Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Riddick; Ghandi; The Hunter; Appleseed (2004); Pride


A sort of back to basics after the critical mauling that Chronicles of Riddick received, Riddick is stranded on a planet with deadly wildlife. His only means of escape is to reach a mercenary outpost, call out for mercenaries to come and collect his bounty, then kill them and take their ship.

The first act is decent, with Riddick putting survival skills into practice to find food and water and fend off the planet’s predators. An extended sequence of him taming a canine type whilst working out the weakness of some sort of immense aquatic scorpion is particularly good.
Once Riddick reaches the outpost and humans arrive it gets a little more formulaic, though with some nice touches.

Two merc crews land – one relatively clean cut and organized, whilst the other is a lot more rough and ready. The greasy leader is a sleazeball type who keeps trying to sexually assault the other crew’s female member (Katee Sackhoff), though each time he receives a worse battering from her.
The gritty slapdash crew is picked off one by one, but then the efficient crew don’t fare much better, surviving long enough to discover why Riddick was eager to get off world - a monsoon is sweeping the face of the planet, heading their way, and bringing with it a massive tide of the aquatic scorpions.

A better effort than the sprawling but messy Chronicles of Riddick, but despite a tighter focus a more generic second half lets it down when compared to Pitch Black.


Epic in size and scope, Richard Attenborough’s biography of Mahatma Ghandi doesn’t shy away from the struggles his wife and family faced and the exasperation of friends and colleagues at his continued insistence on peaceful protest, even while laying bare the exploitation and inherent racism of British Colonialism, culminating in a terrible scene recreating the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.
In all honesty there is little I can say that would do the film justice. While in part it feels quite dated and stale, it is also moving and majestic, one of those films ‘they don’t make any more’.

 The Hunter

Atmospheric and beautiful with the sweeping scenery of Tasmania giving a good deal to the film.

Dafoe is excellent as a man wrestling with his conscious as a professional assassin, uneasy with the conflict between proving how good his skills as a hunter are, and the grief and empty horror of extinction as he undertakes a contract to capture DNA from the rumoured last Tasmanian Tiger.

Very good but: bleak.

 Appleseed (2004)

A new millennium updated adaptation of the Masumune Shirow (of Ghost in the Shell fame) manga, Appleseed finds itself lost in the uncanny valley that Final Fantasy: Spirits Within disappeared into 5 years before.

In this case Appleseed tries to avoid unfavourable comparisons with live action film by keeping its characters as caricatures, with a little bit of cel-shading edging to give it a comic book feel, but the CGI scenery lets it down with big, boxy backdrops evoking the feel of movieland virtual reality rather than a living, breathing environment.

Despite a few fairly kinetic action sequences (with lots of trendy slo-mo 5 years after the Matrix made it cool) the movie is mainly a slog as the characters attempt to cram too many scenes with exposition, attempting to explain the intricate back-story of the original manga within a movie’s running time.
Further comparisons with the source text cast the anime in a dim light – Shirow’s attention to detail, brilliant characterisation and dense plotting are only skimmed here, and whilst most novel adaptations inevitably lose complexity and character development in the translation, they still strive to produce something whole.

Unlike Ghost in the Shell, most of Ghibli’s output or other critically successful anime, Appleseed shuns an engaging plot and fully fleshed characters, content to choose the route of an empty actioner configured for a Western market, with the barest of nods toward the original plot and making the mistake of concentrating on its cutting edge CGI visuals when the impact of them would inevitably fade with time.


On the surface Pride looks like yet another entry in a procession of true story, ensemble cast, slightly anti-authoritarian feel good British dramadies, in the tradition of The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls etc.
However, this story of the gays helping out the miners in Thatcher’s Britain is genuinely heartwarming and tear-jerking in a way that many films are purported to be. 
From Paddy Considine’s speech of thanks to a gay club to the scenes of bonding at the Welsh miner’s union, right to the finale at Gay Pride in London, the film consistently hits its targets and rings true with a genuine affection for the struggles against authority that the marginalized communities in the 80s struggled through, with little rose tinting to soften the harsh reality.

The backbone of the story is supposed to be that of George MacKay’s Joe, known as ‘Bromley’, who is a student in the closet that travels to London to experience the gay scene and gets caught up in the lives of a group of friends who hang around outside a gay bookshop, in between fighting for LGBT rights.
As the straight man Joe doesn’t stand out much, especially against the more confident and flamboyant characters in the story, so it does seem that his character is mainly there to service as the ‘in’ for the audience.
Happily the rest of the cast are quick to establish themselves and we are quickly swept up in the proceedings, alongside Joe. Ben Schnetzer’s Mark pushes the rest of the gang to support the miners as he realises that the reason the gays are having an easier time of it is because most of the police have been ferried out to mining towns around the country, to do battle with Thatcher’s hated mining unionists.

