Film reviews

Fearless: fun but I’ve seen it somewhere before

Last night, it being Orange Wednesday and all, I went to see what is promised to be Jet Li’s last martial arts movie: Fearless. How could I resist?

Fearless is set in Shanghai at the turn of the 20th Century. Li plays Huo Yuan Jia (the film’s Chinese title), founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. A martial arts master, Huo Yuan Jia ends up fighting Westerners and Japanese in a demonstration contest to prove that the Chinese are not “the weak men of the East”, as the Westerners suggested. But most of the movie is a flashback to his life, showing how he became a famous fighter, how his life fell apart through poor choices and mistakes, and how he was able to pull himself back together again.

There are essentially three intents of Fearless:

  1. To prove Jet Li can act and therefore should be considered for future dramatic roles that don’t involve wu shu
  2. To prove that China was a mess in the early 20th century and that the People’s Republic of China was therefore a very good idea indeed
  3. To recapture some of the things that made Jet Li’s earlier Hong Kong films so good in order to give him a good send-off.

Continue reading “Fearless: fun but I’ve seen it somewhere before”

Film reviews

Review: X-Men 3

X-Men 3
In my hurry to slag off the Odeon on Monday, I forgot to review the film I went to see: X-Men 3.

Let’s keep this one short. It’s directed by Brett Ratner, director of Rush Hour, Red Dragon and Rush Hour 2. If you’re aware of his work, that’s all you need to know.

If you’re not, imagine an “averaging device”. What’s an averaging device? It’s a thing that takes the absolute worst movies ever made and the absolute best movies ever made and then turns whatever it’s shone on into the complete average of the two groups.

Brett Ratner is an averaging device.

X-Men 3 isn’t awful. It isn’t good. It just chugs along, doing the same sort of things that the previous X-Men movies did, except you don’t feel a single thing. The effects look good, but you won’t really be wowed. The acting varies from bad to good, but you won’t care either way. Most of the major characters don’t actually get to say anything since Halle Berry stole all their lines. Some of the cinematography is interesting, but even in the most potentially shocking moments, when favourite characters get killed off willy nilly, you just won’t care. The camera angles, pacing and everything else about the movie are designed simply to get the plot from the beginning of the film to the end – nothing else.

Only the dialogue manages to escape being average and that’s by descending into complete banality. The plot, which is vaguely about a potential cure for mutants and the argument about whether they should take it or not – are they a disease or are they a normal part of evolution – could have been good. But while Bryan Singer, who directed the previous two movies, made sure his plots were reasonably smart, Ratner makes his averagely stupid. Magneto wants to take his army across to Alcatraz. Does he hire a fleet of helicopters or speed boats? Maybe use a submarine? No, he moves the Golden Gate Bridge. Looks good – well, average actually – but makes no sense whatsoever.

So save your money, particularly if you were thinking of watching it in The Gallery.

Mission: Impossible III

The TV series Mission: Impossible had a great formula. Spymaster would go to the shops or the funfair to check his dead-letter drops. He’d get a tape recording from his boss telling him to do something completely impossible. He’d then go home to his penthouse suite, pour himself a drink and leaf through his photo album, while working out a way to do the impossible thing. He’d pick a few people from his album to help him, they’d fly off to some Eastern European country where they’d mess with people’s heads, pull off the plan, then head off home. Cracking. Lasted seven seasons plus a remake show in the 80s that did. You don’t get much of that these days.

Anyway, a few years back, it got turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise. You may remember it. It wasn’t very much like the original show, as it was trying it’s very best to be a proper spy thriller with tradecraft jargon like “exfiltration” weighing down the dialogue and the plot. The second film, directed by John Woo, wasn’t very much like anything except a John Woo film. We’re now on the second sequel and for the first time we actually have a film that sticks to the TV show’s formula, more or less. The trouble is that it’s still not Mission: Impossible.

M:I:III as it’s called is directed by JJ Abrams. He’s the co-creator of Lost and the creator of Alias. He also co-wrote the script with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, both of whom wrote for Alias as well. So zero astonishment here when I realised after a few minutes of the film that I was watching an extended episode of Alias, but starring Tom Cruise instead of Jennifer Garner. Personally, I’d prefer to watch Jennifer Garner to Tom Cruise on any given occasion but others may differ. Plus she did star in the very sucky Elektra, effectively writing off her chances of appearing as the lead in another action movie for a while.

