Friday, 6 December 2013

Puppet Master; Ted; Moonrise Kingdom; Snow White and the Huntsman

Puppet Master

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I used to look forward to renting films. Quite often I’d trawl the aisles and see lots of juicy looking horror leering down at me, but would have to make do with what me or my friends could get or my family would let me get away with.
Often I’d discover crap but fun flicks, or even decent ones, the likes of The Gate, the Critters films and The People Under the Stairs spring to mind, but I never got round to things like Ghoulies and Puppet Master which spawned numerous sequels.

Puppet Master is very bad. The acting is very poor, the abandoned hotel setting is mainly anonymous and adds nothing to the tension or feel of the film, the POV sequences of heavy-breathing puppets shuffling about at floor-level don’t work and the bloody set pieces are relatively timid for 1989.

The stop-motion used for the puppets is a pleasant change to the CGI that would inevitably be used if this appeared today and there are a couple of inventive moments, a female doll pretending to be sexy (think Gremlins 2 - female gremlin) before vomiting out leeches, and the final sequence of the big baddie being mashed to bits stand out, but are hardly worth sitting through the whole film for.

Besides the general crapness I have a problem with the plot - the original puppet master who has found an ancient Egyptian method for breathing life into inanimate objects - he explicitly states that he’s hiding his puppets back in 1939 to prevent people with bad intentions from getting to them. But then why fashion a puppet with a drill bit for a head and one with a knife and hook for hands?

It’s a shame that it’s so hard to distinguish between crap but fun and just crap in the straight-to-video horror world, and that audience opinion is often wildly fragmented, but in this case it’s hard to see what people could think Puppet Master has going for it.


Despite Will Ferrell cornering the market for films about idiot man-children, the creators of Ted obviously felt they had their own unique selling point with Ted, a boy’s childhood friend brought to life and still around decades later, his foul mouth voiced by Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane, also Ted’s director.

Mark Whalberg plays the grown up boy John, whose wish comes true in the form of his teddy bear coming to life, and he’s proven his comedy capabilities numerous times but something about Ted feels very by-the-numbers.
A man who won’t accept responsibility, stuck in a crap job, hanging out with stupid friends, frustrating his more ambitious and grown-up girlfriend? In Clerks and Mallrats the hook was Kevin Smith’s dialogue, in Shaun of the Dead it was zombies and here it’s a real-life teddy bear.

Ted is at it’s worst when sticking to the formula (‘worst’ meaning ‘okay’) but it shines in the quick little asides it snipes at you from between the scenes that push the plot along, in much the same way as Family Guy does.
One proper scene that pretty much lives up to this is an extended messy party montage that comes about as the childhood hero of John and Ted, Flash Gordon’s Sam Jones, turns up to raise hell with them.

Mila Kunis is given the thankless task of basically being pretty and disappointed in the straight role as the girlfriend. Even though she’s given more to do than in most films of this type with her own plot thread, she still ends up playing the straight role to her creepy boss.

Not as funny as it hopes to be with lots of crass moments, but still providing the requisite laughs, Ted is worth a watch but I get the feeling Whalberg’s comedy chops still have a bit of stretch in them.

Moonrise Kingdom

If you’re familiar with Wes Anderson’s films so far, Moonrise Kingdom isn’t about to challenge your assumptions.

This time around the 50s/60s vibe found in his films is justified by the setting, that sense of place coming through from the sets, clothes and objects in the world, quirky pre-mass production items that have a personal feel.
Again the main characters come from the middle class academic neurotic template; here the leading kids are the same precocious, intellectual outsiders as Rushmore’s Max Fischer, clever and quirky but not really betraying emotions with their face. As with the rest of Anderson’s world the adults are barely capable of maintaining relationships, but the pre-teen couple at the centre of this story make the case for love.

The sets have the doll’s house tableaux quality found in most of Anderson’s films, even the outdoor scout camp is set up in an improbable line, all the better for a steady shot along, taking in all of the detail.

Moonrise Kingdom’s isolated island setting is perfect for Anderson’s carefully constructed world, and the cast are all well placed at bringing his characters to life, with the likes of Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton bringing sympathy to characters who otherwise could have been unlikeable.
For those who aren’t already won over by Anderson’s quirky charms this film isn’t about to win over new converts, but existing fans it offers a little more warmth than some of the others.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Ultimately this is a throwaway, forgettable blockbuster by numbers. It would be unfair to criticise the film for being unoriginal, but the formula followed to present it is fairly pedestrian.

This time round Snow White joins a resistance movement with fighting dwarves after the huntsman frees her in the forest, and reluctantly joins her cause against the evil queen.

The effects work shines, with the black magic used by the witch a stand out (though not that of the magic mirror) and a neat hallucination scene (Snow falls on to some mushrooms in the forest and breathes their spores) that manages to be quite alarming within a 12 certificate confines. Additionally a sequence in an enchanted forest with a nature deity is like a Ghibli movie brought to life (albeit via CGI).
The effects success doesn’t end with the overt CGI additions - the photography of the dwarves surpasses anything done in Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations, and each is a brilliant character in their own right unlike in the Hobbit, each fully fleshed out thanks to the acting prowess of Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins, Eddy Marsan and Johnny Harris. The presence of these characters, and a decent turn by Charlize Theron as the evil queen, help to even out the blandness of Kristen Stewart’s Snow and Chris Helmsworth’s huntsman.

