Review: Populaire (2013)

After a cavalcade of mediocre rom-coms from the other side of the Atlantic, it falls to France to beat the Americans at their own game. A winning homage to the Technicolor delights of Hollywood’s golden age, the beautifully coiffed Populaire might have been a vehicle for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in a parallel universe. But stars Romain Duris and Déborah François are more than acceptable replacements, and the plot is every bit as enjoyably predictable (and predictably enjoyable) as its forebears.

Full review: Populaire | Cinema Review | Film @ The Digital Fix

Iron Man 3 (and the Marvel Effect)

Iron Man 3 posterIron Man 3 opened last week in UK cinemas to the collective sounds of ringing tills, rustling popcorn buckets and whoops of delight. It’s one of those rare occasions where multiplex audience approval meshes with universal critical praise. Boasting bags of wit and energy, together with a sympathetic storyline, it’s certainly as good as the first film and possibly the best of the entire Marvel universe to date (though The Avengers remains this writer’s personal favourite). It also wraps up a satisfying trilogy in rousing style (dig those funky closing credits!), leaving the door open to future instalments but providing some degree of closure too.

Looking back, it’s difficult to remember now that the Iron Man franchise was never a sure thing; the character had nothing like the public recognition factor of, say, Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk. Yet today it is notable for serving as the launchpad for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ambitious attempt to replicate the world of comic-books on the big screen by having various characters star in their own film series, while also allowing them to crossover into other titles/films as part of a larger shared story. Facing bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel sold the film rights to their characters left, right and centre, making the idea of a shared universe all but impossible; Hollywood studios being famously protective of their properties. As the rights slowly reverted back to them, the idea of a cinematic universe gradually turned from pipe dream to realistic possibility, though questions remained as to whether it was financially feasible, let alone practicable. Would audiences be willing to stay (and pay) for the long haul? What if one of them tanked at the box office?

It was an audacious gamble, but Marvel Studios – the movie producing arm of Marvel Comics, itself now a subsidiary of Disney – pulled it off with a degree of success nobody expected. With Iron Man, Captain America and Thor tentpole franchises all up and running (part of what is now called Phase One), further Hulk and Avengers adventures planned (Phase Two), plus new characters waiting in the wings with their own movies (including Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man), Marvel’s competitors over at DC must be drooling with envy. Batman has always brought home the box-office bacon, but success elsewhere hasn’t been forthcoming, though this year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel looks to be a significant first step in building up a serious response.

How have they achieved this success? True, there is an insatiable thirst for superheroes at the movies these days, but it’s not only that (just ask DC). It comes down to three things: wooing the existing fanbase with the use of popular storylines, faithful portrayals of key personnel and a smattering of ‘easter eggs’ for long-time readers; updating their origins and surroundings to make it easy for non-fans to climb aboard; and attracting filmmakers with pedigree and appropriate skill sets to make it work. Marvel have emphatically proven that it’s possible to make their films work for just about anyone, whether young or old, nerds or newbies.

Case in point: Iron Man.

Beyond its blockbuster ambitions, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Iron Man franchise has been its ability to blend real world politics and dangers with the soaring adventure and escapism of comic books. They might not have the inflated heavyweight drama of Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy, which similarly layered political elements into its narrative, but then they had no need to. Marvel and DC have always been very different kettles of fish, treating their superhero subjects in their own distinctive ways. Where the Batman films bent over backwards to make its characters and storylines as credible as possible within its shadowy world of corruption and personal sacrifice, Iron Man has been refreshingly carefree in its approach, happy to let the fun rise to the top with a quip and a smirk, though not at the expense of emotion or its contemporary context.

Iron Man 3 poster

That real-world milieu drives themes that run through much of the trilogy’s storylines; among them terrorism, the global arms trade, global stock markets, backdoor political dealings, and of course super hi-tech advanced technology (which, in the age of Google Glasses, seems less futuristic with each passing day). The third film goes one step further, using bioengineered suicide bombers as the chief weapon in The Mandarin’s arsenal – extrapolating and exploring a real world problem through the medium of a superhero adventure. It’s a neat trick to pull off without making it seem cheap and tasteless.

