat, using her agility to make up for anything she lacks in raw physical strength.   Lacking Logan’s years of humanity to temper her genetically-wrought berserker side, she’s far more terrifying in a fight than he is, and the movie doesn’t hold back much in showing it.

Taken as a stand-alone movie, it’s fair to say that Logan does have its flaws.   The script is a bit clunky at times, even as it revels in the freedom of the film’s certificate to make it by some distance the most foul-mouthed movie in the franchise (only Deadpool, which shares Logan‘s certification, comes close).   For those used to the regular X-Men movies, it’s a bit jarring, although I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t some amusement value in hearing noted Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart crankily cut loose with the f-bombs.    It could also be argued that it relies a little too heavily on some very standard tropes.     But, as a send-off for a highly popular character, the movie works very well.   Jackman’s loved playing this character and, for the most part, watching him do so has been enjoyable.    And if this is the last time we’ll see him, and all indications are that it will be, he’s going out on a high.

On Ghostbusters (the reboot)

Okay, so this is hardly a new film.    But, despite the fact that I do love going to the cinema, I don’t see every film that comes out and the Ghostbusters reboot is one that slipped through my fingers, despite the fact that I was somewhat curious about it.    So I’m catching up with this one on the movie channels…

When they first started talking about a new Ghostbusters movie, which was strongly suggested to be a sequel, I felt that the idea was quite a strong one.    There’s quite a lot of scope in the concept of humans using technology to fight the supernatural and the fact that the Ghostbusters in the original movie are clearly formed as a company lent itself extremely well to a continuation with little or no participation from the original team – the new group could be readily explained away as a franchise in another city or as new employees of the company after the originals have retired or otherwise moved on.   Ultimately, for various reasons, the sequel became a full reboot, which I felt was a shame, but there you go.

Before we go any further, let’s address the elephant in the room.   When the movie was first announced as having an all-female line-up for the Ghostbusters, there was a lot of backlash to the idea.   I’m just going to get this out of the way right now, and I feel that it’s hardly a good reflection on certain aspects of the world in general than I even have to say this – while I have a number of issues with this movie, that isn’t one of them.   Okay?   Good…

For me, the movie was an acceptable way of passing a couple of hours.   Yes, that is basically a textbook example of damning with faint praise, and I make no apologies for that, as that’s about all I can really muster for the film.    The plot is pretty formulaic, although, to be fair, it does at least take considerable steps to avoid being purely a retread of the original.   The script has some genuinely amusing moments, but drops into either random squabbling or toilet humour rather too often.   The special effects are generally pretty good, although, as with many modern blockbusters, it does devolve into something of a CGI effect-fest by the end of the movie.   This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but sometimes the less-is-more approach can pay dividends and this may well have been one of the movies where it could have been the better option.

The cast are generally likeable in their roles, but those roles are generally a bit underwritten and personalities overlap a little more than is necessarily helpful.   Melissa McCarthy’s Abby and Leslie Jones’ Patty both fall firmly into the “confrontational” category, an area that Kristen Wiig’s Erin also flirts with occasionally.   The result is that Kate McKinnon’s Holtz, who thoroughly embraces the “sardonic mad scientist” tropes, is really the only one of the group who truly stands out.   That being said, the chemistry between the four leads is good, although given that Wiig, McKinnon and Jones have all worked together on Saturday Night Live, a show that McCarthy has regularly hosted, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.    The movie’s villain receives almost no characterisation beyond “creepy apocalypse-seeking janitor guy”, making little enough impact that, despite having only seen the movie yesterday, I still had to look up the name of the character (Rowan North, if anybody cares).  On the positive side, Neil Casey, another SNL alumni, this time from the writing room, does do very good creepy, to the extent that it’s a genuine shame that he doesn’t get a bit more time to shine.   It doesn’t say a great deal for the movie that the only really memorable character is Chris Hemsworth’s spectacularly dim receptionist Kevin.   Hemsworth, who has clearly been reading up on the art of scene stealing, is having a whale of a time in the role and, even if he’s only in the background of a shot, is usually worth keeping half an eye on.