One particular oddity is Snow saying the protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer while still in captivity, despite no other mention of religion in this fantasy world of magic, trolls and fairies, besides a throwaway reference to heaven.

Not great but better than the likes of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland if you’re after that kind of female-led fantasy epic, good enough for a lazy watch.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Resident Evil: Retribution; The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (2011); Resident Evil: Apocalypse

 Resident Evil: Retribution

Someone’s still paying to watch these films as they don’t seem to be stopping any time soon.

The fifth in the series of Paul W.S. Anderson’s video game adaptations, the films' plots have long since diverged from those of the games, with the film universe currently a world overrun by zombies infected by the Umbrella Corporation’s T Virus. In this case, the corporation is being run by the rogue AI from the first film, the Red Queen, seeking to annihilate human life using brainwashed clones as well as the monsters created by the corporation.

Our heroine Alice (Anderson’s wife Milla Jovovich) finds herself in Umbrella’s secret test centre, an old Russian submarine station deep under the icy waters of the Arctic circle. There the T virus is tested in recreated city sections, representing New York, Tokyo and Moscow, where infected clones attack the rest. These are the sets for a number of protracted action sequences as a rescue team is sent in to get Alice and double agent Ada Wong out.

Lots and lots (and lots) of CGI, mostly for crappy uses like the oversized version of the Licker monster from the games, but the opening sequence during the credits features a slow motion action sequence in reverse, showing what happened to Alice and the ship of clones from the fourth film. It’s quite an engaging opener, eventually reaching a start point where the sequence plays out in chronological order and full speed, the long sequence now over in seconds.

Really though, Resident Evil 5 is just trash, so-so fan pleasing stuff with zombie soldiers, lots of guns and explosions and a little bit of maternal angst thanks to the clones for those after a sliver of cerebral activity.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Initial thoughts on hearing of this remake were that it fell into the wide body of unnecessary Hollywood adaptations of previously successful, usually subtitled films. Along with the propensity for sequels, the number of remakes highlights the urge to limit risk in Hollywood, narrowing the chance of original stories getting out.

David Fincher as director sounded promising though, particularly as with more recent films like Social Network he has proven able to turn something that sounds dodgy - a dry tale with an unlikeable lead - into a riveting watch.

Nevertheless, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo swiftly slips into redundancy - two years after the original’s release, it’s still set in Sweden with all the players trying out Scandinavian accents of varying quality, except for our lead Daniel Craig who plays it mostly English.

Whilst his sad dog eyes help bring a gravitas to his version of lead character Mikael, he ultimately feels less vulnerable and less like a normal guy with a passions for investigative journalism - his broad shoulders give him the air of someone who spends proportionately more time at the gym than the library.
Rooney Mara conveys the spiky exterior of Lisbeth guarding a scared and vulnerable core very well, but ultimately little different to Noomi Rapace’s original version.

Worse than this is the ending that ultimately betrays Lisbeth’s character, turning it into just another hokey thriller and undermining her fierce independence. It’s hard to understand how those responsible for deciding to film this in English could change such a key theme.

Despite the odd and gratuitously music video stylings of the opening credits sequence and some pretty camera work, this sequel of an adaptation is totally pointless and worse than the original. Avoid.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

This sequel to the original video game adaptation takes some elements of the game sequel - the zombies spread out into Racoon City and the Nemesis, a hulking, mutated man with a rocket launcher, which stalks our heroes.

Pleasantly surprised to see Jared Harris pop up here, but it was filmed in 2004 before the likes of Fringe and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel presumably brought him access to the bigger bucks.

Milla Jovovich’s Alice has been infected with the T-Virus by the Umbrella Corporation, having being abducted at the end of the first film, but it makes her stronger rather than into a zombie due to bonding with her insides or somesuch guff.
As the zombies spread throughout the city, Umbrella puts a lock down in place and Alice’s only hope is to locate Dr. Ashford (Harris)’s daughter so that he can airlift Alice and whichever rag-tag survivors make it along with her.

Ashord’s daughter is the model for the Red Queen, Umbrella’s Hive AI from the first movie and a recurring character in the series with a creepy 'homicidal little posh girl' vibe, and the Nemesis provides a couple of action-packed sequences what with his mini-gun and rocket launcher, but despite the background being more intricate than a crappy horror series needs Resident Evil: Apocalypse is only okay, better than many recent zombie flicks due to their sheer awfulness.

Ultimately there are hundreds of horror films to see before you would want to give this forgettable effort a try, but at least it’s better than the Saw sequels.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Adam & Paul; Rango; Taken 2; Skyfall

Adam & Paul

Being a tale of two Dublin junkies in 2004.
The film follows them as they look for their next fix, and concoct hapless schemes for the money to pay for it.
The uneasiness I felt watching this story of two pathetic men as they negotiate the city that barely tolerates them, old friends who no longer trust them and family who are at least wary, is a testament to the performances of the leads Mark O’Halloran and the late Tom Murphy.
It’s a naturalistic tale featuring many moments of Adam & Paul aimlessly waiting in between events in a vaguely anonymous Dublin, and the comedy inherent in scenes like the bodged shoplifting are pierced by the low-level violence and other uncomfortable moments, such as the mugging of a disabled man.