But the main thrust of the plot in IM3 sees the past return to bite Tony on the ass once again. The arrogance of his former life and his ability to create weapons of enormous power combine to put his life, as well as that of his precious Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his countrymen too, in danger. It’s a recipe that’s been used in all three films to various extents, and many other comic-book adaptations besides, but hey – if it works, it works. After travelling his road to Damascus, life’s been far from easy for him – so he’s earned our sympathy.

What’s more surprising is that, in these financially austere times, so many people have taken a self-declared “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” to heart. He’s almost an updated version of one of those dapper, debonair, gentleman heroes from the 1930s, like The Saint or The Falcon: handsome, resourceful, unflappable, ready with a wisecrack no matter how desperate the situation, and all too aware of how swoony he is. You need just the right sort of actor for that sort of role, which brings us neatly to Robert Downey Jr; the undisputed heart and soul of the franchise, and the man born to play Stark. Audiences adore him, especially those normally averse to superhero silliness. His electric performances have not only raised the profile of a character previously considered to be in Marvel’s second tier, but have also infused a spirit of wit and spontaneity into a massive Hollywood money-making machine – no mean feat.

The actor has spoken in the past about how dialogue was often improvised on the set of the original film as a way of circumventing a problematic script, and that impulsive, almost impudent tone has seemingly carried on through the sequels. Has there ever been a franchise based on a previously existing character so conspicuously steered by and built around its star? For now Downey Jr IS Tony Stark – it’s nigh on impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. That’s not to say the role won’t be recast at some point – of course it will – but whoever fills those shoes better have damn big feet. Marvel would be wise to keep him onboard for as long as they possibly can.

With Downey Jr currently out of contract, Iron Man may no longer be the supporting pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s done its job. As Phase Two begins, can this venture continue to grow without him? That remains to be seen; if there are wobbles along the way, don’t be too surprised if Tony drops by to check up on things. Let’s hope so – we’ll miss him if he’s gone for too long. Swoon.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Review: Argo (2012)

Suspenseful, technically accomplished and skilfully judged, Argo is another strong entry on Ben Affleck’s burgeoning directorial CV. The one-time Pearl Harbor star continues the resurrection of a Hollywood career that was all but dead after falling off a cliff in the early 2000s. Not only has he made a gripping drama based on true events, he has crafted a popular and critical hit from a story set in the Middle East – a subject normally poison at the box office. There is already (maybe prematurely) talk of success in the forthcoming awards season, and even if it doesn’t quite measure up to classic thriller status, there’s no denying it’s a polished piece of work.

Full review: Argo | Cinema Review | Film @ The Digital Fix

Review: Battleship (2012)

Battleship posterSome films are so astoundingly silly that, against your better judgement, you can’t help but have fun. Such is the case with Battleship, the latest movie to be based on a Hasbro franchise (there are no toys or games any more, just brands and franchises). Given the enormous financial success of the Transformers franchise, it’s only slightly surprising that a two-hour plus movie based on a simple, wet-summer-holidays strategy game has emerged as a special effects-crammed, self-appointed blockbuster.

In tone and look, Battleship does feel like a spin-off from one of Michael Bay’s ultra-loud slices of robotic mayhem; it’s certainly in love with the military hardware and mass destruction on display, and is unabashedly patriotic. This is a film that would blow the word ‘subtle’ out of the water if it dared to sail within firing range. Explosions pile on top of more explosions as an outnumbered and outgunned American naval crew try to outwit a technologically superior alien invasion force who have decided to invade our planet (best not to ask why they have chosen to do so, or how the crew find out why). Naturally they pick Hawaii as a starting point. Well, wouldn’t you?

On the surface it’s a simple jingoistic exercise in machismo and CGI: clean shaven Americans blow up evil aliens, the end. All well and good of course (assuming it’s done well), though the suggestion that those wacky scientists are to blame for bringing this threat to us by attempting to send a signal to a nearby exo-planet grates somewhat. Never mind the highly questionable science – what annoys is the oh-so-tired suggestion that science will bring about Earth’s doom, and the military will naturally have to step in to save the world. Er, is it the 1950s again?

