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Wreck-It Ralph (2012) December 24, 2013

Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, Comedy, Disney, Fantasy, 3 stars, Adventure, video game films, 2010s, 2013 , add a comment

2013 #109

Set in the computer game Sugar Rush, which is what it appears the makers were suffering from…

Debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 7:15pm.

#9: 2000 AD (2000) February 4, 2012

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Thriller, 2000s, 2 stars, world cinema, video game films, 2012 , 2 comments

aka Gong yuan 2000 AD

Gordon Chan | 99 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong & Singapore / Cantonese, English & Mandarin | 18

2000 ADPart coincidence (in that I happened to notice it), part forced appropriateness (in that I then chose to post it now), 2000 AD was originally released in Hong Kong 12 years ago yesterday, tying in to Chinese New Year the last time it was (as it is now) the year of the Dragon.

Or something like that — I’m no expert, I just Wikipedia’d it.

New Year was a fairly appropriate time to release it, as the title may indicate, because it was designed to tie in to the fuss around the Y2K bug. So ostensibly it’s a techno-thriller about computers and, y’know, all that. Well, there are some computers in it, and I think someone mentions Y2K early on, but that’s about it. Really this is a movie about chasing bad guys, people shooting at other people, people kicking the whatnot out of other people, and all that regular action movie stuff. The thing they’re all chasing is a stolen computer program that can do all kinds of magic hacking stuff, but that’s about as far as the technology element goes.

The plot it has wound up with doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The gist of it is fine — see above for my description — but it’s loaded with reversals and characters switching sides that slide past so quickly I’m not sure they even made an effort to explain it. That towards the end, mainly — at the start, it’s just bloody slow to get going. It’s not a problem that it takes over half-an-hour to get to the first real action sequence — I can handle an action movie that takes its time to build things up; it’s that nothing much of significance happens during that half hour. They look bored tooAll that’s established in these parts could be done much more economically, which would result in far less viewer thumb-twiddling.

An opening almost-action-sequence-thing with some fighter jets seems to exist simply so they could put some fighter jets in the trailer (they seem to have been featured heavily in the film’s promotion, but the main cast go nowhere near them). Some subplots exist purely to pad the running time — for instance, why all that business with the Singaporean agent, his boss’ assistant and their birthdays? There’s lots of others: something about an X-ray-EMP-device-thing causing cancer; a robot dog that doesn’t do anything significant; a friend of a character who’s established as a judge, only to not re-appear…

When the action does arrive, it has all the flare and panache you’d expect from a Hong Kong production. And then some, actually: it’s directed and edited with a heft of real-world grit, but swished up with some jumpy cutting, unusual angles and interesting colour washes. There’s all that on the first gunfight anyway — maybe it took a lot of effort, because it’s largely abandoned later. There’s some awkward undercranking, unfortunately, plus occasional confusion about what’s going on — how did she get that car? which character just jumped in that car? etc.

Kicking itThat might be being picky. The action feels slight at the time because it’s a good while coming, but in retrospect, considered on their own merits, there’s a lot of good stuff. There’s a good car chase, a couple of shoot-outs that err towards realism rather than balleticism (both have their merits, but something that feels realistically punchy is rarer), and a couple of solid punch-ups that play fairly nicely on the idea that our hero isn’t a martial arts expert. That concept isn’t mentioned in the film as much as it is in the DVD extras, but his style has a sort of scrambly feel that’s less honed than your usual kung fu bout; plus, as director Gordon Chan explains in the commentary, his apparent competency is how all kids fight in Hong Kong, because they’ve copied it from the movies!

The centrepiece fist/foot fight takes place on the 32nd storey of a building. I learnt that from the DVD special features. They really filmed it up there too. I also learnt that from the special features. It’s a shame, because you definitely get more of a feel for how dangerous and on the edge — literally — the fight was in some of the B-roll footage and interviews than you do from the movie itself: it’s covered almost entirely through low-angle shots, meaning it could just as well have been recreated on a ground-level mock-up as the actual rooftop. There are some long shots in the making-of which show them filming it, and viewing those you can’t help but wish they’d taken the time to shoot at least some of the fight from the same vantage point, because it really shows off the drop. Oh well.