I find Adam & Paul to be a decent film that’s hard to recommend as it’s a difficult watch, though not in the way I’m used to as with the films of Haneke for example.

The balance in tone with the stereotypical cheeky chappy Irish wit with darker moods was continued in director Lenny Abrahamson’s great second film, The Garage, and I’m looking forward to the chance to catch his third, What Richard Did.


A warm and inventive animation that’s family friendly and yet still manages to riff on a chameleon version of Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson interpretation, Rango is a delight. 

Arriving at a tangent from the usual CGI animation stables, Rango is a combination of the fish out of water or awkward urbanite stuck in the country (see also Depp’s Ichabod Crane), married with the old Wild West tale of a corrupt mayor/land baron controlling resources and gunmen to keep his town in check.
Despite these generic foundations, Rango has a lot to offer with lots of quirks and twists that aren’t twee or gratuitous, and treats the audience with intelligence so that it’s suitable for all the family but without making the mistakes of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

As well as the original approach to family film, the animation itself is glorious with a keen attention to detail capturing myriad textures but in a way that brings the characters to life, rather than just ticking a technical expertise box (see Monsters Inc’s Sully whose fur seems luxuriant because they wanted to show off more than anything).

Taken 2

So after Liam Neeson rescues his daughter in Taken, killing a fair chunk of human traffickers in the process, the surviving relatives are somewhat upset.
Coincidentally it seems that not only are they from some indeterminate Eastern European state, but that they are muslims too!
After Liam takes a security job in Istanbul he mistakenly invites his daughter and ex-wife (newly estranged from her last man) to join him after his job finishes, putting them at risk from the muslims!
After Liam and ex-wife are abducted, the daughter manages to escape thanks to a phone call from pops and his secreted stash of spy bits, eventually helping him escape too but not mom!
So then off he goes to get her back.

Some of the DIY escape/fighting bits are fun as Liam convincingly takes out the baddies with confidence, but ultimately it feels a little dissatisfying compared to the original, which was a guilty pleasure as it is.
What with the Bourne films and the like, Western action films have become much more competent and to stand out you need something special, or be consigned to the heap of straight to video fodder.


In comparison with the Bourne films that took the latest Bonds as a jumping off point, Skyfall shows the signs of the Bond franchise’s age.
The comparatively low speed and lack of kinetic rush in the opening chase sequence feels pedestrian compared to similar scenes from the Bourne films, whilst the incredibility of the speeding train fight sequence just stands out as odd in the context of the new ‘gritty’ Daniel Craig Bond. The prominence of the product placement of the Caterpillar brand of construction vehicles highlights how invasive product placement has become such an integral part of Bond that it is beyond parody and can only serve to break any suspension of disbelief, like the bad jokes Bond tosses out moments after reluctantly leaving a fellow agent badly wounded. The use of the Caterpillar vehicle as well shows up the absurdity of Bond, forcing a fantastical set piece into play rather than letting one evolve naturally or logically.

Thematically, a washed-up Bond who hits bottom and struggles to stay relevant as an agent in the field in this age of techno terrorism tries for an earthy weight. However, although this thread does work, it’s hard to see how Bond could hit bottom again after the turmoil of Quantum of Solace where he seeks to both avenge his lovers’ death and deal with her betrayal.

On the upside Javier Bardem’s pretty good as the big baddy, there is a nice big explosion at the climax and a few fun set pieces, however silly they are.

Not as good as it wants to be but still a fun watch.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Horde; 1911; Bourne Legacy

The Horde

A squad of cops attends the funeral of one of their number. It turns out he was murdered by a notorious drug gang – they plan to tool up and take down the gang’s tower-block hideout, strictly off the books.

Things quickly go wrong and the cops are killed, wounded or captured, but just as the gangsters are working out what to do with their new captives the dead start rising…
Heavily armed dirty cops, gangsters and zombies seems like a bland recipe these days as seemingly everyone with a camera and make up kit tries to cash in on the zombie buck, but in recent decades French cinema has broken out of the middle class drawing room and into thrillers and schlocky action flicks, with some decent results.
Unfortunately the Horde, whilst certainly not as bad as some zombie films made in the last few years, offers little to justify an audience.

There are a few short, brutal sequences of survivors beating up zombies hand-to-hand in a novel approach to traditional zombie apocalypse survival, but these few scenes aren’t enough to hang a film on, and a supposed comic relief character introduced in the last act is unpleasant if anything.


Jackie Chan’s career has been rooted in the martial arts genre, displaying his skills in straight action films and slapstick comedies and famous for performing his own stunts. Impressive as those skills still are, Chan’s acting wasn’t always seen as a strong point, but since 2004’s New police Story Chan has attempted to stretch that part of his repertoire, most likely as a fall back now that the fully action packed roles aren’t possible – Chan turned 59 in 2013.

1911 is another drama entry, released on the centenary of the Chinese Xinhai revolution of 1911, which overthrew thousands of years of monarchy.
Chan plays Huang Xing, the revolutionary leader and first army commander in chief of the Republic of China, and he holds his own against the rest of the cast.