Even more laughable than the back-of-a-fag-packet plot is its barking mad cast. Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna decked out in military uniforms couldn’t look more out of place if they were running for parliament. Kitsch once again looks all at sea (I-thank-you) in a big budget sci-fi spectacle, after last month’s otherwise OK John Carter.  His singular lack of charisma and expression recalls that other one-dimensional Hollywood star, Paul Walker; line them up side by side and you could start building a fence. Rihanna’s anaemic performance suggests she should probably stick to the singing. Brooklyn Decker as Kitsch’s girlfriend was clearly only cast for two reasons, though to be fair they both offer strong competition to the beautiful mountainous scenery she finds herself stranded in. Thank God then for Liam Neeson, who injects some much-needed presence to his role as Admiral Shane, though the plot relegates him to the sidelines in little more than a cameo (or maybe that’s what attracted him to the largely Hawaiian-set production – who knows?). Occasionally he looks as if he can’t quite believe he actually signed up for this nonsense. Audiences will probably be thinking the same.

Almost single-handedly stopping the whole thing from sinking under the weight of its own preposterousness is director Peter Berg’s occasional hints of tongue-in-cheek. I particularly enjoyed the bit where Kitsch and his Japanese buddy ran up the deck of a sinking ship just to jump off the stern, rather than leap off the side like everyone else. Clearly that route just wasn’t quite spectacular enough. It’s moments like these when the ridiculousness of it all shines through that you can’t help but smile, and I have to admit I smiled quite a few times. The mid-film sequence where the crew play Battleship for real with the aliens (after radar has been rendered useless) is also quite amusing, though you do end up wishing you could just go home and play the game instead. But I guess that was Hasbro’s mission all along; there’s certainly no doubt which of the two will have a longer shelf life.

[xrr rating=2/5]

Predator 2 (1990)

The first Predator was a huge success, combining the suspenseful action of Aliens with an uncluttered plot and the muscle of Schwarzenegger in his prime. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, a follow-up was not instantly greenlit. There are varying accounts about why this was: Arnold’s rumoured dislike of the proposed storyline; his scheduling clash with the forthcoming Terminator sequel; and studio bean-counters waiting to see how well the comic-book spin-off series was received. In the end, for whatever reason, Schwarzenegger bailed and the sequel was forced to search for a new leading man. Enter… um, Danny Glover?

This would actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In contrast with the Alien franchise, where Sigourney Weaver’s continued participation eventually became something of a narrative millstone, the Predator series was free to make its extra-terrestrial villains the stars of the show, and not worry about how to convincingly re-work Dutch in to the story. But this created a different problem. How would audiences react to a Schwarzenegger-less sequel? Were the Predators sufficiently interesting to merit a return visit without the familiar presence of Hollywood’s number one box-office star?

The Predators are often compared to their Alien counterparts, especially with reference to the AVP crossover series, and the argument usually goes that the Alien is a darker and more interesting creation that its younger stablemate. I wouldn’t presume to dispute that, but the Predator is too often unfairly dismissed as clumsy and silly by comparison. Where the Alien originated from the nightmarish imagination of artist H.R. Giger, the Predator had its roots in the somewhat more conventional mind of the late SFX maestro Stan Winston. Reptilian in appearance but humanoid in stature, it initially seems only a few short steps away from being a Star Trek heavy.

But it is the characteristics and behaviour of the Predator, rather than its look, which makes it a worthy addition to the monster hall of fame. The notion that an alien species has evolved to the point of being capable of long distance space travel, but whose culture continues to be defined by their skill as competitive hunters, is both mysterious and slightly chilling. Its penchant for collecting the skulls of its victims (taking time to clean and polish them of course) and its preference to commit suicide rather than live with defeat re-enforce the impression that this is an advanced and intelligent race that is also knowingly violent and bloody – and therefore should be avoided at all costs.

In a stroke of genius, Kevin Peter Hall’s intriguing performance echoes this culture of the primitive mixed with the futuristic through his use of tribal dance movement, especially noticeable in the original movie during the showdown with Dutch. The Predator has the distinction of being one of the few Hollywood aliens that is instantly recognisable through its body language. Add to this the cool weapons and toys they have (invisibility, various forms of thermal imaging, shoulder-mounted cannons, etc.) and you have a character more than worth revisiting, especially if unencumbered by the presence of Ahnuld.

