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Category Archives: OldThings
This is where we have lots of old reviews and articles going back nearly a quarter of a century. A lot of these are therefore a bit ropy but here for the sense of time and stupidity. for example there is:
Vector Films of the Year: for many years we did a review of the science fiction films of the year for the BSFA’s Vector magazine:
- 2009 – Yet Another Year in Decline
- The Films of 2008
- Threes and 2007’s – SF Films of the Year
- The Science Fiction Films of 2006
- Films of the Year 2004
Bookmunch was a sadly now gone website that reviewed books and we wrote the predominantly film related books for them. Including
- Film Books You Can’t Live Without
- Antonioni and Film Noir
- Motion Picture Purgatory – Rick Trembles
- Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor – Doug Bradley
- The Art of Destruction: The Films of the Vienna Action Group – Stephen Barber
- The Hollywood Dodo – Geoff Nicholson
- Spooky Encounters: A Gwailos Guide to Hong Kong Horror – Daniel O’Brien
- Sunshine on Putty: The Golden Age of British Comedy from Big Night Out to The Office – Ben Thompson
- Taschen Complete Films Series – Various
- John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth – Michael Munn
- Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall – Richard Barrios
- I’m a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon – Damian Pettigrew
- The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America – Hannah Patterson (Editor)
- Untorn Tickets – Paul Burke
And there’s a lot more including old reviews from our old Joomla site:
- Adaptation (2002)
- American Pie 2
- Angel Eyes (2001)
- A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001)
- Black Dahlia (2006)
- Cats & Dogs (2001)
- Charlies Angels (2000)
- Dr Doolittle 2 (2001)
- Evolution (2001)
- The Fast and the Furious (2001)
- Jackass: The Movie (2002)
- Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
- Jurassic Park III (2001)
- A Knight’s Tale
- Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
- The Little Vampire (2000)
- Maid In Manhatten (2003)
- Moulin Rouge (2001)
- The Parole Officer (2001)
Consider the situation: you are parents incapable of having further children and your solitary offspring has got himself banged up in hospital with slim chances of recovery. What do you do? Wrong! You get a prototype robo-kid, activate his “genuine love” module to let him pour out feelings and then dump him like a piece of trash when real boy recovers, leaving the distraught robo-boy to wander around creepy forests, get tied up in the seedy underworld of android prostitution and develop an obsessive Pinocchio complex to compensate for maternal rejection. Parents: one. Robo-brat: nil. Armed only with a walking teddy-bear the love-filled simulacrum sets about on his quest to become a real boy without ever realising (big sniffy Kleenex time) that he is more human than humanity itself.
Roll up! Roll up! Once again the “last great hope” for Hollywood cinema spectacularly pulls off another class A irritant of a film. Before the vitriol and disbelief flies it should be made clear that AI is by far the best film Spielberg has directed since Empire of the Sun. The opening act is designed in line with 1970’s sf films and photographed to match with particularly impressive use of focussing. After the dubious exposition at the beginning, things really settle down into family drama mould – the “when shall we switch him on” dilemmas, the adjustments to family living and finally the reintroduction of their “real” son. The last event triggers one of the film’s most memorable images as the misunderstood android stares wide-eyed from the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Rejected by the mother, he is befriended by bot-on-the-run Gigolo Joe, complete with his Jiminy Cricket heel clicking and queasy listening in-built stereo. The two descend into a world half Wizard of Oz and half Hell. This middle section is a visual delight running from the neon excesses of Total Recall’s Mars to post-Apocalyptic Mad Max arenas. In this later segment we are treated to one pointless bit of air-punching as a crowd of violence seekers are convinced not to axe a child robot but it’s a minor point – there’s a teddy-bear robot that (wait for it!) is not a saccharine companion, magical quests, demolished cities and a fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be. The acting is superb (especially from Jude Law), the music is spot on and the whole piece is filmed with an air of assured maturity that has been lacking in sf cinema for far too long. A triumph for Spielberg up to the very last frame?