Unfortunately the film is quite slow and stilted, struggling to hold the interest despite numerous battle scenes of conflict between the revolutionaries and Qing dynasty forces.
Much of the action sequences, thanks to the period detail of uniforms, rifles and trenches, feel like many other First World War films, and all of the political machinations both within China and between representatives of western nations are rather formal and sterile.
Ultimately it feels like a propaganda piece glorying in the overthrow of a decadent, out of touch ruling class by the rule of the people, and Chan has little to do outside give pained looks in reaction to the deaths of young revolutionaries.

Not bad enough for Jackie Chan completists to avoid (they will have already ground their eyeballs against the likes of The Medallion and Around the World in 80 Days) but certainly not a great advert for Chan’s abilities beyond spectacular stunts.

Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner was destined to be an action hero since his fantastic turn as the sniper in 28 Weeks Later. Despite this I was concerned about the first Bourne movie in franchise to trade just on the name, making it seem much more likely to be a cash-in than anything.
But! It’s good.
Renner is believable as the agent with just a little more personality than the other trained killers, but ruthless when he needs to be. The action sequences retain the improvised feel of the previous films, with a number of sequences both tense and exciting.

Director Tony Gilroy wrote the screenplays for all the Bourne films and previously directed Michael Clayton, explaining how the film retains the smarts behind the thrills, with the background and sequences of the earlier films interwoven to set up Renner as one of the few agents to avoid the cull as Treadstone is shut down. Edward Norton makes a welcome appearance as  the man responsible for terminating Renner’s Aaron Cross, and Rachel Weisz continues the Bourne films run of intelligent female roles, despite the action/thriller genre setting.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Brooklyn's Finest; Dragon Eyes


Brooklyn’s Finest

Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 entry Training Day was critically acclaimed, and Brooklyn’s Finest feels a lot closer to that film than to the likes of The Shooter and King Arthur that came in between.
This film is more of an ensemble piece, featuring three unhappy cops – one desperate to get out from his undercover assignment, one feeling the pressure of supporting a large family and the last a week from retirement with little to look forward to besides the pension.

The three leads are all solid performers, Richard Gere perhaps standing out as his look stops his character from feeling unlikeable. Whilst Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke do a great job as the undercover cop and family man respectively, the plot trades on a lot of the usual fare found in cop dramas, though with slight twists in the ways the characters behave – Cheadle’s Tango is working undercover due to his ambition for a detective’s position, but when faced with ratting out gangster and friend Caz (Wesley Snipes back in a real film!) he’s conflicted. Hawke’s Sal is desperate for cash to get his growing family into a decent home, but his temptations to steal drug money are tempered by a serious dose of catholic guilt, and Gere’s Eddie is a cynical grump, but finds he is prepared to stick by his principles.

Well acted and cracking on at a fair pace, Fuqua’s Finest is an enjoyable if not particularly original.

Dragon Eyes

A man appears in a town in trouble, run by criminal gangs and corrupt cops, and turns them all against each other. It’s a new take on the tale told in films from Yojimbo to Last Man Standing, but despite the injection of a bit of martial arts action to try and make the tale stand out, overall the film is a bit of a dud.

A lot of the silences and meaningful looks fired out by lead Cung Le are no doubt meant to convey simmering tension, but ultimately end up pulling down the pace of the film to a trudge. Without any characterization of the lead beyond a smidge of flash-back-story, and the majority of the cast fitting the usual stereotypes of Latino, African-American and Eastern European gangs, the film has little to keep the audience interested in the story. Peter Weller is about the only stand out as the head of the town’s dirty cops, but even then in terms of his past performances it’s hardly a barnstormer.

This leaves a heavy burden on the action sequences, though hardly a surprise in a Van-Damme picture, but his part is a supporting role and only appears through flashbacks.
Unfortunately the choreography doesn’t shine, with a lot of the fights feeling like thumping matches when in fact they need to dazzle as they’re the only thing the film has going for it. With so many decent action films to choose from, be they East Asian martial arts pictures or the more recent Bourne-a-likes from Hollywood, Dragon Eyes doesn’t have anything to offer.

A shame as John Hyams’ 2009 film, Universal Soldier: Regeneration, was an interesting mash of odd, morose art-house tone matched with brutal, gritty violence and pointed at interesting possibilities.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; The Game

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I enjoyed all three of Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings films, despite the twee moments and length, but something about the first instalment of his Hobbit adaptation just didn’t do it for me.
Yes, the story was originally aimed more at children and wasn’t as much showcase for Tolkein’s passion for language and myth, but still it feels pretty simplistic and shallow.

Thorin seems a little one dimensional, Aidan Turner’s Kili oddly seems the only actor who make-up forgot to dwarf-up, most of the rest of the dwarven cast develop little personality beyond their look, Barry Humphries as the Goblin King took me away from the character, there’s the irritating singing and bumbling of the party sequence at Bags End and the final shot of Smaug awakening beneath his treasure pit has some abysmal CGI.

Having said that, Martin Freeman shines as the set-in-his-ways Bilbo who eventually grows into and adventurer, some of the action sequences are well made – the encounter with trolls and the escape from the goblins particularly, it’s always a pleasure seeing Ian McKellan, Sylvester McCoy is surprisingly good as Radagast and his sequences hinting at darker things are good, and finally Bilbo’s riddling with Gollum works, pulling out a feel of threat despite the short, skinny frame of the wasted hobbit.