You do know we're not in Mexico?

That’s not the finale. The finale takes place at a Singapore convention centre and, after all that action, feels a bit limp. Again we can turn to the special features though: there was supposed to be a huge gunfight, but a mix-up with permissions meant when they arrived on location they weren’t allowed to film it, to the extent that the couple of shots that are fired were captured as men holding guns with muzzle flashes added in later. This kind of explanation makes you think, “well, fair enough”, but watching the film in isolation it felt anticlimactic.

ConventionalTalking of the action — it’s an 18? I know the BBFC used to be harsher, and particularly so on things featuring martial arts and whatnot, but I still don’t see how this makes an 18. A bit of swearing, a bit of blood — it’s a 15 surely? I watched this just days after Ironclad, which had people’s limbs being lopped off in close-up, beheadings, bodies being cleaved in two, much more violent stuff than 2000 AD features… and that’s only a 15. I know, this doesn’t matter to most of us, but I notice these things.

I’ve seen other reviews comment that it goes wrong when they head off to Singapore, around the third act. Personally I thought that was when it began to go right! The pace picks up, the action picks up. It’s not a movie of two halves — some of the film’s best bits are in the Hong Kong section — but I certainly wouldn’t say it gets worse. Hong Kong is, for example, where we find the best character, police officer Ng. He barely says anything, but he’s got a presence that works. Actor Francis Ng (who I noticed in Exiled and is also in Infernal Affairs II, as well as a mass of other stuff) conveys far more with looks than with the dialogue, which is probably why he’s so memorable. One scene featuring him, which comes around halfway I’d guess but I shan’t spoil, is the only non-action part of the film that really works, where you really care about something that’s happening. On the commentary, Bey Logan quotes Jean Cocteau: “never state what you can imply” — and that’s Ng’s whole character.

They're using a computer, seeAs with any film heavily based in the realm of technology, certain things have dated. Two things work in its favour: one, as noted, it’s not actually got much to do with technology anyway; and two, it comes from the slightly later time when home computers were more commonplace, so it’s not as bad as those ’90s tech thrillers where computers could do pretty much anything a writer dreamed up. But there’s floppy discs, flight sims with flat graphics, and Magical Hacking Software that can Destroy Everything. An opening spiel about the future of warfare being cyber-attacks doesn’t feel like its quite come to pass (yet?), but then the film doesn’t wholly build on that. The computer software they’re chasing is as MacGuffiny a MacGuffin as they come — it may as well be a bomb or a file of information for all that would change the story.

There’s some obvious CGI, which is fine for what’s a low budget film of this era. You’d see better in a computer game today, but it gets the job done well enough when it’s needed… though mixing in fake fighter jets with footage of real ones during an already-needless opening sequence was a mistake. I only mention it because, highlighted in the commentary, there actually tonnes of computer effects throughout the film that you don’t come close to noticing: bullet holes, smashed glass, a lead character nearly getting hit by a car — all faked by computer, all barely noticeable even when you’ve been told. So there.

Got a gunIn the DVD’s special features, Chan notes that 2000 AD was an attempt to make an American-style action movie, to show there’s more to Hong Kong cinema than kung fu. Maybe that’s why it’s compromised at times — it’s an emulation of something else. It’s successful in places, but certainly not entirely. My score was awarded almost immediately after watching the film, but after looking back on it through the DVD extras I find I may have liked it a bit more. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But still, perhaps not.

2 out of 5

#81: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) November 26, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Disney, Fantasy, adaptations, 3 stars, Adventure, video game films, 2010s, 2011 , 1 comment so far

Mike Newell | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Prince of Persia The Sands of TimeDisney’s attempt to launch a second franchise in the mould of Pirates of the Caribbean, this time based on a long-running series of computer games, seemed to sink without trace last summer. Despite that failure, it’s not all bad.

To give a quick idea of its quality, Prince of Persia is analogous to an average entry in the Pirates series, only without the craziness and humour provided by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. This probably explains Persia’s relative lack of success: Pirates began with an exceptionally good blockbuster flick, and has since coasted on goodwill and affection for Depp’s character; Persia has neither of these benefits.