Predator 2 brazenly takes this challenge on, not only eschewing the jungle setting of its predecessor in favour of an urban environment – a heatwave-struck Los Angeles – but also moving the action forward ten years to 1997. It also bravely replaces the optimistic, brawny, pro-American attitude of the first film with a grimmer scenario of high racial tensions and failing law and order. Against a background of immigrant gang warfare between two drug cartels (the Jamaicans and the Colombians) which the police are barely able to contain, Danny Glover’s no-nonsense Lt. Mike Harrigan quickly realises a new player is in town when henchmen from both sides start to turn up dead, with their bodies hung up and skinned. His investigation is blocked however by mysterious government agent Peter Keyes (Gary Busey), who it turns out has been investigating the Predator ever since Arnold’s encounter a decade earlier and is obsessed with finding and capturing another.

Flashily directed by Stephen Hopkins, Predator 2 doesn’t come close to capturing the suspenseful action of its predecessor, though there are a couple of decent set-pieces: the subway sequence is rather good, while the meat warehouse showdown enjoyably, if unashamedly, rips off Aliens. But the various factions lined up against the new Predator – Jamaicans, Colombians, the police, secret government agents – add a few more layers to the plot than the comparatively straightforward first film, thus avoiding the usual trap of simply repeating the original. It also has plenty of blood and sweat, and in its leading man a real actor rather than, well, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Glover just about passes muster in the action scenes, but crucially he has a gravitas which anchors the film throughout. The supporting cast all register strongly as well, with Busey especially good value and Harrigan’s team (Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso and the always welcome Bill Paxton) nicely filled out.

The ending is far from perfect, with its disappointing interior design of the alien ship (all naff orange walls and dry ice) and Glover miraculously overcoming the Predator in hand-to-hand combat. But it does have its infamous trophy case of skulls, and a pistol dated 1715 tossed to Harrigan by a Predator leader intriguingly raises more questions than it does answers. All in all Predator 2 is a decent sci-fi actioner, and its weak reputation is ill-deserved. It didn’t do too well at the box office, and plans for a third film melted away in the mid-90s (though a script was written by a young Robert Rodriguez, who finally, and rather unexpectedly, managed to bring it to the screen earlier this year in the form of Predators). Fans of the first film expecting another dose of loud Schwarzenegger-style action may be left disappointed, but everyone else will find a refreshingly different follow-up.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Confessions of a DTV sequel addict

Hello. My name is … (name removed to protect the individual) and I am a recovering direct-to-video sequel addict. I have been watching mediocre, boring, or just plain awful DTV spin-offs for nearly ten years.

I didn’t used to be like this. Once upon a time I would go to the cinema to see a sci-fi, fantasy or horror film without thinking about the sequel possibilities it might afford. I would enjoy the film (or not, as the case may be) and move on to the next movie. If a sequel popped up in the cinema some time later, then I would try and catch it if I enjoyed the original, or if the reviews were fairly favourable.

Now though, give me a half-decent genre film and, so help me, I look forward to seeing how a DTV sequel might be squeezed out of it.

It all started in the mid-90s. When I first started surfing the Internets, I came across Coming Attractions, one of the first popular movie gossip websites to emerge (now sadly defunct). One film title they had listed as being in development was Tremors 3. Hang on, I thought – Tremors 3…? As in, a sequel to that rather cool Kevin Bacon monster movie from a few years back? Does that mean there was a Tremors 2?!

From that moment on, I was hooked. I wanted to know what happened after every original film had finished. Not just for the Tremors movies, but all the rest: From Dusk Till Dawn, Mimic, Species, Candyman, Starship Troopers… I wanted to watch them all. It was a brave new world of movies: the theatrical originals and their bastard straight-to-video offspring. Which characters lived on? Which died? How did the threat or horror from the first film resurface and continue?