Ultimately, this first part of the tale can’t quite match the grandeur of that first trilogy, and suffers from the lack of opportunity to flesh out some of the party without deviating from the original text. It’s enjoyable but just has little heft, though I am interested to see how the wizard side of things is developed in the next two parts.

The Game

The revelation I had after first watching the Game after its cinema release in 1997 was how could the plot make sense? How could this company put together such an elaborate set of events that seem so realistic – and then I realised, everything in the film was fake, was made up by a huge team of people coming together to create something believable, and the team within the film was no different (apart from everything having to work on ‘take one’ with a very specific audience of one).

Whilst the story is neat but shallow, dealing as it does with the world of the amazingly rich and their tribulations, the meat is in the telling, the twisting of main character Nicholas Van Orton’s perceptions and ramping paranoia, the setting and framing and shooting of the thing.
The fact that Fincher tended to work with different cinematographers for his first few films suggests that it was his vision that brought the colour washes that Soderbergh was also using - present in Alien 3, Seven and Fight Club, in The Game you still get sickly yellows and cool blues pulling the mood of a scene in the way that some directors/editors would need to have music to rely on.

The telling is still a little straighter than Fincher’s critically acclaimed classics, this feeling more of a straight studio thriller than his other films up until Benjamin Button, but Michael Douglas manages to get by on his star charm, playing a similar high-powered man to his turn in Wall Street, but without the passion, instead the film is draped around his blankness and lack, his routine showing how his power and wealth brings no great satisfaction.
The shallowness I noted earlier is in the re-hashing that money doesn’t buy happiness, instead having rich experiences and meeting people help you better value your life, though here that idea seems to be simultaneously repressed by immense wealth and facilitated by it.

This mixed message doesn’t stop the film entertaining as you try and second guess how far down the rabbit hole the plot will go and how real what seems to be happening actually is, but ultimately despite being better than the average slick Hollywood thriller it inevitably pales compared to Fincher’s work either side of the millennium.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

All Quiet On The Western Front; Elysium

All Quiet On The Western Front

All Quiet On the Western Front (AQOTWF) is practically a template for most modern takes on war, with many sequences used over and over again, proving that either war rarely changes or the cinematic depiction of it can’t be bettered.
As opposed to the patriotic WW2 movies of the 40s and 50s, AQOTWF is the prototype of the anti-war film depicting war as hell.

A number of sequences are fully formed that can still be found today - the first clash with authority in the barracks as the shouty sergeant whips the new blood into shape; the humiliation and repetition of training; the bullying and violence in training before the soldiers even get to the front (though here it’s directed at pompous authority rather than in-fighting between recruits); the idealism of the new recruits versus the old-hand vets; the realities of war at the front and the distillation of importance to food and shelter; the shock and horror of death as it takes people you know, as you take others lives; the psychological breakdown of men by war, either completely, or into killers.

It’s easy to see how the film was banned by many countries preparing for the build up to the next war - the anti-war sentiment is overt, both in the way the war affects the schoolboys we follow from their classroom to the front, and in the speech given by central character Paul at the end.
A number of points are drilled home throughout the film, including the futility of war as the soldiers go over the top of the trenches with numerous of deaths on both signs but no ground gained, conversations highlighting how the soldiers involved aren’t even sure why they are at war and the more obvious affects of deaths and dismemberment as lives are shattered.

Some of the film is a little clunky, with the acting in particular a little overwrought, although this is likely to be a hangover of the move from silent movies to talkies, and the numerous east coast American accents are very hard to reconcile with the German uniforms, though I imagine those very accents could have been intentional in order to acclimatise an American audience and emphasise that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’.  But other sequences such as the trench fighting and no man’s land advances are still unnerving. Due to the quirk of old cinema where action is comparatively sped up, the hand-to-hand trench fighting feels particularly vicious, and the scenes of the soldiers cowering in their fox hole as bombardment goes on seemingly without end helps you sympathise with the men driven to shrieking madness.

Ultimately AQOTWF doesn’t quite stand up to the sophistication (and emulation) of war films that have come since then, but as an example of what was being made over 80 years ago it’s a stark reminder to question the jingoistic and patriotic urges to send the young into war.


After the success of District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s sci-fi critique on racism in South Africa, it’s easy to see the same slums though on a much larger scale in the sets of Elysium. Los Angeles of the future is a giant mega-city, but rather than the crumbling towers of 2000AD, Blomkamp’s vision is of dusty shanty-towns, very reminiscent of those occupied by the ‘prawns’ of District 9.

Elysium isn’t particularly original for a sci-fi tale, but neither was District 9 whose closest ancestor was 1988’s Alien Nation. In the same way that film took an old idea and ran with it, making it fresh and exciting, Elysium updates one of the oldest tales in cinema, that of Metropolis and the Time Machine, of Huxley’s Brave New World and myriad other dystopias involving a downtrodden underclass serving a ruling class.
Whilst the Morlocks were underground in the Time Machine, the ruling class of Elysium are above their servile underlings in another way, orbiting Earth in a ring-world space station with its own atmosphere.
Although the Elysium station is a typical sci-fi creation, all efficient robots, clean air and sharp lines, the main point of difference is the near-magical medical stations which automatically cure all ills. Healthcare back on Earth is lacking, and whilst people are desperate to board rickety shuttles just to try and stay on the heavenly Elysium station, the main driving force is illness and those seeking to cure it. This all leads to a lump in the throat ending as the Elysium computer system is told all Earth’s population are now citizens and it sends out medical ships to the surface to cure everyone in some sort of socialist wet-dream.