Ah, but there’s a rub. The “fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be” unfortunately does not come at the end of the film. Oh no. And if you were one of the many people incensed at the lacklustre conclusion of this year’s Planet of the Apes, this one will have you enraged. Close on two hours of quality film-making are thrown away on an ill-advised, over-long, feel-good piece of extra-terrestrial nonsense that seems to exist only to provide a happy conclusion of monumental crassness and to showcase some whizzy special effects for no good purpose. Up until this point the effects had been dictated by the story and relatively underplayed despite their complexity but suddenly we have Close Encounters of the Third Kind tacked on and the whole thing gets flushed down the pan.
Gary Wilkinson’s list of the ten best Science Fiction Films did what all good best of lists do – provoke a response. Whilst there is no denying the place of any of the films on Gary’s list (with the possible exception of Mad Max 2) in a top ten such a limited number inevitably leaves omissions, more-so in a list that has two Ridley Scott films and two Stanley Kubrick’s but no John Carpenter’s. So rather than say yay or nay to each entry here is an alternative top ten, just as valid and presumably just as wrong to everyone else’s!
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Great effects. Great script. Laugh at Leslie Nielson. Shiver at the genuinely terrifying monsters from the id (still one of Disney’s finest hours). Gawk at Alta’s costumes. Wish you had a whiskey manufacturing cool robot. Marvel at the finest matte and model work of all time. Theramins. Triangular doors. Shakespeare. Big, bright, wide, classic.
They Live (1988)
What Carpenter could you choose? The hilarious Dark Star? The awesome The Thing? The exhilarating Escape From New York? The classics keep rolling but They Lives combination of left field idealism, ugly aliens, shades, cheesy dialogue and wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper go a long way to choosing this as the unfairly overlooked film of his impressive oeuvre. And he’s all out of gum.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1992)
Not to be confused with the equally excellent The Iron Giant (1999 – take your kids, pack some hankies, it’s a tear jerker alright) Shinya Tsukamoto’s gattling gun paced black and white underground cult film is an often unfathomable fusion of manga, Svankmayer-style animation, metal fetishism, sex and violence set to one of the most pounding scores imaginable. Shocking, audacious, breathtaking.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Forget Get Carter, this is Hodges masterpiece. A gloriously camp Day-Glo comicbook of a film splashed across a wide canvas. Fabulous script, impeccable design perfectly mirroring Raymond’s drawings, top-notch casting. It’s a deconstruction of American male. It’s an S&M classic. It’s got Peter Duncan getting bitten by a tree beast. Sex, drugs, whippings, chainings, flying creatures, bore worms, floating cities, Max Von Sydow in his finest role since The Seventh Seal, Brian Blessed chewing the scenery. Add that over-the-top Queen score and it’s as near as damn-it a musical as well (compare with the dreadfully inappropriate score for Highlander). Unbeatable.
Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux 1973)
Every frame screams European science fiction comics. Bizarre settings, strange creatures, truly alien in its outlook. Nothing like this could have come out of Hollywood and certainly not out of Disney. At times moving, at times surreal, at times mystifying and proof that Japan aren’t the only country that can make decent animated sf.
Things To Come (William Cameron Menz 1936)
Producer Alexander Korda proving that Britain could, at one time, more than compete in scale with other countries productions. Huge sets that still impress, great ideas, props etc. Science fiction with a brain but also great for the eye, a sort of British Metropolis.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robert Wise proves he is the Jack-of-all-genres this elegantly designed pacifist film. Proof that aliens don’t always mean bad things, that Mars doesn’t need women and that quality special effects can be used as an intrinsic part of the story rather than as the be all and end all of a film.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The anti-thesis of such patriotic drivel as Independence Day, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is so gleefully tasteless, dangerously bright and merciless in it’s rejection of Hollywood blockbuster rules (other than its unashamed delight in spectacle) you can’t help but like it. Brimming with ideas but virtually plotless and quite possibly the most enjoyable way to throw $85,000,000 of Warner Brothers money on a huge pyre and watch the glazed expressions of studio exec’s and audiences who just didn’t get it. Ack-ack ack!