The disappointments of each inferior sequel somehow failed to quench my curiosity. The inept direction, the cheesy dialogue, the shoddy FX work, the prerequisite topless girl scene(s), the low-rent cast: each an essential ingredient for the lazy quick-buck sequel. I searched for some sort of meaningful continuation of the original film’s story and themes; sometimes with modest success, but often doomed to a wild goose chase. Yet I lived in perpetual optimism that perhaps the next sequel would have its compensations…

My addiction grew steadily worse, taking in the wild pointlessness of sequels to films that weren’t even that good in the first place (Hollow Man 2, anyone? Thought not). I read up about new sequels in the pipeline – which cast members could be coaxed back? What tenuous connection would the new film have to its parent (oh look, the ghost of the man who haunted the original house is back as the ghost in the new one…)?

Lately though, I have found my interest has mercifully begun to wane. Perhaps the addiction has now bottomed out and I can start the road back to some form of normality? I live in hope. But still, if I listen hard enough, I can hear the cries of new sequels emerging from the dark minds of Hollywood executives and accountants. New spin-offs to films that didn’t need any form of continuation, films that have committed no crime to cinema but must suffer the indignity of having their modest reputations stripped and sullied in order to keep studio pockets lined with as much cash as possible.

Perhaps it’s too late for me. But if you should see someone wandering up and down the aisles of a dvd store looking at DTV drivel, don’t just snort with derision; spare a thought for them. Maybe they too have become enslaved by the mercenary machinations of Hollywood’s evil geniuses. Maybe have a quiet word and suggest something with a bit more life and intelligence. No Country for Old Men, or something like that.

Now, what’s happening with Starship Troopers 3…?

Franchise fatigue?

The Franchise. Simultaneously one of the most popular and unpopular words currently floating around the world of cinema. It’s popular with the studio bean-counters, who love the idea of having a guaranteed blockbuster year after year, providing a steady income from ticket receipts and merchandise opportunities. It also seems to be pretty popular with audiences, who queue up to see the latest sequel to emerge from Hollywood. I read today how Resident Evil: Extinction is the seventh “threequel” (i.e. the third episode of a franchise) to be released this year, and the seventh to reach No.1 in its opening weekend.

The Franchise is however unpopular with critics of Hollywood, who write about the dearth of imagination in modern movie-making and talk about the good old days of the 1970s when filmmakers were allowed a free reign on what was made and succeeded in producing some of the most remarkable and memorable films ever. And to some extent, they do have a point. The world of cinema today is a different one from the 70s, and the great films made then remain classics of their time. One has difficulty thinking of a recent film that could equal the dark majesty of The Godfather for instance.

But Franchise has now become a dirty word, used to describe Hollywood movie-making at its brainless, soul-destroying worst. And it is perhaps true that in some quarters this reputation is justified. Examples abound of inferior sequels to great or good originals. It is far harder to think of sequels that equal or even surpass their progenitor.

But I would like to offer a few words in defence of the Franchise. Firstly, I like sequels. Not all sequels, obviously – there have been some that should simply be buried underground in concrete bunkers, or blasted off into space on a collision course with the sun (Batman & Robin, I’m looking at you). But the notion of returning to a universe that I enjoyed first time around is a very appealing one, particularly as there is often little opportunity to do so. Movies are generally one-offs: they tell a story, and then they end. That’s part of their appeal. But return trips, when they work, can be just as great. Forgive me for dragging in the Alien franchise to my blog again, but James Cameron proved that building on Ridley Scott’s universe was fantastically worthwhile. And Francis Ford Coppola’s own The Godfather Part II successfully expanded the story of the Corleone family.

But these are genuine sequels you say, not Franchises with multiple money-making opportunities. True. Modern day Franchises like Spider-Man and Shrek were created from scratch with the aim of making billions of dollars in cinemas and homes in various forms. But so long as effort has gone in to each ‘episode’ to give it a strong story and equally to tell it well, why should we not enjoy it? Comic-book adaptations are particularly prone to sequels, and why not? That’s the nature of comics, to tell stories over weeks and even months or years. It seems wrong to me that Spider-Man, Batman or Superman should be denied the opportunity for further exciting tales of their fantastical universes.

Equally, films like Die Hard or the James Bond series prove that a character can be worth returning to. If Ian Fleming or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could write multiple stories involving their famous creations, why shouldn’t movie-goers enjoy the same privilege?