This worldview also comes out in the ‘worker’s struggle’ vein as our anti-hero, Matt Damon’s Max, is an ex-gang banger turned honest worker who gets screwed over by the boss on a robot production line, receiving a fatal dose of radiation for his efforts.
With the help of underworld contacts he’s assigned the task of kidnapping the CEO of his ex-employers company for his brain-implanted ID details, with the aid of an exo-skeleton grafted to his body. Thus begins his struggle against adversity and ultimately a tale of self-sacrifice.
There’s also a childhood friend and potential love interest, another cipher for cliche as she encompasses being a single mother and a nurse as well as a focus for Max’s efforts.

This back-story serves as a stable basis to weave a tale based on effects and set pieces, with a rather fetishised view of military hardware and a number of gory moments.

Matt Damon continues his run of star turns in the Bruce Willis role of the everyday shmoe in extraordinary circumstances who racks up a list of injuries, Alice Braga does well in the inevitably sketchy love interest part and Jodie Foster delivers an atypical performance as the ruthless politician/military type, but the stand out performance here is Sharlto Copley, back working with Blomkamp after his star turn in District 9.
In the role of Kruger (what a bad guy name!) he shines, in a dirty, brutal way, given that the character is that of a sleeper unit mercenary, part of a larger South African team who are called on to do Elysium’s dirty work. It’s in the confrontation between this crew and Max that most of the weapon idolisation takes place as we are treated to the effects of future guns and grenades.

Both action and story complement each other and push each other forward in a satisfying (if expected) way.
It’s good to see sci-fi based on ideas again, even if those ideas are recycled.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Audition; Insidious; Insidious: Chapter 2


Benefiting from the introduction of modern Japanese horror with Hideo Nakata’s Ring films, Audition was the first of Takashi Miike’s huge catalogue of films to secure a UK theatrical release.
Subtle and understated compared to some of his more infamous films, the low-key domestic scenes of the first two thirds feel very much like a melodrama. The story concerns a middle-aged man seeking a May-to-December relationship following the death of his wife, but after some ethically murky film casting sessions to find a girlfriend (the titular Audition), the film swiftly descends into the whacked-out horror and gore that some Miike fans enjoy.
The very slow set-up and stark contrast of the familiar first two acts with the pre torture-porn torture of the last is what helps the film stand out, as well as the evident confidence of Miike’s direction for what was his 30th film (though only the 9th that wasn’t straight-to-video).
However, it doesn’t really bear repeat viewing, with foreknowledge draining the film of most of the dread and tension. The scenes of torture still feel pretty strong, even though the 14 years since Audition’s 1999 release have seen a mini-revival of gore for gore’s sake in some sectors of the horror genre.

Worth a watch but not quite the classic of J-horror.


James Wan’s Saw dealt more with the psychological horror of being trapped, and having to commit to performing nasty acts of violence on yourself and others to escape, as it did with the gory results - a fact easily forgotten as you look at how the series has progressed.

The same writer/director team of Wan and write Leigh Whannel sees Insidious backed up with some excellent pacing, building tension alongside the odd jump, and aided by some great turns from Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as the parents of Dalton, a boy who can astral project and whose body is the target of ghosts and demons, as well as some brilliant lighting and framing.
Whilst the story itself is similar to a number of haunted house entries, Insidious takes the route of psychological chills with a comparative lack of violence or bloodshed over an extended build-up.
Comic relief is offered later on with the introduction of a ghost hunting double act, though Wan still manages to keep the tension heightened even while offering brief openings of relief through humour.

In a second viewing at the cinema I found Insidious as good as I remembered it the first time round - despite knowing when and how the scares were coming it still succeeded in raising the hairs on the back of my neck - creepy is an apt term, and in keeping with the name ‘Insidious’ itself. One of the better examples of new millennium horror so far.

Insidious: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 starts off on the back foot immediately due to a decision to overdub a younger actress playing ghosthunter/psychic Elise with Lin Shaye’s current voice. Whilst the original voice helps link the character for fans without too much exposition beyond a flash of “1986” as the character climbs the stairs to a creepy house, the timbre is wrong and jars you out of the film, taking you out of the crucial suspension of disbelief you need.

Overall Chapter 2 is a disappointment, though this is not to say it’s a bad film - intentionally funnier than the original and clever in the way it links elements of the first film with its narrative - at one point rewatching the first Insidious I found myself wondering why the apparitions give the unfortunate humans such a run around, only to have spookier elements of self-opening doors and such explained in the second.