Often billed as the Russian 2001 (i.e. it’s science fiction, it’s bum numbingly long and most people found it dull and/or overly intellectual) Tarkovsky takes the metaphysical approach to life in space. Long shots of empty rooms (pre-dating Alien). Multi-minute takes around Russian motorways. Rain indoors. Pontification about life and humanity. Long, long periods of almost total silence (do not bring in any popcorn!). Lots of different length cuts to compare and contrast. Two hundred minutes of head nodding worthiness that is essential viewing for anyone – even if you do hate it.
Laputa: The Flying Island (198*)
Anything by Miyazaki is cause for celebration but this is a beautiful combination of cell animation and picture perfect characterisation. Half futuristic, half Victoriana this is far more profound then anything from the Mouse-house, more inventive and more satisfying. Suitable for children and adults alike but be warned, some scenes are really scary!
Le Derniere Combat (198*)
Before Luc Besson crippled the wallets of French studios with epic fare such as The Fifth Element or Joan of Arc he made this ultra-low budget black and white post-apocalyptic film with Jean Reno. The conceit of everyone unable to speak makes for a film that is universal in market and economic in its lack of synch-sound requirements. When a word (no clues!) is finally muttered it is mercifully unsubtitled. A triumph of imagination over budget.
Some films that would have been in this list had they been more obviously science fiction: Nowhere (Gregg Araki 199), City of Lost Children (Jeunet and Caro 199), Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton 1991), Fight Club (David Fincher 1999).
So at last it’s here. After years of pre-production nightmares and a string of potential directors hired and fired, Spiderman finally reaches the big screen for the first time in a nearly a quarter of a century. At the helm none other than Sam Raimi, the genius behind The Evil Dead, American Gothic, A Simple Plan and, er, Cleopatra 2525. But amidst the hype and the tidal wave of box office returns from the States (at the time of writing it’s already the sixth biggest film in US history) the question remains: is it any good? After all, box office returns have never been a good indication of quality and Spiderman has had more than its fair share of set-backs. All bodes ill but miraculously Raimi has managed to pull it off, despite the inevitable (and deeply tedious) nit-picking of on-line Spider-fans disgruntled at the film’s alteration of the web-slinger’s origins. Like anyone cares and as if 40 odd years of a comic book can be successfully distilled into 2 hours of running time – short of taking a page a frame and leaving everyone with a migraine.
Poor old geeky Peter Parker. He’s been in love with his neighbour and schoolmate Mary Jane for longer than he’d care to mention but she’s dating the local bully. To make matters worse, he gets bitten by a genetically enhanced super spider on a school trip. When he awakes the next day, he seems to have developed some altogether peculiar powers – he can run fast, punch hard, climb walls, oh, and shoot out extra-strong webbing from his wrists. After his uncle is killed by a criminal, he vows to use these skills to fight crime. Meanwhile his best mate’s dad, a research scientist, has done a very silly thing and inhaled ridiculous quantities of nerve gas, which has resulted in him developing another personality, manifesting itself as the Green Goblin. Suddenly Peter has an arch-enemy to deal with, much crime to fight, a job with the local paper and, horror of horrors, his best mate has started dating his beloved MJ.
Raimi’s approach is to tackle the underlying themes of Stan Lee’s comic book hero and is about as accurate a conversion as you could reasonably expect. In the emergent sub-culture of “geek-chic” Tobey Maguire suits the role perfectly – part pubescent nerd, (eventually) part empowered ubermensch, all family boy. Perhaps the drastic budget cuts have actually worked in its favour, for the proceedings are certainly more engaging when they involve the relationships between the characters and Peter Parker’s awakening powers. Stan Lee’s hero reflected the anxieties of adolescence and sexual awakening in an allegorical manner (see him in Mallrats – convincing Brodie that he would have given up the fame, fortune and comicbooks for one more day with the girl of his dreams, this despite Brodie’s obsession with superheroes’ genitalia) and Raimi mercifully retains this thread in his film. At times it also seeks to be a teenage version of Cronenberg’s The Fly (itself, of course, concerned with the fusion of man and bug, of uncontrollable sexual urges and self-doubt). Parker has to balance life with his aunt and uncle, his desire for a girlfriend and the onslaught of teenage angst. Oh, and save the world from the heinous attentions of the Green Goblin.