There’s not much to get excited about here, however. Like On Stranger Tides, It suffers from a surfeit of ideas that are equally undeveloped. Even though this shares no writing credits with that film, it’s what it most reminded me of. There’s an adventure story that wants to reach an Indiana Jones-esque style but fumbles it. It often feels like the genuinely important bits of plot and character development are quickly brushed over, instead spending inexplicably long stretches on barely-relevant asides. It jumps about like a loon too, feeling like a lot of linking scenes or establishing shots have been excised for whatever reason.

There are some good action beats, but there’s also plenty of disorientatingly-edited, CGI-enhanced sequences, as per usual for the genre these days. For the former, see for instance Dastan’s climb up the wall into Alamut (or whatever it was called), Fiiight!or the knife-thrower-on-knife-thrower battle near the end. For explosions of CGI, see the massive logic-shattering ’sand surfing’ sequence in the climax. Visually they’re clearly trying to evoke 300, but without going quite so far in the stylization stakes. Also worthy of note is the opening, the latest CGI-enhanced rendition of the opening sequence from The Thief of Bagdad and Aladdin: Westernised Middle Eastern streetchild-thief chased acrobatically through streets of Middle Eastern Town by Middle Eastern Guards. (None of the above pictured.)

As this is a Hollywood version of the ancient Middle East, naturally everyone is a Westerner with deeply tanned skin who speaks with an English accent. Everyone in the past had an English accent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s accent is actually very good, in my opinion; Gemma Arterton’s voice doesn’t grate as much as it seemed to in the trailer (I have no problem with her in any other film, but there was something about the Persia trailer that made her sound… weird). That’s probably the best that can be said for either of their performances. They’re not bad, just not in anyway endearing. Dastan makes a fairly bland hero — I think he’s meant to be something of a cheeky chappy, but they didn’t get close to achieving that — whereas ArtertonNot Keira Knightley has the role Keira Knightley would’ve played five years ago. I think she’s meant to be a Strong Independent Princess but, much like Dastan, we’re told we should be inferring it rather than seeing any evidence of it.

Alfred Molina has the best shot at creating a likeable supporting role, but it’s a part that resurfaces for no good reason, acts inconsistently, and all his best elements are cribbed from better films. Like most of the film, then. An attempt is made to conceal that Ben Kingsley is the villain, and it might have worked if anyone else was in the role — heck, I almost believed it even with him… but only “almost”. Like most of the story, it’s all a bit stock-in-trade. It’s good to take inspiration from other action-adventure classics, but it also means that it all feels very familiar. The time travelling dagger, the film’s truly unique point, is too powerful as a plot point, meaning rules have to be established that limit its use… which means that the one unique element doesn’t actually turn up very often.

Prince of Persia is riddled with flaws, it would seem. It’s characters are unmemorable, their relationships unbelievable; its plot is disjointed and, while always followable, still half nonsensical; the other half is by-the-numbers predictable; its action sequences occasionally shine, but are largely whizzily edited or CGI burnished (though, in fairness, they’re far from the worst example of either problem). I should probably dislike it quite a lot, yet while part of me says I should rank it lower than even the Pirates sequels (owing to the lack of charming characters or any trace of humour), looking back I kind of liked it. It’s not Good, but it is sort of Fine, and it’s by no means bad enough to inspire genuine hatred.

Glowing daggerPlus, the sword-and-sandals milieu makes a bit of a change. I know we’ve had plenty of swords-and-sandals-flavoured movies in the wake of Gladiator, suggesting this is hardly unique, but whereas they’ve all unsurprisingly shot at the Gladiator mould, Persia is aiming for the PG-13 adventure-blockbusters style. It’s a shame that it’s not better, because said milieu and some of the talent involved could have produced a film in the vein of quality of, say, The Mummy, if we’d been lucky.

If you’re less forgiving than me, knock a star off. Or if you think you’d like the Pirates films better without Depp’s silly captain, maybe leave that star on.

