Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Outlander; Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Brave; The Thin Blue Line; Cloud Atlas; Habit; Zero Dark Thirty; The Age of Stupid


A little like the 13th Warrior, but instead of a Spanish Knight fighting alongside the Vikings, it’s a spaceman, fighting with them against an alien beastie.
As action B-pictures go it’s fairly entertaining stuff with enjoyably ropey CGI and a nice mix of action and suspense horror stuff with the hunty-stalky alien creature, but mainly it’s brainless fare with Ron Perlman being one of a few highlights.
Throwaway fluff.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The sequel to smash-hit adaptation of the Hunger Games, Catching Fire picks up where the first left off, with Katniss and Peeta now living in the victor’s village in District 12. Despite winning they soon find that the game never ends, and that they can look forward to a future of PR visits and events in the other districts for the benefit of the ruling capital.

In the course of these travels, Katniss comes to realise that there is trouble in the districts with many fostering opposition to the status quo, seeing her as a figurehead to a different way of life, but President Snow is keenly aware of this and quickly takes the opportunity to curb the chances of this proto-rebellion - the next Hunger Games will feature the current victors.

In the background Katniss is struggling between the affection she has for Gale, and something new that may be developing between her and Peeta, but the meat of the film focuses on the game itself and the strategies and alliances formed as a number of victors work to keep Katniss alive even as a group of the more bloodthirsty entrants work to end the lives of everyone else.

The game itself feels like a video game in many ways with elements revolving around timing and levels, but some of the personalities involved help to keep the drama from being alienating, with most of Katniss’ allies having some sort of personality despite the combat/survival setting.

Catching Fire suits the original well but ends on too much of a broken cliffhanger, rather than coming to a natural end which leaves you wanting more, it feels like a much longer film cut too early - in a book it would feel like a chapter ending a paragraph before the end.

Jennifer Lawrence is great again as Katniss, though rather than the character being a good example of a female lead being as capable as men, it seems like the roles of resourceful and determined Katniss have just been reversed with the relatively useless and helpless Peeta, who is hopelessly in love with Katniss while from her side relationships are more complicated. The only thing lacking in Peeta from the classic damsel in distress role is the screaming.


Brave tells the usual tale of a princess chafing against fate - she loves archery but is destined to be trussed up in a dress and married off for the good of the kingdom.
After accidentally cursing her mother and turning her into a bear, she has to set out and find the witch responsible before sunrise the next day, avoiding her father and facing a legendary bear in an ancient ruin.

Whilst the plot is slight with many elements borrowed from other Disney tales, and characters such as the larger than life Scottish king seemingly copied from How To Train Your Dragon’s Viking chief, the refreshing element here is that Brave’s journey is her own, there is no peripheral love interest or prince as a goal, neither does she reject arranged marriage because she wants to choose who to love, males simply don’t feature as what’s important to her beyond her father and brothers. It took a long time to get here from the swooning beauty of Snow White with seven half men protecting her and a prince to look forward to, but Brave feels like the first female animated film lead without a love story as the main or a sub-plot.
The animation is fine, there aren’t many jokes to speak of besides the attempt at hitting that Scrat/minion/Madagascar penguin sweet spot with Brave’s triplet brothers, transformed into bear cubs and forever in trouble, so the film isn’t going to be worrying the likes of Pixar’s first best work, but as family entertainment it is enjoyable.

The Thin Blue Line

Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary convincingly makes the case that Randall Adams was wrongly convicted of the murder of a police officer, due to the fact that prime suspect David Ray Harris was too young at the time of the killing to be given the death penalty.
Using a mixture of archival footage, reconstruction and interviews, the scene is set, certain elements are covered over and again from a number of perspectives and the picture is built of what most likely happened and why, and the detail presented is likely down to Morris’ past as a private detective.

Adams was freed in 1989 but due to the way in which the case was dismissed he received no money for 12 years of wrongful imprisonment, and passed away in 2010.
Harris was executed in 2004 for a separate murder.