A number of genre tropes are ticked off in a seemingly list-building manner, with creepy kids toys, an abandoned hospital, a main character murderously possessed, body failure represented by teeth falling out and a ghost hunter’s spooky souvenir room all making an appearance, and a number of these have their tension drained as the film splits its narrative. One group of characters find themselves in direct danger from the now possessed Josh (Patrick Wilson) whilst another spend much of the film uncovering the back story to both chapters. The twist of the first film’s astral projection is now known, and in its place the idea that the old ghostly bride taking Josh’s body is actually the spirit of a male murderer with gender and mother issues finds itself less shocking five decades after Psycho.

Alongside the humour the cast remain strong, with Barbara Hershey as Josh’s mother Lorraine and Lin Shaye as Elise given more to do, as well as Lin’s assistants Specs and Tucker (writer Whannel and Angus Sampson respectively). As well as these and Wilson and Byrne also as good as in the first, Jocelin Donahue is a good pick for the younger Lorraine, both for looking like Hershey and recent horror heritage as the lead in the wonderful 70's horror homage, House of the Devil..

One for completists, not as satisfying as the original and definitely not a stand alone watch.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Frances Ha; The Conjuring; The Hunger

 Frances Ha

After the mirth-free zones that are The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, you could be forgiven for thinking that Noel Baumbach’s latest directorial credit would be another take on the middle class ennui of the privileged yet unhappy Americans that arthouse audiences seek out for a classier dose of Schadenfreude. And yet, Frances Ha is full of warmth and joy.

The ingredients are still there - starving artist struggling in the big city but with a relatively wealthy parental safety net, reaching that point of adulthood where a lack of direction moves from malaise to panic. But instead of the naked confusion and anger, there is joy at finding friends and celebrating what the city has to offer, up alongside the awkwardness of breaks in communication and the difficulty in balancing practical survival and fulfilment.

As the co-writer, star Greta Gerwig undoubtedly has a huge influence and tempers some of Baumbach’s more sombre excesses. Crucially Frances Ha presents a loose knit group of people who are all likeable, flaws and all, and the female lead doesn’t pin her existence around a male relationship.

The Black and White photography suits New York well, giving the film more of a timeless feel as it could comfortably slot in amongst other NYC cinema of the last 3 or 4 decades.

Having just watched 2 seasons of Lena Dunham’s Girls, the similarities are undeniable, but the underlying themes of female friendship and educated, directionless women in their 20's scratching a living in New York are larger than that series and this film. This is both a great little character study and a loving, honest look at a particular generation.

The Conjuring

Setting itself up as yet another classic ‘period’ horror, taking place in 1971 and trumpeting about the ‘true story’ origins, The Conjuring finds itself too sharp to convince when compared to originals such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or recent homages like The House of the Devil. Its cinematography is more in keeping with the likes of director James Wan’s previous horror offering Insidious, though this isn’t such a bad thing, for instance when the digital clarity of the photography picks out the eerie skews of shade in the basement.

Speaking of the basement, The Conjuring is rammed with some of the most obvious of all horror clichés.
  • family arrives at big old house in middle of nowhere
  • house with ghoulish past
  • bricked-up rooms
  • youngest kid soon making imaginary friend/s
  • bumps in the night
  • doors opening/closing by themselves
  • crew of exorcist/ghost investigator types
  • an exorcism
  • creepy doll
  • apparitions glimpsed in mirrors/windows
  • creepy music box
  • reverse Hansel and Gretel - the apparition guides people to the optimum haunty bit of the house by making noises and moving things

But The Conjuring doesn’t just steal from the old classics, as a number of riffs from Paranormal Activity are adopted wholesale, mainly the grabbing of the sleeping leg variety.

The cast are superior, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga good as the open-minded ghost hunters, and Lili Taylor great as usual, here playing the mother of the family targeted by the other-wordly.

Still, however polished it is there is nothing original here, and again unlike House of the Devil it’s not enough of a loving retro-production to compensate for that same-old same-old feeling, nor is it good enough to compete with the likes of the Exorcist.

The Hunger

Tony Scott’s début feature set the tone for much of his future work - stylish and a little empty.
The Hunger isn't the first attempt to bring the vampire myth up to date and it won’t be the last, but it doesn't avoid the issue of cementing itself fully in its time. The film is so 80's it hurts, from the goth club opening to the endless smoking of the first half and maze of rooms full of billowing net curtains and doves in the second, the film was already a museum piece once released.

Early on the film feels a little like a music video aiming for French chic, as Catherine Deneuve and Bowie smoulder from behind sunglasses and plumes of smoke, the editing cutting quickly as various unnatural light filters wash everything in moody hues, but once Susan Sarandon pops up it feels that the lack of dialogue  in the earlier scenes is more to do with the acting chops on offer up to that point than a stylistic choice.

Sarandon sticks out as an intense focal point in the second half, both in her passion for her new romantic interest in Deneuve’s vampire, and in the addiction/withdrawal scenes as she battles with her change, her blood losing the fight with ‘inhuman’ blood. Also the idea of a room full of boxed-up former lovers, suffering through their immortality in dessicated bodies is a little bit more chilling than the average crappy fang-flick, but the lack of engagement with most of the characters blunts the true horror you should be feeling because of it.