3 out of 5

#72: Sucker Punch: Extended Cut (2011) October 11, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Musical, Fantasy, Sci-fi, War, 4 stars, video game films, alternate & director's cuts, 2010s, 2011 , 5 comments

Zack Snyder | 128 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

Sucker PunchZack Snyder’s fifth venture in the director’s chair is his first not to be based on someone else’s pre-existing material; or, to put it another way, the first wholly original story from the director of 300 and Watchmen. On the strength of its critical and box office reception, he may be relegated from the chance of doing such original work in future (his next effort, as I’m sure you know, will be a reboot of Superman).

I read a good summary of the critical reaction to Sucker Punch somewhere: that critics (and viewers) split into two types, one who thinks it’s a shallow story-free brain-dead over-indulged video game of a movie, the other who think it has hidden depths and themes worthy of exploration. And both sides are likely to call the other stupid, one for not being bright enough to spot the subtext(s), the other for bothering to read stuff that isn’t there. I side with the group that thinks there’s something more to the film, which, as the minority, I guess makes this review a defence.

I’m going to start by discussing the difference between the theatrical cut and this Extended Cut, because for once I think it makes a notable difference. Indeed, why this isn’t called the Director’s Cut is unclear: Snyder reportedly had to submit the film to the MPAA five times before they were satisfied to give it a PG-13; the R-rated Extended Cut restores all that, so surely it’s the Director’s Preferred Version rather than Version With Extra Stuff Bunged In? Some of it is significant in terms of clarifying the film’s story, themes and real-world/dream-world juxtapositions. The girls of Sucker PunchIf you hated the film in its theatrically released form they’d likely struggle to change your mind, but for those seeking extra clarity they may help.

From what I’ve read, there are lots of changes here and there, but it strikes me there are four major omissions or additions:

  1. an extended Orc fight in the fantasy/dragon world. Fine.
  2. the dance number to Love is a Drug. I’d wondered why it got replayed over the end credits! Presumably it was cut because it was a bit too much like a musical, which is an understandable (people don’t like musicals allegedly) but disappointing decision. It adds to the film though, not just in terms of being Something Different, but also showing us what the club/brothel is like during working hours. It’s a great sequence.
  3. A climactic scene with Jon Hamm’s High Roller and Babydoll. I can only imagine how baffling it was for cinema audiences to see the Mad Men star turn up for one half-arsed scene (namely the scene which now follows the High Roller one, which had to be gutted to make sense in the theatrical version). It’s a tense, uncomfortable, challenging scene that adds a lot to chew over — especially in context of:
  4. The smallest cut in length, but perhaps the most significant: when the Priest first brings Babydoll to the club, it’s discussed that she’s there to sell her virginity to the High Roller. Cut (like everything else) to get a PG-13 and because of the connection to that High Roller scene, it might sound like a minor omission, but restoring it clarifies both character motivation and some of the film’s themes, while juxtaposing the real world and dream world with, respectively, lobotomy and loss of virginity.

This is where the film is better than some would give it credit for: it’s not just a muddled excuse for some action sequences, it’s a dream-logic battle by a girl poised to lose her mind… or, maybe, already has. While her stepfather is taking Babydoll to the asylum for nefarious purposes, there’s little doubt in my mind that she’s already suffering serious mental health problems — PTSD, quite probably, seeing as she accidentally murdered the little sister Sucker Punchshe was trying to protect after almost being raped by the evil stepfather her dead mother has left them to. If you know anything of the crazy, fractured dreams/hallucinations someone with a damaged mind can have, and apply that to this film, it begins to make more sense as a story.

(Major spoilers in the next two paragraphs.) That doesn’t mean it isn’t a problematic depiction of this. Is the ending really saying a lobotomy is a great solution to mental health problems? It allows Babydoll to escape her guilt and remorse for killing her sister, but that’s hardly empowering — giving in to it is, thematically, tantamount to suicide. This is supposedly offset by the escape of total-innocent Sweetpea, which wouldn’t have happened without Babydoll, but that seems scant consolation. And Babydoll’s stepfather escapes unpunished, apparently! Oh dear.