A big issue when reviewing a reboot or sequel is the extent to which you should think about the original when passing judgement.    Personally, I’m of the opinion that, as much as possible, movies should be allowed to stand on their own two feet.   However, some films don’t make that easy.    This was something that I found with Jurassic World a couple of years back.   While I found the film to be very enjoyable, there were moments when I really started to feel that they were overdoing the links to the original movie.   Ultimately, I was able to let it slide, mainly because it was a sequel, it was set in much the same geographical location and so forth, so there were some workable rationales for these things showing up.    Ghostbusters, however, takes it to a whole new level, with far less justification, given that the film is unquestionably a reboot rather than a sequel, and it begins to distract from the film itself.   A moderate degree of this is acceptable, of course, as reboots generally do have to pay at least lip service to their forebears, so it’s not too bad that, for example, ECTO-1, the team’s main mode of transport, looks very similar to the original, as do the proton packs used as the team’s primary weaponry.    The biggest issue with this movie is the cameos.    Seriously, pretty much the the only main cast member from the original who doesn’t appear in this movie in some capacity is Rick Moranis, and he effectively retired from acting two decades ago.    And that includes the sadly no-longer-with-us Harold Ramis (he appears as a bust in the university at the beginning, if you must know).    Everybody else shows up somewhere as a new character and, after the first couple, it becomes distracting because, on some level, you start to wonder when the next one’s going to appear.   And then they do and you’re taken out of the movie again because, oh look, it’s Ernie Hudson from the original.    I’m generally very good at losing myself in a movie and this managed to dislodge me a couple of times.    A key part of the original’s success was its rather laid-back charm and, sadly, that’s something that this movie lacks.

In the end, while there are some things to like about the movie, on a number of levels, it fails quite badly.   Ghostbusters does have potential as a franchise but, honestly, this isn’t the best way to go about it and, unfortunately, the relative failure of the movie, which, even once home media sales are factored in, is unlikely to break even, has probably put paid to any immediate plans to revisit the idea.    Which is a bit of a shame…

On Split

I have to be honest here.   I’d pretty much written off M. Night Shyamalan.   His first couple of major films were pretty damn good, but then he really started to go badly off the rails as, insofar as can be determined, his ego started to get spectacularly out of control.   I stopped seeing his movies in the cinema after Signs, which started out promisingly well before descending into nonsensical absurdity in the final act, and gave up completely after Lady in the Water, in which Shyamalan casts himself as a writer whose works are so significant and profound that they will change the world immeasurably for the better.   I think quite a lot of people ended up feeling much the same way about him and he moved from being the director of a couple of genuinely good films, to pretty much becoming a punchline.    I remember seeing the first trailer for The Happening in a packed cinema; at first, it looked kinda interesting and mysterious, then the words “M. Night Shyamalan” appeared on the screen and you could actually sense the audience lose interest in what they were watching, a sort of collective “Oh, jeez, no, screw that guy”.

After The Happening, he made another couple of badly received movies, The Last Airbender and After Earth, which made enough money, I guess, to get studios to continue investing in him, but were, by all reports, pretty terrible.   But then, it seems, something happened, and Shyamalan went back to his low budget roots.    First came The Visit, a found footage horror movie, which not only made 100 million worldwide on a five million dollar budget, but received a healthy 64% on review collator site Rotten Tomatoes, his highest rating since 2002’s Signs (and his first over 25% for an entire decade).   And now we have his new movie, Split, which, pleasantly, continues what appears to be a significant return to his early promise.

The basic premise of Split is pretty straightforward.   Three teenagers (Claire and Marcia, two popular high-school princess-types, and Casey, their class’ resident loner) are kidnapped and locked up in an unknown location by Dennis, a seeming-loner with near-crippling OCD issues.   As time passes, they encounter the man again, first dressed as a woman, displaying a very different personality and calling himself Patricia, then again with the personality of a young boy called Hedwig, and it becomes clear that their kidnapper suffers from severe disassociative personality disorder.   A second plot thread follows the man, real name Kevin, as he pays regular visits to his concerned psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, who believes that people like Kevin, who is revealed to have a total of 23 different personas, may be key to accessing extraordinary abilities hidden within the human body, noting that different personalities can demonstrate significant changes in body chemistry and even physical ability.    The girls try to find a way out, attempting to befriend Hedwig to gain his help, but are repeatedly thwarted by Dennis and Patricia, who refer to the collected personalities as “The Horde”.   Disturbingly, they learn that they are there as a sacrifice to “the Beast”, apparently a 24th personality who Dennis and Patricia believe is surfacing from within Kevin’s shattered psyche.