Cloud Atlas

Said to be an unfilmable book, Cloud Atlas certainly makes for a slightly complicated blockbuster with its multiple plot strands set at various points in time, from 1850s Empire and slavery to a far-future of an Earth which has lost touch with off-world colonies after some catastrophe.
Many of the actors who crop up in each story arc appear again and again with the use of prosthetics, sometimes cleverly but often in a jarring manner, especially during the sequences set in a future Seoul where a number of Western actors have basically been given slanty eyes in a seemingly clumsy way, especially when they act alongside Korean actress Doona Bae who makes them look a bit like mutants.
Each strand feels complete in and of itself, though firmly set in the expected genre settings - the 1849 Pacific voyage is a slice of the likes of Master and Commander; the strand of Frobisher and Sixmith is awash with the repression and manners of pre-war homophobic Britain; the thriller in which Halle Berry’s journalist tries to expose a conspiracy behind a new nuclear power plant has the classic 70s grime of the conspiracy thrillers of that time; the dark, rainy, neon vision of Neo-Seoul in a time of clones and a high-tech police state takes the template of the post-Bladerunner dystopian sci-fi.
Despite the success in distinguishing between each of these disparate elements whilst simultaneously dropping clues as to how events and characters are connected through time, each part feels like just another entry into its own particular genre.
As the whole is no more than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to say whether Cloud Atlas is a failure, or a success simply for attempting and mainly succeeding in putting so many elements on screen at once, without really dropping the ball. Can you champion the okay?

In any case it’s too long and it would probably have been better served as a TV series.


This 1995 indie vampire feature gains much from the New York City setting - with just one year in office Mayor Guiliani hadn’t put in place the tactics to reduce crime and arguably sterilise much of the city. The settings of dingy streets of warehouses and apartments, basement nightclubs and abandoned boats helps give the film a neo-gothic air.
Pleasingly for a modern-day vampire flick, the main character Sam (played by writer/director Larry Fessenden) isn’t in thrall to vampirism and indeed the term isn’t voiced until later in the movie. As Sam negotiates a tendency toward alcoholism and the breakdown of a relationship, he gets involved with a mystery woman who has some odd appetites.
Not as philosophically ponderous as The Addiction, as self-consciously gory as Near Dark or as emptily stylish as The Hunger, Habit is a neat entry into modern day vampire films that keeps much of the supernatural aspects off-screen and unspoken.
It has the feel of a proper low-budget feature with snatched shoots on location and an unknown but talented cast, echoing the aimless 20s New York youth vibe that would strike such a chord in the likes of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha two decades later.

Zero Dark Thirty

So, Zero Dark Thirty is a film in which you already know where it’s going and what happened at the end. This doesn’t mean that the film should be a pointless exercise, after all in recent years we have had the likes of United 93 and Argo, which either by using taut direction or artistic license have managed to make know outcomes fraught and exciting.
However, Zero Dark Thirty somehow misses this opportunity, working a bit more like a CIA based police-procedural as Jessica Chastain’s Agent Maya hunts down leads and roots out information over years in order to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden.
Cue lots of shouting as various agents argue about this or that theory or process, the odd bit of torture and then an extended special forces sequence as a bunch of ripped blokes get dropped onto Osama’s hiding place wearing ridiculous looking night vision goggles and then kill a bunch of people until they have their target.

You’ve seen the like before, though not usually based on real events. Sequences of intelligence agency people shouting at each other are no more engaging than similar parts of the Bourne films, and the climactic extra-judicial hunt and execution sequence offers little. No doubt it was meticulously researched but it feels a little redundant after the fact, it doesn’t have the entertainment factor of numerous special forces based action films and there are no unanswered questions to speculate on.

Competently put together, Zero Dark Thirty is certainly atmospheric and gives a feel for what it was like to be agents trying to find out information on possible attacks and prevent them, using whatever means they think they can get away with, but overall it just didn’t do it for me.

The Age of Stupid

Whilst the content of this withering accusative documentary sent from a likely future will be familiar to any who keep tabs on the state of the global environment, it’s still sobering to see such a collection of news footage weaved around six stories, hammering home the evidence for our effect on the environment and its possible outcome, with a marked increase in extreme weather occurring even before the film’s release in 2009.

The late Pete Postlethwaite adds a weathered authority to his tired damning of the past, reporting from a cultural arc in 2055 after the seas have risen and resource wars have lain waste to much of humanity.

Ultimately I found the story of the oilman the most affecting - a resident of New Orleans who was one of the many who helped rescue the stranded by boat, he says that given the chance again he would still choose to be an engineer prospecting for oil, a substance which he sees as a wonderful resource which enables us to do so much. Though his caution that we are using far too much of it far too quickly is the voice of reason too often drowned out by the shouting down of both sides.

It will be interesting to see how things develop globally, and how late governments will come round to the idea of sustainable resources - will it be from popular demand or economic necessity?
Meanwhile weather records continue to be broken on a regular basis and the global economic meltdown that began a year before the film’s release continues to ravage most nations, leading to ever more conservative governments in bed with the vested interests keen on pushing for oil.



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