That it was Sweetpea’s story all along is also an interesting conceit. Snyder does contribute to this — Abbie Cornish gives the opening voiceover, we first see Sweetpea in a stage-set like the one Babydoll was on at the film’s open, and when we enter the (first) dream world it’s Sweetpea rather than Babydoll who emerges from the rotating transition shot. But is that enough? Because we’re undoubtedly in Babydoll’s head throughout the film, the only exceptions being the real-world bookends in which we only follow her. (We do see the result of Sweetpea’s escape, but the visual style makes it clear it’s Babydoll’s imagining of what happened.) Sweetpea and coMaybe this is Snyder’s ultimate aim: it’s someone’s story told from the perspective of a (particularly interesting) supporting character. A little like the end of Super, actually.

This isn’t the end of Sucker Punch’s thematic implications though. Some say it’s a deeply misogynistic film dressed up as a female empowerment movie — look at the hyper-sexy outfits, the ultra-action, the fact it’s set in a brothel… Others probably argue it’s about female empowerment despite all that, but one of the more convincing arguments I’ve read says it’s about female oppression: these characters think they’re independent and fending for/defending themselves, but everywhere they turn there’s a man in control. Even in the dreams-within-a-dream where the action sequences take place, the girls are given orders by a male commander and they follow them unquestioningly. I suppose it’s all down to your personal perspective whether you see this as evidence of misogyny or of a deeper, more thoughtful approach. Let’s be kind and see the latter, I think — it makes the film more interesting, more thought-provoking, and therefore more enjoyable. And enjoyable is good — if you’re setting out to hate a film for the sake of hating it then… oh, then just sod off.*

Battle landing

A far wiser man than I once theorised that any work of art, once completed and released, belongs to the viewing public rather than the artist.** (This is a lesson I feel someone needs to put to George Lucas.) Part of what this means is, if one reads something into the work — a thematic discourse, a moral message, whatever — then it is there, whether the author intended it or not. And if the author intended a certain message and you get the opposite, well, that’s right too (heck, even if you subscribe to the notion the work still belongs to the artist and only their intentions are valid, clearly they mucked up their delivery if you got the opposite). So, in other words, it doesn’t matter whether Snyder wrote and directed his film to ponder or convey certain points or ideas, or whether he just set out to create something that was “effin’ cool maaan, with, like, action and hot chicks and stuff, dude” — what I (and other critics) have read into it is still valid. So there.

John Hamm is actually in the extended cutLike the rest of the film, the soundtrack is divisive. Some think it contains weak re-workings of excellent classic tracks, others that it contains interesting and appropriate re-workings of excellent classic tracks. I must again side with the latter. For instance, there’s a Queen/rap mash-up that I actually quite liked it, and this is from someone who thinks the Wyclef Jean bastardisation of Another One Bites the Dust on Greatest Hits III is an offensive waste of disc space. The standout is probably the opening sequence, five minutes of dialogue-free brilliance with near-perfect visual storytelling (albeit aided by familiar imagery of abuse), set to a haunting rendition of Sweet Dreams (darkly, thematically apt for the entire film) sung by star Emily Browning herself.

Really, Sucker Punch is a musical. No, most of it isn’t sung, but every action sequence is accompanied by a cover song special designed to fit with it, many (or all) of which in some way comment on or add to what’s happening. Not a traditional musical by any means, obviously, but the way it’s constructed around these musical/action interludes belies the truth.

Said action sequences are all inventive, but they began to feel a bit samey to me. There’s just too many, and though they should feel drastically different thanks to the variety of settings, Snyder’s style links them too well: they’re all shot in the same brown/sepia hue and our heroes all use current-day weapons and vehicles, Action!blurring what should be a clear difference between World War I with steam-powered Germans, an Orc-riddled fantasy castle and a robot-guarded train on a distant planet. They sound incredibly distinct on paper, but on screen it’s confusing whether they’re meant to be the same world or not. The last of these, a single-shot running gun battle along a train, should be a balletic triumph, but by this point the action’s beginning to wear. I love an action film, and especially a creatively-rendered sequence, and Sucker Punch does have a ton of originality, but there’s perhaps too much of an onslaught. Maybe it’s less battering on later viewings — another reason they cut back on it in the theatrical version, perhaps.