By the end, once you’ve experienced the parties, awkwardness, dancing, marches, homophobia, Welsh choirs, gay clubs and iconic 80s tunes, you’ll find yourself in awe of the solidarity these disparate groups achieved 30 years ago in the face of adversity.

Despite the film’s intentions I experienced it with a bit of a downer throughout simply because the tale it tells is already written – the miners lost the fight and some of those communities are now effectively dead – but the film still gave me hope that people can still band together to stand against the latest incarnation of the Torys and their attacks on the poor and marginalized.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Expendables 2; Miss Bala; Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn; Starship Troopers: Invasion; Captain Harlock Space Pirate

Expendables 2 
The Expendables films (though I’ve not seen the 3rd yet) seem to exist in a weird parallel universe where crappy action films don’t exist, despite the fact that this series only came about because said films launched and sustained the careers of a number of the cast.
If you like seeing pumped up old men shooting CGI blood out of vaguely Eastern European thugs (and East Asian in the opening sequence) then this is for you.

However, there’s little flair and finesse despite the decades of effort trying to depict men hitting and shooting at each other in new and interesting ways – there don’t seem to be any lessons learned from any stand out action moments, whether 80s Hong Kong Action cinema or the shake-up that was the Bourne series.
Instead you get tired nods to the likes of Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they are literally shoehorned into the film with the main characters themselves saying “Where did they come from?”.
The jokey-jokey tone of most of it renders attempts at drama very flat –Liam Hemsworth plays a young new addition to the team who is promptly captured and murdered by the baddies (they’re sort of Satanists in case you wanted their badness glaringly signposted). His murder is the spur for the Expendables to go and get revenge, so essentially a plot point but they do try and get Stallone to be a bit mopey about it so he can get angry when he faces off against Jean Claude Van Damme!

JCVD plays the head of the Satanist baddies and is mister ruthless. He wears shades most of the time, because his eyes are so old they remind you of the Emperor from Star Wars. Still, he enjoys the chance to play a ridiculously silly bad guy, so he’s fun to watch.
Equally fun is Dolph Lundgren, back again to play a weird adolescent suddenly grown into an aging, lethal mountain.

Ultimately the Expendables 2 is less satisfying than most of the work the cast did to get famous decades ago – the action is a little pedestrian, the jokes aren’t funny and obviously the acting is minimal, so there’s no strong element to hold the others up.

 Miss Bala

Brilliantly shot composing of a lot of static cameras panning with the action, tightly focused tracking shots and still moments where the camera remains trained on our heroine as events (usually violent) unfold off screen. The only music used is ambient, and these techniques along with fantastic performance by the lead make this film all the more harrowing.

Laura Guerrero wants to enter the local beauty pageant, but after going to a club to find her friend a group of cartel soldiers turns up to attack the police partying at the club. She escapes and the next day tries to find out what happened to her friend by asking a cop, but he's paid by the cartel, and a nightmare begins where she finds herself embroiled in Mexico's drug war.

From the point of view of a civilian, where we only see and hear what she does, a lot of the events are left for the audience to deduce, a refreshing change from the usual films involving the drug trade that tend to spend a lot of time setting the scene.


 Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

Boring, pointless exercise, cashing in on a very successful game franchise which has a deep, if generic, back story.
The acting is perfunctory, the focus on the trials of cadets regurgitates many tropes of the military training scenes found in countless lumps of movies and TV shows and the glimpses of the alien threat of the Covenant, whilst suitably menacing from a human perspective, somehow doesn’t have the heft of Neil Blokampf’s short based in the same franchise.
Whilst the film feels like an extended pilot to a TV show that never was, it’s actually comprised of 15 minute segments stitched together with a little extra footage added to paper the cracks. It’s not surprising that Microsoft soon gave up on any studio ambitions.

Not good enough to keep fans of the franchise attentive let alone sci-fi fans drifting in blind. 

 Starship Troopers: Invasion

Shinji Aramaki’s animated entry into the ailing franchise which has suffered since the first sequel appeared.
This take on the universe uses well worn sci-fi tropes of marines sent to a base that has mysteriously gone quiet, an alien intelligence taking over computer systems, betrayal from secretive and/or high levels of authority, a grizzled soldier know for his survival and killing abilities but haunted etc. etc.
The animation is just poor.