Pre-echoes of Scott’s later 80's flicks Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2 are there to see, particularly BHC2 with the opportunity for showcasing Hollywood opulence and Brigitte Nielsen’s glacial vamp, cold stares from within her severe suit and shaded eyes, but like those films The Hunger is all surface.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Jurassic Park 3; South West 9

Jurassic Park 3

It’s nice to see the return of Sam Neil and Laura Dern along with that iconic score, but William H Macy and Tea Leoni also fare well as slightly caricatured exes, searching for their lost son on one of the endless string of islands that John Hammond seems to have seeded with dino-clones. Alessandro Nivola is also good as the younger, hungrier version of Neil’s archaeologist showing off some 3D printing at the start which becomes a key plot point, but what’s happened to him? Seemed to have such potential…

Action stations kicks off after about 20 minutes of set-up and barely lets up as the cast are chased around the island by reptilian predators. Good to see continued mix of CGI and animatronics making the dinosaurs seem more realistic - the Spinosaur isn’t too cheesy as the inevitable step-up from the threat of the T-Rex (though some scenes attempting to ape the tension of the original’s stand-out encounter inevitably fail), Raptors have a nice update with feathers and vocal communication even if this is at odds with those in the first film, and the Pteradons are very creepy in their fog-filled aviary, a tingling sense of the alien with their huge heads, beaks and beady eyes.

I had memories of really enjoying this at the cinema when it was released in July 2001, and it’s good to see that it hasn’t aged in the last 12 years, particularly if you see it as the schlocky B picture it is.

South West 9

A time capsule piece that seems to occupy a strange middle ground, too big to be a TV special but too small to be a proper movie. Somehow doesn’t feel very cinematic despite some high speed/ slo-mo, cross-fade and other trickery, but does feature some clips of archival protest footage which cement the characters, culture and time.

Director Richard Parry was clearly fond and knowledgeable of the counter-culture scene of London from the late Nineties to the turn of the Millennium with all the crusties, raves and pill-popping that entails, but it does sometimes feel a bit fabley or adult fairy-tale, at odds with the gritty realism of the war-torn news footage he shot from the mid-nineties, included on the DVD as an extra.

I get the impression that the original intentions may have been a little loftier than the eventual result - it’s got drugs, sex and a gun so it was probably easier to fund in the aftermath of the UK gangster geezer explosion that spewed out after ‘Lock, Stock’ became a hit.
Unfortunately the only equivalents I have that spring to mind when thinking of ensemble pieces looking at underground culture are the likes of Soderbergh’s Traffic, an unenviable rival however different in tone (the voice-over threading the flash-back & forward narrative points toward a serious intent, however gaudy some of the visuals, action and characters).

A scrappy love letter to a snapshot in London’s life, South West 9 is good in parts but is scuppered by its own aim of identifying so closely with its subject - it becomes something of a museum piece rather than a film that continues to live.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Pacific Rim

I knew the basics before going in, and I know the ancestry, but I'd avoided a lot of the preview titbits out there and came to the film lukewarm, if not cold. So although my expectations weren't heightened and I was aware that everything about Pacific Rim screams BIG. DUMB. BLOCKBUSTER. I couldn't help but be disappointed.

The film is awash with vague stereotyping, from the corn-fed beefcake hunk central role to the 80s stylings of the Russian robot team to the crazed mugging of the science-nerd comic relief roles - the stiff-legged English eccentric and the NHS specs and tats neo-nerd chic geek. The bland characterisation brings unfortunate comparisons with the mess of the Transformers films, and although the effects are impressive, with a lot of massive robot fetishisation and wrestling moves on a macro scale, it sometimes feels like the foley editing is trying to bear the weight of conveying the scale of the clashes as it pummels your ears with bombastic intensity, every connection of robot fist into monster face is rammed home via your eardrums.

Still, if you're making the action the main focus and barely bothering to breathe life into the characters (besides a nice Ron Perlman cameo) why make what screams to be a 90 minute picture stretch out further than 2 hours?

Knowing it's unashamedly a blockbuster helps ignore any quibbles with the details (why robots rather than sub-orbital weapons platforms? Why have pilots physically in the machines at all when drones are a present-day reality?), but it is hard to ignore the genre past - Japan has been churning out massive robot tales for decades, both in live action and animated forms, in the spheres of TV and movies, and in doing so they've managed to get a bit more interest and subtlety out of building sized robots hitting monsters than Pacific Rim ever bothers trying.
The fact that it touches on so little after so long a running time renders it boring, a charge that so far hasn't been levelled at anything Del Toro has directed, however flawed.
I also hear much is made of the monster design, but you only have to look back through Del Toro's past work to find a lot more invention.

It wasn't completely awful, though, Perlman is enjoyable as ever, Idris Elba does well and is happily allowed to be English, the opening exposition sequence is quite good and reminded me of similar elements in Monsters and District 9.

But not good, no. Oh, and the 3D seemed completely pointless.

New beginnings!

After more than 2 years of neglect it's time to come back - the blog isn't the abject failure I often feel it is, peripherally, niggling at the edges of my mind. After all, even though I didn't manage to get up a post of every film I saw in 2010, I blogged every month consistently, 46 posts mostly covering a number of films - an achievement with hindsight.

Now that I've just turned 35 and am due to become a dad, it's probably realistic to be able to cover everything - I watch films less frequently as it is, so there's likely to be less to cover on the horizon in between dealing with mewling pink cuteness. Here goes...

New aim - review every film I see while I am 35.