Raimi tackles his human subjects with a touch that shows his recent work on The Gift and A Simple Plan was not in vain, despite their relatively poor performance at the box office. Kirsten Dunst and Maguire certainly share their on-screen moments with a certain amount of crackle and the domestic sitcom situations involving his aunt provide much needed comedy relief in the post-Buffy mould. Were this purely “mature” Raimi, many punters would feel disgruntled at parting with their six quid. Fortunately though Raimi’s hyper-kinetic camera style and visual inventiveness comes out when the action hots up. Spider-man’s swings through the city streets are truly exhilarating in their execution and mercifully play a greater part than mere eye candy. If the Green Goblin looks a touch ropy every once in while, blame the money men, but there’s enough action to keep the undiscerning from walking. Unfortunately the confrontation with the nemesis feels a bit like an afterthought. It’s a common problem with comic book films (that don’t have the luxury of years of build ups, part-works, back stories and ever expanded “origins”) – by the time you’ve established how a superhero is born you need to show how his/her nemesis evolved leaving little additional exposition time to generate anything other than a cursory (normally blatant) reason for conflict. In many ways it’s inevitable (the X-Men, Batman etc all suffer the same problem), leaves the film open for a lucrative franchise but normally rids any potential sequels of the headline villains (Batman ditched The Joker but X-Men cleverly retained its nemesis). In the case of Batman this opened the sequel up to a far more interesting set of ideas, one can hope for the same here.
Raimi is of course no stranger to the world of comic book cinema. His earlier films The Evil Dead and Crimewave derive from EC Comics and The Three Stooges (themselves little more than live action comics) come to life. However it is to Darkman that Raimi’s skill as a comic book director in the superhero mould really came to the fore. Spiderman lacks Darkman’s sadean streak and some of the more outré camera work. The inner conflict of the protagonist here is not of one on the brink of insanity and pain, but of identifiable “normal” feelings of growing up. In this sense Darkman is a far more operatic film to Spiderman’s soap opera(tic), a matter born out in the former’s effects work that seeks to be intense and expressionist (pixillation, animation, colour palette cycles) rather than internally realistic. Indeed it is Spiderman’s normality that makes it endearing and Darkman’s abnormality that makes it a far more confrontational film.
Film adaptations of comic books invariably upset the loyal core but then film adaptations of literature do that too. In recent years we’ve had to sit through a variety of comic book adaptations of varying quality from the simply excellent (Ghost World, Josie and the Pussycats, Batman Returns) and the highly commendable (X-Men, Mystery Men) to the downright abysmal (Batman). Spiderman at least makes it to highly commendable. It’s not art but it is good solid Hollywood film-making. Now, hands up who can’t wait for Ang Lee’s The Incredible Hulk?
Dir: Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
St: Mike Myers (Shrek), Eddie Murphy (Donkey), Cameron Diaz(Princess Fiona), John Lithgow (Lord Farquaad)
“Ogres are not like cakes!”
He’s mean, he’s green and his breath’s obscene, but deep down Shrek ain’t such a bad ogre. Sure he has to scare off the revolting peasants once in a while to maintain his modest swampy residence in tiptop condition, but that’s all part of the tradition. However the land is in upheaval as diminutive dictator Lord Farquaad has an aversion to fairytale creatures, brutally evicting them. This results in hundreds of scared beasts invading Shrek’s precious swampland – the only solution to his woe being to help Lord Farquaad become king by marrying him off to the fair Princess Fiona. Unfortunately the princess is currently enjoying the hospitality of a particularly possessive and fiery dragon, locked in a high tower surrounded by molten lava and the skeletons of previous (failed) rescuers. However Shrek is not unaided in his quest for he has a magical companion to help (and more often hinder) his efforts – an ass that can talk, indeed an ass that rarely shuts up. Surely such a perfectly matched duo can save the princess and regain Shrek’s muddy abode? Well the odds are stacked against him and, even if they were to succeed is Farquaad really the right partner for the feisty princess?