All of the dream levels (we go at least two deep) invite comparisons to Inception, though they’re radically different films. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made along the lines of Inception being a product of a very organised, methodical mind — all steel city blocks and precise Escher paintings made real — while Sucker Punch comes from a crazed creative place — a random grab-bag of ideas and concepts. For all those who complained that Inception’s real-world-influenced dreamscape lacked the creativity and madness of real dreams, Sucker Punch should be a marvellous experience.

Babydoll in the snowPart of me wonders if, had I seen Sucker Punch in cinemas, would I feel the same way I do now? Would those big omissions have obscured the thematic depth I believe is there? To put it another way, how much do the changes really add? You or I will never know for certain. But I do think Sucker Punch has been underrated. It’s not the masterpiece I hoped it might turn out to be when I first began to notice the themes I think Snyder was (consciously or not) tapping in to, but do I think it’s a lot better and more interesting than most gave it credit for.

4 out of 5

* This is not the same as disliking a film that merits disliking. But that’s a whole other discussion.

** The man in question where I encountered this theory was Russell T Davies, writing in his and Benjamin Cook’s book Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. He may well have acquired this notion from some far older, grander source, but that’s still where I read it.

#33: Death Race (2008) May 18, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Sci-fi, 2000s, 3 stars, video game films, remakes, 2011 , add a comment

2008 | Paul W.S. Anderson | 98 mins * | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Death RaceSometimes, I wonder what I’m playing at. The list of films I haven’t seen but really should is quite extraordinary, from enduring classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai to recent praise-magnets like Scott Pilgrim and Black Swan (and those are just from some of the ones I actually own), yet I choose to spend my evening watching B-movie tosh like Death Race because it happens to be on telly.

There’s no denying that Death Race is B-movie tosh, I don’t think, but at least it’s an example of fairly entertaining B-movie tosh. The plot barely matters, but for what its worth it concerns a car race in a near-future prison where those who don’t die in the weapons-laden encounters stand a chance to earn their freedom. Jason Statham’s character is — of course — innocent, but once thrown into this world must escape by its rules. Yadda yadda yadda.

Basically, everything that happens is an excuse to get to some action sequences, in which cars race around a circuit and attempt to destroy each other in some moderately creative ways. It caters perfectly to its intended audience: there’s fast cars, sexy girls, lots of action, big explosions. It doesn’t always make sense — those sexy girls are really shoehorned in — but that doesn’t really matter. It’s Entertainment, for a certain type of person, Cars, guns, girlsand it surely hits all the points it should hit. And I expect it says something about that intended audience that the end credits begin with a “do not attempt this at home” notice.

Ian McShane is the most watchable out of an adequate cast. Who would’ve guessed Lovejoy would end up as a consistently entertaining presence in various US productions? Only the villains really get short shrift, being so readily defeated that there’s no real jeopardy, no sense they might not get their comeuppance. Their simultaneous best and worst moment comes in a dreadful, meaningless line about shitting on the sidewalk. Who doesn’t love a good “wtf?” bit of dialogue?

You can tell writer-director Anderson likes his computer games — as if the numerous films he’s made based on them weren’t enough, he brings their influence here too. For instance, the weapons are only activated by driving over special hotspots, which are only a big floating icon away from being like computer game power-ups. I’m surprised Anderson didn’t go the whole hog and have them be projected holograms.

This blank bit of paper contains the plot, Mr StathamEven if it’s all about the action, it could be worse: I’ve seen plenty of films featuring weaker dialogue, weaker acting and an even less relevant story. Death Race does everything it sets out to do competently, delivering a couple of decent action sequences and even a couple of laughs along the way. Not exceptional enough to be particularly memorable, but it is fun — if you like this kind of thing — while it lasts.

3 out of 5

* I know it’s largely immaterial, but I’m not really sure how long the version I watched ran. It was definitely the theatrical version (as opposed to the extended version, which looks to contain several minutes of unnoticeable additions and tweaks), which IMDb say runs 98 minutes, but the BBFC place at 105. I’ve used IMDb’s answer purely because as I watched it on TV it would’ve been PAL, so this number is closer, whatever the truth.