For the most part, the film moves along reasonably well.   The script is pretty solid; it does get a bit too talky at times, but that’s often seemed to be Shyamalan’s style and, as these scenes generally take place when Dennis visits Dr Fletcher, they are generally used quite effectively to provide insights into Kevin’s condition.    Visually, the film is often quite striking; Shyamalan has always possessed a good eye for a shot and this film is no exception.  Anya Taylor-Joy is exceptional in a restrained role as the emotionally-closed-off loner Casey, Betty Buckley brings a measured gravitas to the role of Dr Fletcher and the supporting cast work well in what are admittedly rather limited roles.

The movie, though, ultimately rests in the hands of James McAvoy, and fortunately he proves more than equal to the challenge, switching confidently between personalities and making them all distinctive.   From his perspective, successfully portraying the different aspects of the Horde has to be an actor’s dream and he plays it for all he’s worth.

The film does have its flaws, certainly.  Shyamalan persists in casting himself in his movies, which can be a bit distracting, although he does at least have the decency to cast himself as a one-scene supporting character this time, so I’ll let it pass.   A late reveal regarding the location of the Horde’s lair comes across as being intended to feel like a profound revelation, but ultimately falls almost completely flat; revealing the information earlier could, in my opinion, have added an additional layer or two that could have served the story well.   It’s also something of a disappointment, after all the advertising drawing specific attention to the Horde’s 24 composite personalities, that we only meet nine of them, with only five having any actual effect on the plot.  Granted, it would certainly be difficult in a two-hour film to cover all 24, and questionable that McAvoy could make that many suitably distinct but there is a slight sense of being shortchanged that we didn’t meet a few more of them.

On the whole, though, Split is an enjoyable film with some interesting ideas, anchored by a tour-de-force performance from the always watchable James McAvoy.    A last-minute reveal, which I’ll discuss after the spoiler warning, points in the direction of a possible sequel, which, no lie, I’ll be genuinely interested to see.   And that’s not something I expected to find myself saying about an M. Night Shyamalan movie again.


Still here?   Okay, cool.

So, the big reveal in the final shot of the movie is that Split is set in the same universe as Shyamalan’s previous movie Unbreakable, with Bruce Willis reprising his role as David Dunn, the emerging superhuman whose origin story was told in the earlier film.   Shyamalan has since revealed that the character of the Horde originated in early drafts of Unbreakable, but was ultimately replaced when it became apparent that the character was simply too complicated to do justice to in that movie.

Does the reveal really add much to Split?   Honestly, no, not that much.   The film would stand perfectly well on its own two feet without it.    The fact that the film shares a world with Unbreakable does provide precedent for the superhuman abilities demonstrated by the Horde when the Beast takes control – the Beast and Dunn do have a number of abilities in common.    But, again, such precedent is not actually required for the story to stand.

What the reveal does open up is the obvious possibility of a third movie pitting the two against each other.  Unbreakable served as the hero’s origin story and now we can look at Split as serving the same purpose for the villain.    Assuming that Shyamalan does go on to make a movie with Dunn hunting down the Horde, then we could potentially end up with a trilogy that presents an interesting and decidedly different take on the superhero genre.


On Assassin’s Creed

It is, at this point, bordering on one of the central tenets of Hollywood that movies based on video games generally aren’t any good.   Over the years, the film-going public have had to suffer through plenty of evidence to back this up, and so it is with this mindset that I cautiously approached the latest attempt to bring a video game franchise to the big screen, Assassin’s Creed.

I should probably get it out of the way from the start that I’ve never played any of the various games in the franchise.   Generally they’ve tended to look rather fun and all that, but it’s always been a case of so-many-games-so-little-time, so I’ve never delved into them, so, other than the basic idea of a modern-day human using some technobabble called the Animus to explore “ancestral memories” of Assassins that he happens to be a direct descendant of, I know little or nothing about what to expect.

All of which may well have stood me in good stead, going in knowing effectively nothing and not really expecting too much, because, on the whole, I did find myself rather enjoying Assassin’s Creed.    It helps that the cast is surprisingly good for a film like this.   The ever-watchable Michael Fassbender takes the lead in the dual role of Callum Lynch, a modern-day criminal whose execution is faked to bring him into the Animus program and Aguilar, his Assassin ancestor from the Spain of 1492, with Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard as the father/daughter team behind the project and Brendan Gleeson in a small but key role as Lynch’s estranged father.