If you’ve ever watched more than a couple of episodes of Alias, you’re going to get some ridiculously strong feelings of déjà vu with every moment. There’s the opening scene set in China that’s actually a flashforward from the main plot (how will they get out of that? And how did they get into that in the first place?), which is straight out of the first episode. There’s the trademark location details in the corner of the screen whenever they go somewhere new (“Rome, Italy”. No! Not Rome in Italy! I thought that was some other Rome…). There’s the stupid technology, explosive charges planted in brains, etc, all served up by a dissembling techie, here played by our very own Simon Pegg whose few appearances actually steal the whole movie. Then there’s the artifact that needs to be recovered, the so-called Rabbit’s Foot, which has all the hallmarks of being produced by the House of Rambaldi. There’s even a cameo by Greg Grunberg, JJ Abrams’ life-long pal who gets a job in everything he does.

Similarly, there have been Alias-esque changes to the few recurring movie characters. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has gone from being a typical cocky omnipotent Cruise character to being an angst-ridden agent who’d really like to kick this spying gig so he can settle down and breed with his new wife. Ving Rhames appears again, but instead of the all-business moody character of previous films, he’s now giving relationship advice to Cruise and joking around the water cooler with him. There’s a stupid cover front for the Impossible Mission Force, just like Sidney Bristow’s merchant bank cover for SD6. Short of a menacing, untrustworthy father and a double-agent mother for Hunt, there’s not much more that could have been done to turn him into Bristow.

For the first half of the movie, bar that opening flashforward, the movie still tries to be Mission: Impossible though, right down to the re-use of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme for incidentals. But where the TV show relied on misdirection and the agents’ abilities to instill paranoia in their quarries, M:I:III relies on guns, fights and stupid Alias technology to achieve the ‘impossible’. It’s all done a lot better than in M:I 2, but the subtlety of the original has gone. The second half of the movie is pure Alias though, with everything revolving around the rescue of a kidnapped family member.

Nevertheless, the movie is still pretty entertaining. There’s some clever dialogue that only occasionally veers into purple prose. It has a good cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman throwing in an exceptionally fine turn as the baddie. Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are equally good and are actually given some character-development time – almost unheard of in a Cruise pic. Laurence Fishburne delivers his lines as though he’s getting paid by the minute, but is his typical mesmerising self. The Cruise gives his usual strong performance, although – again as usual – he doesn’t actually act with anyone, just acts at them, completely failing to alter his delivery in response to his co-stars’. The action scenes are pretty well executed and should provide thrills for all.

This isn’t a classic movie by any means, but if you want something to park yourself in front of for a couple of hours while you chew your popcorn, it’s better than most of the other tatt on offer at the moment.

As a reward for making it through this review, here’s the opening titles to season one of the original show. Note the lack of Peter Graves, who replaced Steven Hill from season two onwards.

Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor in The Island
Film reviews

The Island: Why it flopped

There’s an interesting article on Slate about why Scarlet and Ewan’s The Island flopped last summer. It has some interesting points to make, but there are a couple of things I take issue with.

Firstly, the author, Edward Jay Epstein, describes The Island as original. As good old Mark Kermode pointed out at length, it wasn’t; at the very least, it was very, very close to The Clonus Horror, but it certainly had echoes of Logan’s Run and several other movies in there as well.

Secondly, he also says “What really failed here was not the directing, acting, or story (which were all acceptable for a summer movie)”. While Ewan and Scarlet could certainly have phoned in worse performances and the directing was actually reasonably good at times, the second half of the story was astonishingly bad. The heroes fall off the side of a skyscraper, stuck to a giant logo, and all that happens is they get a couple of scratches!? How does that work?

While the first half was reasonably clever and interesting, the second half was just a neverending series of setpiece stunts. If that’s what’s now acceptable then it’s easy to see why 2005 lacked any must-see blockbusters. Blockbusters aren’t ever going to smash records with a Hamlet-like script, but audiences have to feel they’re not having their intelligences utterly insulted. If Hollywood wants to know where it’s going wrong, it should take a firm look at their writing processes to see how to get better quality into the scripts.