 Captain Harlock Space Pirate

Korean-produced anime saga about an immortal space pirate who aims to return to a forbidden Earth, cut off from a future space-faring humanity after it burns through the colony planets and promptly starts a war with itself on its return home.

The plot is forgettable, as are the CGI visuals despite their improvement in the years since Shinji Aramaki directed the 2004 adaptation of Appleseed.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Lego Movie; The Act Of Killing; Parents; Berbarian Sound Studio; Filth; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Lego Movie

Thanks to the brilliant team behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, what could have been a crass marketing exercise becomes a fun and heartfelt adventure which questions Western culture’s obsession with both conformity and individuality, aiming for the lesson that an extreme of anything is rarely good.

The filming technique is brilliant, giving it a stop-motion feel as little is done that couldn’t be achieved by using real Lego pieces, and the film in general whips along at a decent pace. Much was made of it being the best film ever because it makes you feel, but the twist ending didn’t do it for me. I can see how blokes of a certain age (many of whom would be the critics writing the reviews) may see parallels in their own change from play to responsibility - it’s all a boy’s imagination in his dad’s elaborate basement set-up, with dad (Will Ferrell, also Lord Business) scolding his son for playing with his carefully constructed models, when all the kid sees is a toy. They reconcile, the dad finds his inner child, they play together, so happy! Yes it’s a nice message but that doesn’t make it the best thing ever.

That said, it is very good with not only the more obvious hits of using an arrogant version of Batman and Matrix tropes to keep the adults on board, but the brilliant way of incorporating Lego sets to bring to life the various settings that the adventure whisks through, spiking nostalgia when you see old sets and pieces perfectly realized, such as with Benny’s spaceship.

Good times.

The Act of Killing

Horrific, sickening and depressing, and yet I highly recommend watching it.

The Act of Killing sees director Joshua Oppenheimer track down some of the gangsters and paramilitaries that headed Indonesian death squads after the military coup in 1965, and invites them to re-enact their murders in the style of their favourite films.
Through interviews with them as they build up to the planning and filming of these scenes, we find them proud of their past, with little remorse and often rewarded with status and comfortable lives. There is a clear glee from some of them as they talk of becoming actors and movie stars.

It’s disturbing seeing people who committed such horrible acts not only free but lauded, with few answers of how a state whose foundations are on the violence of the recent past can provide any safe home for the relatives of the dead.


Parents is an odd little late 80s horror featuring a boy whose parents are cannibals. Set in a stereotypical 50s suburb, this slice of twisted Americana focuses on the interplay between the boy and the parents he doesn’t trust. Apart from a couple of gory moments the cannibalism aspect is quite mild, instead building the threat from the situation where the son feels an outsider in his own family as the penny slowly drops.

Randy Quaid is good as the uptight father, whilst Mary Beth Hurt as the mother plays it a little more subtly. Brian Madorsky starred in his first and last film as the son, Michael, and he plays it similar to a spaced out version of wholesome American sit-com boys - think the Wonder Years.

Not particularly memorable but it has a sensibility that raises it above a lot of the straight to video horror schlock that the 80s produced.

 Berbarian Sound Studio

Atmospheric moody character study of a sound artist from England employed in an Italian studio in the 70s to head up the sound – music, foley effects and voice dubs – for a horror film.
As the film plays out odd interludes crop up more frequently, mainly in his flat as he listens to his old work but there are also time slips and other inconsistencies that hint at a break with reality. Is he experiencing a nervous breakdown partly due the stress of his new job, or is the job itself a delusion?
The film doesn’t give any answers, instead weaving a mystery with the aid of Toby Jones’ acting chops as the sound engineer Gilderoy.

Pretty much sold everywhere as a horror film, it’s really more of a mystery as it creates an air of menace, but doesn’t scare.


Whilst a lot was made of the usual nice boy McAvoy being a horrible sweary man, this film adaptation doesn’t have quite the same amount of despicable muckiness as Irvine Welsh’s novel. Whilst the drugs, sex, blackmail and corruption are there, it’s still only a shadow of the original character, though I imagine concessions were made for it to go into production at all. The character is more sympathetic than the book as he seems to have more redemptive features, but the film’s okay.