Some thoughts on star ratings March 22, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Star Ratings, films about films, video game films, 2011 , 4 comments

Last week’s run of films from 1953 got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, about coincidence — out of a pile of 20 unposted reviews, it happened to be those that were among the first four I had ready to post. But, more pertinently, it was the last two, and the scores I gave them — The Big Heatfour for The Big Heat, five for Roman Holiday — that gave me the most to mull over.

To put it simply, I wondered “why?” Why is The Big Heat only worthy of four stars and Roman Holiday worthy of five? They weren’t scored relative to each other — I watched them almost a month apart, and while I take forever to post my reviews I usually rate the films straight away — so this contrast hadn’t been thrown up before, and probably would never have been had I not happened to post them side by side.

The thing is, when considered against each other, The Big Heat is more my kind of film than Roman Holiday; if asked to pick a favourite, I’d probably choose the noir; I’d be more likely to buy it on DVD; I’d be more likely to watch it again. That’s nothing against Roman Holiday — it’s a great film — but, in direct comparison between just these two films, The Big Heat is more my kind of thing.

And yet, for all that, and having considered changing both scores, The Big Heat still has four stars and Roman Holiday still has five.

Putting The Big Heat up to five didn’t sit wholly easy, especially when I compared it to the scores I’ve given other noirs. This led me to wonder if I’m harsher on film noir because it’s a genre which, though I’m unquestionably still discovering it (most of those I’ve ever seen are reviewed here), Roman HolidayI have a good deal of affection for it — and, therefore, expectation for its films. The same could be said of other favourite genres — action, thriller, etc.

Dropping Roman Holiday to five seemed wrong too, as if underrating it. This made me wonder if I was influenced by expectations — Roman Holiday is just the kind of film one gives five stars too, thanks to Oscar wins and making a star of Audrey Hepburn and all that. I don’t think this is always an influence on me — I’m happy to give a respected film a slating if I disliked it, and vice versa — but when something sits borderline, I can be swayed by reputation.

Are star ratings just inherently rubbish? There’s a reason why reviewing publications from Sight & Sound to Doctor Who Magazine choose not to use them — and that’s in part because they invite instant, arguably invalid comparisons (such as the one I’m discussing). “Is W a whole star better than X?” “Are Y and Z actually worth the same score?” On many occasions the answer to such questions is “no”; that’s the inherent imprecision of having five possible scores and thousands of things that need scoring. By rating things with five stars the reviewer is placing them in broadly defined groups, and some will always be better than others within their group, and some will always be on the borderline — and some will get placed on the wrong side of it.

Many games magazines and websites using a percentage system (or they did in my day — several now seem to use an out-of-10 score, but merrily use decimal points… so it’s the same damn thing). I guess it’s an inbuilt cultural thing, because (other than an aggregate site like Rotten Tomatoes) Games reviews use percentagesI’ve never seen films reviewed with a percentage. Theoretically, this method allows for 100 different scores — much more precise. In practice, of course, the lower ones are rarely used and the tippity-top ones are seldom (if ever) reached. Partly this is because you find your ‘average’ review score sitting less at 50% and more at 70% or higher. I believe this is because (like almost any reviewed art form) the bulk of what one encounters has been polished enough to earn a higher score — the average quality of work is of above-average quality, if you will. It also makes the system more liable to awkward questions: give one thing 95% and another 96% and you provoke “is the second definitely superior” arguments you wouldn’t get if they both just had 5 out of 5. Arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it does require one to be frighteningly precise with scores.

I’m not convinced the answer is to ditch all forms of rating. Perhaps a skilled reviewer could always present a perfect balance between their pro and anti thoughts on a review subject, but I don’t think there are many of them about. Giving something a score stamps your opinion nice and clearly: Fading starsthere have been a good few reviews where I’ve mainly discussed the negative points of a film I’ve primarily liked, for whatever reason, and without the score at the end readers might get the wrong impression; I may even have penned a review or two where I’ve tried to draw out the positives from something I was giving a low score to. I’d wager this is true of most reviewers — it’s always possible for your text to be misinterpreted; for a reader to see a positive (or negative) bias, however balanced or actually-the-other you thought you were being.

That all said, a definitive summary sentence or paragraph would serve just as well — better, maybe — than a little line of stars. Hm.