The plot is pretty straightforward; Jeremy Iron’s character wants control of an ancient artefact and Lynch’s ancestor is, according to history, the last person to have it in his possession.   Abstergo, the obligatory evil corporation (seriously, is there any other kind in movies?), fake Lynch’s execution and stuff him into the Animus to relive Aguilar’s memories and find out where he stashed it.   Time is, as per usual, of the essence, partly because the powers behind Abstergo want results or they’ll shut down the program, but also because going into the Animus is badly affecting Lynch’s mental state as his ancestor’s memories begin to merge with his own.    The filmmakers don’t waste too much time getting on with things, as a result of which the film rattles along nicely.   Visually, the film sets up a solid contrast between the present day (largely monochromatic) and the past sequences (mainly earthy tones).    Action sequences are generally well-staged and effective.   Rather surprisingly, all of the 1492-set memory sequences are delivered entirely in Spanish, despite having a perfectly workable in-universe excuse not to (that Callum’s brain interprets the Spanish into a language that he understands).   Granted, the memory sequences are mostly extended action sequences with relatively limited dialogue, but it’s an unexpected and rather brave choice that does add something to those sequences.

Probably the biggest problem with the memory sequences, to be honest, is that there aren’t more of them.   I didn’t exactly sit there and time it, but probably no more than a third of the film is set during Lynch’s Animus dives back into the past.   That’s a shame, really, because they tend to be the stand-out sequences in the movie.   And you come out of the movie wanting to know rather more about Aguilar and the group of assassins to which he belonged, who they are, more about their goals, how their group is led, all that sort of stuff.    It very much comes across that there’s quite a rich mythology there, none of which you really learn during the action sequences that dominate that aspect of the movie.    You could easily get a whole movie out of what we see during those sequences and it’s possibly a shame that we didn’t.

In the end, Assassin’s Creed is a B-movie, no question about that, but one that works pretty well, even with its flaws.   And it’s one that I ended up enjoying more than I expected to.    Sometimes, that’s all I need from a movie..

On Episode Nine and the Leia Problem

It’s unlikely to have escaped many people’s attention that, at the tail end of 2016, año de la muerta that it seemed to be at times, we lost the incomparable Carrie Fisher at the too-young age of sixty. Better wordsmiths than I have eulogised her far better than I ever could and I don’t intend to compete with them; suffice it to say that Fisher’s iconic Princess Leia was one of the first strong female characters I remember seeing in the movies, so she made a very lasting impression.

Fisher’s untimely passing comes only a few months after the end of principal photography on Star Wars: Episode VIII – Subtitle To Be Announced.    By all accounts, after a relatively small role in The Force Awakens, where most of the legacy character action was given to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Leia’s role will be significantly expanded in Episode VIII.   Given that the movie will now serve as Fisher’s cinematic swan song, it certainly seems unlikely that much of her work will end up on the cutting room floor, and it goes without saying that the filmmakers will aim to give her a fitting send off.

The elephant in the room, however, is that Episode VIII is only the middle film in a new trilogy and, looming increasingly large on the horizon is the spectre of Episode IX, the grand finale to the new trilogy.   As such, the filmmakers have a difficult decision to make regarding how they handle one of their most beloved characters, given the demise of the actress who so capably played her.   And none of the potential solutions are exactly what you’d call problem-free.

The first option is to do what the franchise has done very recently, to use computer-generated imagery to keep the character in play.   In the recent Rogue One, sophisticated effects were used to bring back the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, looking much as he did during the very first Star Wars movie back in the 1970’s.   An actor with the right build and similar facial features was cast and Cushing’s features were digitally projected onto him.   It worked reasonably well in a small role but, as I commented in my review, was hardly flawless.    The same technology was used very briefly again at the very end of the film, for a scene where a 70’s era Carrie Fisher reprises her role as the young Princess Leia.    Could that same technology now be used to recreate the older Leia for whatever scenes are required for the final movie in the trilogy?