 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Better than the first film in the Hobbit trilogy, if only for the lack of songs, there are still moments that don’t quite gel – Stephen Fry basically being himself with a comb-over, Smaug seeming a little stupid, 'elf lady' and 'tall dwarf' mooning over each other. Also a lot of the CGI work in the action scenes still leaves a lot to be desired – Legolas makes an appearance here and has a lot of orc killing to do, but whilst the action scenes are quite exhilarating the CGI is glaring - when he starts using orcs as sledges for example. It reminds me of the scene from one of the Lord of the Rings films where he jumps onto his horse from underneath with some shockingly bad CGI.

The sets and scenery are still good, Ian McKellan is always a joy to watch as Gandalf and Martin Freeman is coming into his own as Bilbo, with some nice moments centering around the One Ring and its growing hold on him.

It will be interesting to see how Jackson ties this all up with the third film, but as many have said the book doesn’t really support an epic trilogy.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; King of Pigs; Boyhood; Seraphim Falls

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Sequel to the re-boot, we return to San Francisco years after an ape-borne plague has wiped out much of human life, and the apes who fled the city have forged themselves a neat little civilization in the forest.

A fairly heavy-handed anti-war allegory with brilliant CGI, Dawn relies on the plot twist of there always being one trigger happy idiot who ruins things, a premise that would be a lot harder to believe anywhere outside the USA.
Still, an accidental meeting in the forest as survivors look for an abandoned hydro-power plant leads to an ape being shot, and humans and apes eventually facing off as the wise Caesar from the first film is usurped by the twisted Koba (who has been twisted and scarred from his treatment by humans, the films is at pains to point out).
The apes steal from the human’s weapon cache and take over what remains of the city, enslaving captured humans until Caesar returns and reasserts his place as leader amidst a big clash atop a crumbling tower, as you do.
Not as groundbreaking as Rise, but a decent film in and of itself with fairly good turns by Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman

King of Pigs

The tale of friends at a Korean school where the kids of the rich rule the classrooms with violence and humiliation, but as two friends are bullied, an outsider fights back and forms an uneasy alliance with them.

The film is told from the perspective of the two friends, now adults, meeting by chance and reminiscing about the old days, framed in disappointment and violence.
Fairly brutal and cynical, King of Pigs delineates the divisions within Korean society that make themselves felt at school and carry on through to adult life, making things hard for those at the bottom and suggesting that violence seems the only recourse to fight the system, but that you might not like yourself if you choose this root.


Richard Linklater is always interesting, whether the stream of consciousness of debut Slacker or mainstream feel good comedies like School of Rock, Linklater always delivers films with heart. The ‘Before’ films, following the relationship between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they meet up after periods of years apart, are also filmed years apart and it’s fairly unique to find such a collaboration where relatively successful actors and crew make the time to come back together and pick up a story.

Boyhood feels like the ultimate representation of that – filmes over years with the same actors, it’s the ultimate coming of age movie as we see a boy grow from 5 to 18, seeing snippets of his life throughout the film.
Ellar Coltrane is Mason, the boy in question, and gives a fantastic performance with the help of on-screen parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Mason’s parents are estranged early on so his dad is in and out of his life, and Boyhood doesn’t shy from showing the unhappier moments with Mom ultimately feeling like a failure in her own life and Dad slightly constricted with his new, young family and new responsibilities.
In both ambition and execution, Boyhood is a brilliant expression of what makes film special, achieving something that just couldn’t be replicated as a novel, TV show or play; a real work of art.

Seraphim Falls

Old-school ‘man’s man’ Western with Liam Neeson tracking down Pierce Brosnan. Both are civil war veterans with a dodgy past.
Liam has a posse but Pierce is a Western version of Liam’s character from Taken, basically taking out the posse members one by one until the final showdown between the two main men.

Beautiful landscapes help to backdrop a fairly gritty Western with an element of world weariness to it, but that grit becomes a little compromised towards the end when Louise C. Fear turns up with snake oil and both men basically have visions in the desert…

Still, with strong performances and a decent pace, Seraphim Falls is one of the better Westerns of this millennium.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Mutants; Save the Green Planet!; Bullet Ballet; Mud; Before Dawn; Lucky Number Slevin


The French take on zombies that isn’t the Horde, Mutants is going for a more cerebral take on the horror sub-genre.
Focusing more on the characters, particularly how … deals with the slow deterioration of her partner … as he turns into one of the undead after receiving a gunshot wound.

Rather than city survival, they are out in the country, in the mountains during winter. After dealings with a tolled up policewoman go sour, the couple shelter in a massive abandoned hospital in the middle of nowhere.