Dreamworks’ second CGI feature has already (allegedly) provoked ire in the bowels of the Mouse House with its frankly irreverent approach to many of the fairytale creatures upon which the studio has built its wholesome reputation – characters that remain outside of copyright. Such sacred (cash) cows as Snow White (“She lives with seven guys but that don’t mean she’s easy… just kiss her dead frozen lips and find out what a live wire she really is”), Pinocchio (his nose providing a handy limbo bar), Robin Hood (a camp French Errol Flynn character who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, minus commission and expenses), the Gingerbread Man (turned informant after being dunked in milk and having his legs amputated) or even the crows from Dumbo (“Bet you ain’t ever seen a donkey-fly”) are caricatured, as are the trappings of the Disney fairy tale; the mirror on the wall forced into work by persuasive smashing of a smaller looking glass or the book of fairy tales voiced over only to be used as toilet roll. This is fun but could get tiresome were it not that Shrek hones its story down to a close pairing, with only a few characters fleshed out more fully. In this respect Shrek is a far more mature film than the company’s previous outing Antz in that the CG is there to provide the story’s aesthetic and direction, showing off the quality of the design and the rendering rather than go for the more obviously showy techniques that can blight the limit-free world of the CG ‘camera’. To this end all bar a handful of shots could be created by “real” camerawork, including some lovely changes in film-speed a la Peckinpah, and the crowd scenes are few and far between – you are not overwhelmed by shots of thousands of things moving around just because they can. Instead Shrek plays on the details – the motion of dust particles in the light, subtle distance fogging and a restrained rather than overtly Day-Glo colour palette. In many respects the lessons from Pixar are coming through – whatever can be done today will look dated tomorrow so go for good design and a screenplay which will give the film staying power. The soundtrack, however, gives the game away somewhat and will probably age the film more quickly than the charming animation.
For all its bodily emissions gags and abusive stance towards accepted classics, Shrek is nonetheless a very sweet film with a touching slice of romance and a wholesome sense of morality in between the (Dahl style) gross bits (Shrek uses his own earwax to make candles and eats eyeballs on cocktail sticks – yuck!). Myers and Murphy eventually make a good double act after a shaky start and the dialogue is suitably double entendre laden (“No-one likes to kiss asses” laments Murphy) while Princess Fiona can certainly take care of herself in a wire-work inspired martial arts sequence. Ultimately, as Murphy comments it “ain’t nothing but a bunch of dots” but it provides the plenty of humour and action. It may not be in the same league as Pixar’s work but Dreamworks are certainly heading in the right direction, with the right attitude.