Naturally, there will be hiccups and downright awful abominations (er, Batman & Robin, stop trying to hide behind your desk…). But if the characters and their worlds are good enough, they will prevail in the end (Batman Begins proved that). So all I would say is, when critics yet again berate the slate of sequels and spin-offs that Hollywood lines up for us suckers, remember that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously variety is the spice of life, and in no way would I want to only see Franchise films. Some films just wouldn’t support a sequel, and quite rightly so. But neither would I want to be denied the opportunity to see a new Spidey flick.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – except in Hollywood

This summer has been a bizarrely regressive experience for me so far. It began in a small way, seeing Spidey take on Venom in Spider-Man 3 at the start of the blockbuster season, bringing back memories of reading comics in the 80s. Then along came Die Hard 4.0 which, whilst in no way resembling its predecessors, recalled some more fond memories. But then nostalgia overload really took off when Transformers arrived at the multiplex.

This was a film that I had only ever dreamt about in the dim and distant past, but never imagined in a million years would actually happen. Growing up, I lived Transformers. Bought the toys, collected the comics, annuals and books, watched the cartoons, stuck the stickers, pinned up the posters… you name it. When dear old mum gave away my toy collection to a charity shop after I had outgrown them, without my knowledge,  I was mortified (only on the inside of course).

When I was at university in the mid-90s, and the internet began to take off in a big way, my first few surfings uncovered rumours of a live-action spectacle. Back then of course, there were rumours of anything and everything. Movie gossip sites like Ain’t It Cool and (the now defunct) Corona’s Coming Attractions regularly reported utter nonsense, and had nothing like the credibility they do today. “Transformers?” I thought, “That would be amazing, but are they even still going? Who would pay to see a movie based on an 80s fad that no-one remembers anymore, apart from me?”

It turns out – quite a few. Flash forward a few years, and Hollywood is snapping up any reasonably well-established franchise they can lay their grubby little hands on. Their calculation was: well known brand name = ready-made market. Having churned out comic book adaptations for the last few years, with varying degrees of success, it was inevitable the toy market would also benefit from this frenzy for guaranteed money-earning properties. And Transformers had everything: a rich history of money-making via a variety of media, not to mention a fanbase of several years standing (numerous versions came and went after the initial craze died away; Beast Wars for example). I can just see their line of thinking: “Suckers like me who remember the original toys and stories would surely pay to see this film, plus they might even bring along their kids who can get hooked on all the new marketing gimmicks – sorry, tie-ins – we put out. Eeeeeasy money.”

Sorry if this all sounds quite cynical; I was over the moon when they officially announced it. Even the hiring of Michael ‘Armageddon’ Bay couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm that much. I can’t say I prefer the new look Transformers to the old ones, but I guess some changes were inevitable. When I finally saw the movie, I really liked it. My jaw dropped on several occasions – no mean feat in these days of CGI. But the main thrill was finally to see the Transformers come to life on the big screen. And it really did feel like a Transformers story: maybe it was Steven Speilberg’s influence as executive producer, but the story had a very 80s vibe to it, being told from a kid’s perspective. I had niggles of course, like any fanboy: the action was occasionally confusing, we saw far too little of Cybertron, and Optimus Prime had a touch too much humour for my liking (why is “My bad” so prevalent in scripts at the moment?). But it got far more right that it got wrong, and as an introduction to a new universe, it worked great. And with over $300m in the bank in the U.S. alone, it worked financially too.

Now, when I walk down the high street, I see Transformers merchandise everywhere. It’s suddenly cool to like them again. I can’t explain why it is both weird and fantastic to see little ‘uns pointing up at toys of Optimus Prime, desperate for their mum to buy it. Maybe I feel vindicated in some perculiar way. Is this the way all hardcore geeks feel when their beloved property of choice gets the Hollywood treatment?

Anyway, who cares? Thanks to Hollywood’s creatively bankrupt commercial sensibilities, which often come under fire for producing brain-dead entertainment (and rightly so of course), I actually got to see my dream up on the big screen. Let’s hope a sequel is on the way. Thank you Hollywood!