I’m not going to ditch my star ratings, but this has caused me to have a good think about them. It’s clear the way I apply them is not always accurate (as if the fact I often include four-star films on my top tens while excluding numerous five-starers hadn’t made that clear), but — if only for my own satisfaction — I like the way they separate the bad from the good, the good from the great… however broadly.

#57: Max Payne: Harder Cut (2008) July 17, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Thriller, Crime, 2000s, adaptations, 1 star, video game films, alternate & director's cuts, 2010, Film Noir: Pre/Post/Neo/etc. , add a comment

2008 | John Moore | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 15

I was a bit of a gamer once. Not an especially hardcore one, but certainly a gamer. And I remember Max Payne, and I remember enjoying it, and I remember thinking it would make quite a good film, and I remember one of the biggest problems being that what made it so unique as a game was the bullet-time feature and what would make it so derivative as a film would be to use bullet-time. But it also had lots of other things going for it: the snow-bound nighttime New York setting, the dark revenge plot, the hard-boiled gravel-toned voiceover.

Luckily, director John Moore doesn’t use Matrix-derived bullet-time visuals, but, despite keeping a snow-bound New York and a revenge plot, he’s somehow managed to also throw out everything that made Max Payne: The Game good. Despite the similarities in plot and setting, this doesn’t feel at all like the game.

Max Payne: The Film, to put it simply, is a load of crap.

I’ll just reel off the bad points:

For something advertised as an action movie — at best, an action-thriller — there’s barely any action. Even the climax, where you might expect a fair bit, is virtually devoid of it. Moore exploits extreme slow motion to stand in for the game’s Matrix-esque combat. Unfortunately, he seems to be under the illusion that a couple of barely-moving slow-mo moments also stand in for a full action sequence. When an action movie can’t deliver any action, there’s a problem.

Instead, the budget seems to have been spent on some angel/demon CGI rubbish. Early on, one begins to wonder if the film’s headed toward Constantine-esque fantasy territory — it’s not in the game, but hey, that’s never bothered Uwe Boll. Eventually it becomes clear it isn’t, these are just some kind of junkie visions. At least, I’m sure they’re meant to be, but I’m not sure the film ever makes that explicit — I wouldn’t blame a casual viewer going away with the sense that these angel/demon/things are actually meant to be there and only the junkies can see them. Which would be just as irrelevant.

Despite this being the “Harder Cut”, it comes across as a PG-13 film playing at being an R. (Though the extended cut was released as ‘unrated’ in the US, the original MPAA rating was an R before a handful of changes needed to get it down to the more bankable PG-13.) It’s now around three minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but from what I can gather a significant chunk of that seems to be made up of people walking around longer. The ‘harder’ bit merely comes from a couple of frames (literally) of violence and the odd bit of CG blood. Presumably the extra walking around is to artificially lengthen the running time and persuade the more gullible that they’re getting a tougher experience.

Mark Wahlberg has all the charisma and emotion of a wooden plank. No one else in the cast can offer anything better, least of all a miscast Mila Kunis. In fairness, it’s not like any of them are given proper characters to work with: most display no kind of arc, and even those that have one — Kunis, for example — are ultimately ignored, the events that might affect them on an emotional level serving only to further what stands in for a plot. Only Max himself is allowed any genuine emotional connection. And by “genuine” I mean some supporting characters we never see again tell us it’s had a real impact on him. Wahlberg certainly doesn’t convey it.

Olga Kurylenko is also in this film. She tries to sleep with the hero and fails, as per usual.

At least some of it looks quite nice. The drifting snow-laden exterior shots are among the few bits of the film that might genuinely be considered good. But when you can get pretty images elsewhere, why suffer through this?

A short post-credits scene suggests a sequel. Why is this buried after the credits? Presumably so as the filmmakers didn’t embarrass themselves more widely by implying they thought this pathetic effort might earn itself a follow-up.

Uwe Boll wanted to get his hands on Max Payne. At times while watching this, I wished he had. You can’t get much more damning than that. Other than, maybe, something witty, like — “maximum pain is certainly what this film will cause you”.

1 out of 5

Max Payne featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2010, which can be read in full here.

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