Dir: Ivan Reitman
Stars: David Duchovny (Ira Kane), Julianne Moore (Allison), Orlando Jones ( Harry Block), Sean William Scott (Wayne)
Wayne is a waiter at a country club but has aspirations to be a fireman. Sadly though his future career prospects are sharply curtailed by the arrival of a meteor which simultaneously wrecks his car and his ability to perform at the next day’s fireman exam. These minor personal problems pale into insignificance when it is discovered the meteor contains organisms of extraterrestrial nature, organisms that have the ability to evolve as a frightening rate turning millions of years into mere hours. The first scientists on the scene are Harry Block, a volleyball coach and part-time professor, and Ira Kane, the disgraced ex-Pentagon scientist forced to teach chemistry at the local college. Naturally the government ascertain the importance of the situation and put an end to Harry and Ira’s dreams of a Nobel prize, blocking off the meteor crash site for their own hi-tech tests. Before long it becomes apparent that the super evolution of these alien organisms threatens not only the state of Arizona but the United States and the whole world, for as the alien cultures climb the Darwinian ladder from flatworms to primates it is clear that the human race faces possible extinction. Even the initial hurdle of being unable to breathe oxygen is quickly overcome as tens of millions of years zip by in an instant. Who can possibly save the human race? Can the army contain the problem? Will Ira find true love? Will Harry’s volleyball team ever make it to the major league? The whole make-up of the future of the world was decided in petri dish and sealed by man’s inability to realise the danger in time…
Ivan Reitman returns to the comedy world of Ghostbusters that made him a force to be reckoned with by introducing us to another team of scientific misfits facing insurmountable odds with a bizarre array of home-made gadgets. Instead of facing the supernatural, this time the threat is of extraterrestrial origin, brought to Earth via a meteorite. Also unlike Ghostbusters the team take the majority of the running time to get together leaving Duchovny and Jones to hold most of the movie. Unfortunately the pair lacked the manic intensity of, say, Bill Murray and at best invoke mild smiles rather than out and out belly laughs, the template used here is that of the ostensibly similar Men In Black. Throughout the film the comedy is too little and too lame, its origin as a serious science-fiction horror film is all too clear, the addition of a variety of arse gags may well place it in the current trend towards gross comedy but does little to inspire audience enthusiasm. Where the film does succeed is in its prime concept and in the execution of the major monsters on show; rather like the pantheon of beasts that litter the Ghostbusters films these range from the mildly scary to the strangely doe-eyed, and do at least provide a fair modicum of jumps and some diverting set pieces. Ultimately though the tired sexism and cliched ending (despite featuring a most bizarre use of product placement) take its toll and the end result is nothing more than 90 minutes of diversion. File under “must try harder”.
It’s been a strange year for the film industry, one of contradictions that saw everyone being deeply depressed at significant increases in box office revenue. During a time of recession cinema attendance tends to increase because going to the movies is a relatively cheap form of entertainment – certainly when compared with a night out on the town with all the trimmings or a holiday to foreign climes – a theory supported by an upwards turn in takings of around 14%, despite a decrease in actual product. This year hasn’t really seen many of the hyper-mega-super-blockbusters we have come to know and loathe love hit the screens – only a few of the standard SF/comic franchises have made an appearance, including a fashionably late Mr Potter. Despite the stellar box office takings the studios don’t have the vaults of Kugarrands to spend on either the movies or marketing because other branches of their multi-media businesses have suffered the effects of the recession. But perhaps this is a good thing as some of the best products we’ve seen this year have been the lower budget productions – more thoughtful, more intelligent or a little bit quirky.
3D is here to stay. Right? We’ve had a slew of ‘em this year, culminating in James Cameron’s over-hyped Avatar, allegedly the reason behind the industry spending billions upgrading cinemas, although matters such as piracy and the ability to charge more at the ticket stall certainly attracted many takers. So was Avatar worth it? Well, yes. A cross between Titanic (1997) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the plot involved humans wanting to obtain the elusive element unobtainium (a timely homage to ‘science faction’ ‘classic’ The Core) on a distant planet so that they can make squillions of dollars back home. However, the indigenous 12 foot blue humanoid aliens, the Na’vi, aren’t really so keen on having their forest planet transformed into a giant mine for corporate profit and empire building. The humans come up with two possible solutions: try to connect with the aliens and convince them to co-operate, using Na’vi avatars controlled remotely by human scientists, or alternatively just have the military blast them out of existence. So not a social, economic, militaristic and environmental deconstruction of the present at all then. It goes without saying that the effects are stunning, but they complement the story and characters rather than simply add a ‘wow factor’. Yes the plot is thin but Cameron knows where to place his camera rather than just wave it about hoping the editing will sort it all out in post-prod (that’s you, Mr Bay). And if you get a chance to see Avatar in IMAX – take it.