A paramedic, she tries various medical tactics to delay or reverse the zombiefication process, meaning we are treated to extended sequences of body horror which feature the usual tropes – ‘my hair comes out in my hands!’ ‘I can pull my teeth out!’, but to be fair the makeup work is pretty  decent, and … does end up looking like a pretty bestial, ruined version of himself for the inevitable conclusion as a group of zombies smash their way in and he fights them due to some deep remnants of emotion for his pregnant wife.
There are a group of ragtag survivors who crash the place at some point, some of them nasty and they mainly serve as an excuse to have people who you’re happy to see meet a grisly end.

In all the film isn’t particularly amazing but in terms of the glut of zombie films out there these days it’s a pretty solid entry.

Save the Green Planet!

An oddball Korean thriller focusing on conspiracy theories, featuring kidnap and torture.
It’s far from torture porn as the main role of a conspiracy nut is both sympathetic lead and antagonist, and the focus is on the characters rather than any torture taking place, but the story is all over the place and it’s hard not to feel a little bit lost, despite the essential elements making sense on paper.
An industrialist is kidnapped and tortured by a young man who believes he’s an alien. The young man’s mother was killed during a demonstration while working at one of the industrialist’s plants, we find out later. A detective investigates the disappearance, realises what’s going on, and rescues the industrialist only for a bit of cat and mouse until a big showdown. The young man is killed and it turns out the industrialist was an alien all along, the end.

It’s hard to like the film that much, it’s not one to bear repeat viewing but there are enough good moments here not to regret watching it.

Bullet Ballet

Shinya Tsukamoto is brilliant at presenting obsession on screen, whether it’s the protagonists from Tetsuo and Tetsuo 2 trying to become mechanized versions of themselves, or here, advert director Goda desperate to obtain a chief special handgun after the suicide of his long-term girlfriend.
He’s already had a run-in with a gang of youths before the film starts, a young woman pretending to be about to fall on Tokyo subway tracks used as a lure to open up would-be helpers to a mugging, and in the scuffle she bites Goda’s hand.
Goda and this gang have a number of run-ins throughout the film.

Tsukamoto’s filming of Tokyo’s seedy underbelly is viscerally evocative, the black and white photography helping to illuminate the stark contrasts in harsh night lighting and shadow, with leaking pipes, exposed wiring and grime silting up the choked back alleys all contributing to an air of menace.


Celebrated for his performance as a self-deluded guy in hiding on an island in the bayou while trying to get a boat down from a tree, Matthew McConaughey is good, as are the boys who find him when they go looking for said boat, but ultimately I was curiously unmoved by the film.
Fairly good as coming of age dramas go, with much made of ways of life coming to an end, but there’s something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Before Dawn

A decent low budget zombie about a couple on holiday in the country when a zombie outbreak happens. The woman is bitten, the man locks her in the cellar when she turns, then has to deal with an oddball survivor, seeking refuge at their holiday cottage.
Slowly over the course of the first half, we learn that the couple is married with children; that their marriage is nearly over due to the husband’s infidelity; that this holiday is meant to be an attempt to save it.

The film makes good use of its limited sets – the cottage with a garage, a small expanse of countryside surrounding it. The size of the cottage and its rooms contribute to the claustrophobia and isolation which help ratchet up the tension caused by the unknown – just what is happening out there?
While low budget zombie flicks are ten a penny these days, Before Dawn is executed well, with genuinely affecting scenes – the husband taking a call from his kids’ gran as their house is overwhelmed, the slow build-up, drip feeding information which leaves the audience to deduce the couple’s relationship and history, the flailing, desperate fight in the cramped garage around a land rover.

Happily the film remains decent through to the bleak ending, something of a wonder as the film was written, directed, and cast with Emmerdale cast and crew.

Lucky Number Slevin

Slick but partly empty, Slevin’s little identity tale of two criminal empires at war, residing in skyscrapers on opposite sides of the street, both visited by a bumbling young man, new in town, embroiled in the intrigue due to a case of mistaken identity…
Performances are okay, Josh Hartnett is good at portraying the two sides of his character, and the wrench in the tonal shift of the film doesn’t seem to be his fault. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are both fine as the two mob bosses at war, though neither would be accused of giving their best performance here, and Bruce Willis hands in the usual quiet tough guy in his few scenes.
The whole thing chugs along at a decent pace as Hartnett is thrown around the city by the mess he gets caught up in, assisted by Lucy Liu’s impossibly peppy neighbour, but there’s nothing here to fix it firmly in the memory.