Option number two is to write the character out completely in some manner.  An off-screen death would likely be considered a bit too on-the-nose for the filmmakers to take that route, but Leia could conceivably be sent off somewhere to lead some off-screen aspect of the Resistance’s fight against the First Order.

Option three is arguably by far the simplest, to recast the character.

Obviously right now, we don’t know what the storylines for the rest of the trilogy entail, but we can certainly make some educated guesses, and it’s hard to make any that don’t feature Leia in a pretty significant role.    She’s the founder of the Resistance and, with the destruction of the Senate during The Force Awakens, one of the few remaining politically-savvy operators in the galaxy.   She’s a natural leader and, as such, it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t be front-and-centre in forthcoming events, at the heart of those plot strands focusing on the Resistance.

While predicting specific scenes is tough, it seems all but certain that the character will have at least a couple of major emotionally-laden scenes coming up.    Firstly, at some point, there should be the reunion with her long-missing brother Luke.    The odds seem good that this scene will probably occur in the already-shot Episode VIII, so we may be okay on that one, but we’ll only find that out a year from now.   The second scene that seems inevitable is that Leia will confront her wayward son Ben, now calling himself Kylo Ren and apprenticed to the still-mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke.   That’s going to be a big emotionally-punchy scene, particularly given what happened when his father tried giving him a good talking to, and seems much more likely to have been saved for the finale.

The problem that comes immediately to mind with option one is that, while the technology used to recreate characters is undeniably impressive, it seems highly unlikely that, even with another couple of years to refine it, that they’ll be at the point where it’s good enough to carry a major role in a movie as a photo-realistic human.   Nor does it seem likely to be able to pull off the emotional requirements of what will be highly emotionally-charged scenes.   For the movie to work, the audience has to totally buy the heartbreak in Leia’s face as she faces her son after everything that he’s done.   Imagine, if you will, Mark Hamill’s epic performance at the iconic moment when he learns Vader’s true identity – the power of that scene resides not in Vader’s revelation, but in the sheer horror that Luke faces at the knowledge.   If that emotion is compromised, then a pivotal scene fails.    At some point, they’ll get there, I’m sure, but creating an acceptable replica of a much-loved actress, capable of pulling off the requirements of a major role, within the next two years, seems like a very tall order indeed.

Option two does at least sidestep the issue of the CGI, but writing the character out completely, or even a combination of options one and two, by digitally recreating the character in only a small number of scenes hardly seems like a good send-off for a beloved and iconic character.    The audience want to see their favourite characters in satisfying roles, not sidelined when the big finale kicks off.

So that brings us to the third option, recasting the character.   It’s hard to judge how audiences might react to that; certainly it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be some resistance to the idea, but, as long as the matter is handled well, it doesn’t seem to me that there’d be any greater resistance to recasting than there would be to a CGI recreation that doesn’t convince or writing the character out of the movie.   The core emotional scenes could remain intact and the story could unfold as planned, rather than being compromised by hasty rewriting.   I certainly wouldn’t envy whoever took on the role, but as long as they showed the proper respect to Fisher’s performance and didn’t try to do things their own way, I think the audience would accept it as a necessary evil to give the character a good send-off.

When it comes down to it, the filmmakers face a classic Catch-22.   Whatever they do, they’re going to face resistance from the audiences.   For me, the best option, the course of action that best respects both the character and the film overall, is not to turn to technology to bail them out, but to get out there and find somebody who can wrap up the story of Princess Leia in a way that befits the character, the actress who created her and the audiences who love her.

Later this week, the filmmakers are getting together to discuss how to proceed.   It’s a hard choice.   Let’s hope that, whatever they decide, they come up with something good.

On Rogue One…

The original Star Wars is, I think, the first film I actually remember seeing at the cinema.   There were others that I saw before it, I know that from my mother, who, based on her stories, regularly had to put up with an over excitable small person at the cinema, but Star Wars is the first one that I actively recall seeing.   So it’s been part of my movie-going life for as long as I can remember having one.    And it’s safe to say that I actively enjoy hanging out in a galaxy far, far away and there’s really been no aspect of it that I haven’t enjoyed.

Yes, that includes the prequel trilogy.  Not always a popular opinion, to the extent that I’ve actually been told to my face that I can’t possibly be a true Star Wars fan, but I like them and make no apology for doing so.