Avatar aside, 3D still tends to fall into the realm of the family film or horror movie, but this year’s filmmakers have generally eschewed the format’s gimmicky nature (see Fly Me to the Moon, actually don’t…) in favour of a good story and character development, the 3D enhancing the film rather than becoming its raison d’ĕtre. It’s a shrewd move that adds credibility to the format and, crucially, means the lucrative DVD/Blu-Ray/TV markets won’t leave punters questioning why characters inexplicably wave things at them. Best of this year’s bunch were Pixar’s Up!, Disney’s Bolt and Coraline, all of which were so splendid that they were even capable of wowing provincial audiences who could only see them in dimension-poverished 2D. In Up! 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen ties thousands of helium balloons to his house to defy the property developers who are trying to get him into an old people’s home and flies off to Venezuela to search for a waterfall that captivated both him and his late wife throughout their youth. But he’s not alone because wilderness explorer Russell has unintentionally joined the adventure. Utterly charming, beautifully realised, moving and funny Up! is yet another solid gold winner for Pixar and, while the very young may be restless at first (the opening is an mini-film in itself), the wacky comedy ensures that everyone comes out satisfied.
Bolt is a superdog. His mission, should he accept it (which he always does) is to protect his owner, Penny, from the forces of evil. What he doesn’t realise is that he’s actually an ordinary dog who’s the star of a TV show and that Penny is an actress. When he accidentally ends up on the other side of America he has to team up with an alley cat and a hamster in a ball – who happens to be his biggest big fan – and get back to his beloved Penny. With a solid premise and great animation, Bolt is a whole load of unassuming fun. Its influences are plain to see – Toy Story (indeed Pixar luminary John Lasseter is now giving a guiding hand at Disney’s animation branch) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among others – but its characters and story hold the piece together.
Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book, was another masterpiece of animation from Henry Selick, who really didn’t get the recognition he deserved for A Nightmare Before Christmas (this year’s 9 was similarly credited to Tim Burton who, along with Timur Bekmambetov, took a producing credit). This is a dark but magical fantasy where lonely Coraline chances upon a door in the wallpaper of her new home that opens into a passage leading to another version of her house. She meets her other mother who, unlike her regular mum, is attentive and charming. She also cooks a better dinner but strangely has buttons where her eyes should be. Coraline is offered the chance to stay in this new and apparently happier world, provided she is willing to undergo a small operation. The perfect horror story for children, Coroline’s PG rating belies the way that the scares really get under your skin. The quirky sets, the exemplary model animation and the delightfully macabre humour mark it out as one of the year’s most successful films.
Monsters vs Aliens was a slice of silly fun. When Susan Murphy is hit by a meteorite on her wedding day she becomes the towering Ginormica and is locked away with a bunch of other monsters in a secret government institution. However when aliens attack earth, the military set the monsters on the invaders with the promise of letting them go free… if they can save the world. With a pile of in-jokes that reference classic sf – Dr Strangelove, Attack of the 50 foot woman, The Thing, Earth vs Flying Saucers, Mars Attacks, Spaceballs, Destroy All Monsters – this is pacey fun all the way, all the more surprising when compared with Dreamworks’ otherwise generally moribund fare.
Fantastic Mr Fox shunned whizzy CG and 3D by reverting to traditional, tactile, stop-motion techniques. Expectations were high for Wes Anderson’s animation debut (American accents notwithstanding) as he retold Roald Dahl’s story about the cunning Mr Fox, who feeds his family by stealing from three crooked farmers. Living in a hill underneath a tree along with Badger, Rabbit, Weasel, and their families, matters come to a head when the irate farmers pool resources and set out to irradiate the villainous vulpes once and for all. The distinctive and deliberately stylised animation combined with Anderson’s off-the-wall sense of quirky humour set out to make Fantastic Mr Fox a satisfying addition to the canon of children’s film that, due to its almost Ladislav Starevich qualities and a typically oddball soundtrack, will stand the test of time. Like Coraline, there are scary bits but it also features an animated Meryl Streep dancing far more assuredly than she did in Mamma Mia!