Anyway, over the last couple of decades, there have been dozens of different Star Wars books, most of which I’ve read and enjoyed to one degree or another.   Many, a majority, focus on the Skywalker/Solo clan beloved of the movie trilogies, but there have been some that have set their focus elsewhere, following the exploits of a minor character from the movies, or even eliminating the movie characters altogether, often by setting the story in a different time period to the original movies and exploring a whole new aspect of the Star Wars universe.    While, as one would expect, the quality of those books has varied, I’ve always found it interesting to take a look aside from the main storylines of the trials and tribulations of Luke, Han, Leia and company and so, when I heard that the first standalone Star Wars movie would focus on a little-known, but utterly pivotal moment in that universe’s history, the theft of the Death Star plans that set in motion the events of the original movie,  I was most certainly interested to see what they came up with.

Fortunately, Rogue One doesn’t disappoint.

Set in the days immediately prior to the original movie, the film follows Jyn Erso, a bitter and disillusioned criminal who, having lost both parents (her mother slain, her scientist father taken away to work on a top-secret military project) to the Empire, prefers to keep her head down and not get involved.    Reluctantly dragged into action by the Rebellion, looking to use her to get to a defector pilot who claims to have a message from her father, she learns the truth about the Empire’s new weapon and, backed up by a motley crew of misfits, sets out to rescue her father from the Empire’s clutches and find a way to destroy the Death Star.

The storyline flows well, travelling from planet to planet, anchored by a couple of visits to the Rebel Base on Yavin 4, meticulously recreated from the original movie.   Both the stakes and the risks rise with each new world the team visit, as they learn more about what they’re facing and the odds arrayed against them increase.    Hope, or the lack thereof, is very much a key part of the storyline; as the truth about the Empire’s terror weapon becomes horrifyingly clear, retrieving the plans becomes the last hope for an increasingly demoralised Rebel Alliance.

The characters, as noted above, are something of a motley crew, but work well.   Felicity Jones’ Jyn makes a likeable lead, her disillusionment dropping away to be replaced with a new determination, and works well with Diego Luna’s Cassian, a Rebel captain who’s not always happy with what he’s had to do as part of their campaign against the Empire.   The rest of the squad, defector pilot Bohdi (Riz Ahmed), blind warrior monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen, putting his impressive martial arts skills to good use) and heavy weapons master Baze (Jiang Wen) all get strong moments, but are all comprehensively upstaged by the obligatory ‘droid, K-2SO (geek favourite Alan Tudyk), a former Imperial security droid whose reprogramming has resulted in a snarky personality that neatly allows him to steal every scene he appears in.

On the Imperial side of the equation, Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic, director of the Empire’s Advanced Weapons division takes central stage.   He does pretty well with the role, but is regularly overshadowed by characters returning from the original movie.   Darth Vader appears and gets a couple of cool moments, but more prominent is Grand Moff Tarkin, here presented as a rival to Krennic, keen to usurp control over the Death Star and undermine Krennic’s authority within the Empire.   Tarkin reappears courtesy of an pretty impressive CGI reconstruction of Peter Cushing.   It’s not perfect, by any means, and at times tumbles quite deep into the uncanny valley, but it’s so fitting to have the character there that it’s reasonably easy to overlook the flaws.

Uncanny valley issues aside, the film looks gorgeous, with some genuinely epic shots in the capable hands of director Gareth Edwards.   The special effects are mostly near flawless, with everybody bringing their A-game to making the whole movie look as good as it could possibly be.

Key to the film’s success is that, despite the absence of much loved characters from the previous movies, it still feels very much like a Star Wars film, albeit a more grounded one.   The mystical aspects that permeate the originals are toned strongly back, with Vader as the only acknowledged Force user present in the film (Chirrut’s status is rather ambiguous), with the movie feeling more like a war film, particularly the final large-scale action sequence.   The film makes considerable effort to fit in with the original movie, being set only days before it and generally succeeds extremely well.   The recreation of the Yavin base is near-perfect, and a number of minor Rebellion characters from the first film reappear, either through the medium of impressively solid lookalike casting, or, in a couple of cases, using carefully altered footage from Star Wars.   Rogue One also neatly sidesteps an issue that some people have with prequels, in that you know where things have to end up.  In this case, as the titular squad is made up entirely of previously unseen characters, the audience, while they know that the mission to retrieve the plans will be a success, have no way to know who, if anybody, is going to make it out alive.

The whole idea of standalone movies set in the Star Wars universe is very much one that I like the sound of, and choosing Rogue One, based, as it is, around a pivotal moment in their history, as their opening salvo has been a very smart choice.   A young Han Solo movie is up next, starring Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role.   To my mind, that’s not as inherently interesting a concept, but I’m more than happy to give them a chance on that one.   But with Rogue One, it’s safe to say that the standalone films are off to a very good start.



On the whereabouts of Fantastic Beasts…

I have to admit, when I heard that they were launching a new trilogy set in the Potterverse, I was a little sceptical; studios are always on the look out for their next big cash cow, and it wasn’t hard to see this as their latest attempt to mine more gold out of the now-finished Harry Potter movies.     The title didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, either; for those who might be unaware, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a small book, written for charity by J K Rowling, that’s simply an encyclopaedia of the assorted magical animals to be found in the universe, presented as an in-universe school text.   It’s maybe 100 pages long.    Getting a trilogy out of it seemed, well, ambitious feels like too small a word, somehow.    And got smaller when it was announced that the new “trilogy” would, in fact, be five movies.

But details came out that sounded interesting (and I’m a sucker for this sort of movie anyway); that it would be a period piece, set in the late 1920’s, seemed very promising, not least because it seriously limited the possibilities for already established characters to show up, forcing the storyline to stand on its own two feet, rather than just riding the coattails of the previous films.     It would be set in America, giving the audience an insight into a whole other region of the magical world that really hadn’t been touched upon before.    The storyline came into focus – it would cover the misadventures of the original text’s in-universe author, Newt Scamander, to be played by the generally excellent Eddie Redmayne, as he pursued various magical beasts around New York.   All in all, it sounded like it could be a lot of fun.

And, I’m rather happy to report that, for the most part, it is indeed a fun movie.    Albeit something of a surprising one.

One could readily be forgiven, given the film’s rather whimsical title, that what lay ahead is a light-hearted film, following an eccentric zoologist as he chases various creatures around the place, with a few amusing US-UK cultural misunderstandings thrown in for good measure, and there are most certainly quite a number of sequences that fit that narrative, particularly those involving Newt’s scene-stealing Niffler, which most resembles some sort of marsupial mole with an unhealthy fixation on shiny objects.    But, on the whole, the film steers a rather darker path than one might expect, opening with a dark wizard’s ruthless assault on a European castle and carrying on into a plot that features child cruelty and a few murders.    The American wizarding council aren’t exactly a barrel of laughs either – it’s clear very quickly that the wizarding world as a whole are terrified of Grindelwald and his rampage across Europe and those in charge in the United States are taking their security deadly seriously.    Like the Potter series before it, it seems that this new series is going to get much darker as it goes along.

The storyline is, to be honest, a little slight, as the movie spends maybe slightly too much time shouldering the burden of doing the world-building necessary to support the new series, but what there is is entertaining and the world-building is genuinely interesting, filling in new aspects to what’s been shown before.    Redmayne makes for an appealing if unusually socially awkward lead, occasionally feeling like he might be channelling an introverted version of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor (it came as no surprise to me to find out later than Smith was a serious contender for the lead), and he’s backed up by a solid supporting cast, most notably Dan Vogler as Jacob, a hapless No-Maj* who gets drawn into Newt’s adventures and, as such, effectively serves as the audience surrogate.    This can often be a thankless task for an actor, and it’s to Vogler’s credit that he pulls it off rather well.   The different creatures are well-realised and the effects generally are top-notch.    The script, now written by Rowling herself, is quite accomplished, with little that actually feels extraneous, although it remains to be seen if a few things may pay off in subsequent films.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie a great deal and look forward to seeing where they go with it.    If reports are to be believed, next stop, Paris…

* Okay, yeah, this whole “No-Maj” thing, which is what the American wizards use to refer to the non-magical population, the equivalent to a British wizard using “Muggle”.   I have to confess, when I first heard that, I rather hated it.   Really just sounded terrible.     It was only after the movie when my wife (who, for the record, is actually American) admitted that, while she’d not been sure about it at first, she’d swiftly come to the conclusion that it was actually exactly the sort of phrase that her countrymen might come up with.    So I’ll let them get away with it….