9 (not to be confused with Nine) was an oddity. Too scary for kids and probably too childish for adults, it was hard to see where this was pitched. 9 is a sackcloth ragdoll (think Little Big Planet’s Sackboy with a frown) who, along with 1 to 8, has awoken to find himself in a post-apocalyptic world where mechanised monsters roam the land, decimating anything in their wake. 9 persuades the others that they must try to learn about the machines and their intentions. The world’s future could depend on them… if the filmmakers can think of an ending. Though visually stunning and baroque in its vision, the scant plot (a series of set pieces that resemble someone playing a particularly good platform game) and po-faced grimness detract from the otherwise enjoyable thrill ride. Still, first time feature director Shane Acker is definitely a figure to watch.
The popularity of franchise films and comic book adaptations has not diminished but once again their numbers appear to be on the decline, with a few studios trying to kick-start new examples or reboot old ones. The much delayed release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince charts Harry’s 6th year at Hogwarts as he finds an old textbook that used to belong to the Half-Blood Prince and becomes spectacularly good at making potions. And of course there are more clues to discovering more about Voldemort. David Yates, who directed the previous film and is completing the final two, manages to produce something cinematic and coherent from another sizeable tome, increasing the imminent threat to breaking point (the film is at times quite violent). The result is the young wizard’s most successful outing yet (bar Year Three) with action set pieces tempered by scenes of character development and interaction. And this time Helena Bonham Carter gets to be truly evil.
What a waste of time X-Men Origins: Wolverine was. Well, that’s not strictly fair, the titles featured a pretty spectacular montage of Wolverine battling through history so we recommend watching that and then not bothering with the rest. In the mid-1800s, Logan and Victor leave home after one of them kills their father. They serve together in a number of wars and eventually join a team of mutant commandos. Logan wants to quit but finds it impossible to leave as his commander has plans for his future. X-men fans might enjoy this but the minimal plot and poor characterisation just don’t cut the mustard. Even the set pieces have reached a ‘seen it all before’ saturation point and the ‘Logan’s wife’ plot is so underdeveloped the audience has little sympathy for him or anyone else for that matter. In a year that tried to push 3D it’s surprising that anyone bothered with this 1-D yawnfest.
And in the Hasbro toys franchise market Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen competed with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Both are chock full of set pieces but the latter eschews Michael Bay’s penchant for unfathomable scattershot shots for Stephen Sommers’ typically gung ho Saturday Morning style action with modern tech. They sort of remember to put a plot in amidst all the action.
Oh dear, oh dear. Salvation is what we needed after Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in the long-running series that really should have been terminated after T2 (1991). The familiar plot (John Connor, Terminators, violence) is given a ‘twist’ by being set in the future world that the other films flashed forward to. Sadly, though, director McG has a hard time coaxing any enthusiasm in a film full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. A big budget and big explosions couldn’t save the film from the biggest crime of all – it was boring. With that in mind the prospects for anything good to come out of the latest attempt to update the aging Star Trek brand were looking slim to say the least – a bunch of TV hopefuls trying to ‘reboot’ the original series from the bottom up under the steady hand of JJ Abrams, the man behind the underwhelming MI3 (2006). But wait. What a revelation! Treading the fine line between updating the franchise and keeping the trekkies happy was not going to be easy, but somehow it all works – breakneck pacing, genuinely exciting set-pieces and great interaction between the characters as we see how young scallywag Kirk grows up and finally accepts responsibility as commander of the USS Enterprise.
Frank Miller, armed with the arsenal of techniques he learned co-directing Sin City (2005), returned in his adaptation of Eisner’s comic character The Spirit. Miller’s version is a visually intense and constantly imaginative assault on the senses as the titular Spirit battles with his old enemy The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and an assorted bevy of freakish thugs and femme fatales. The plot twists are fast and convoluted, the faux noir dialogue is occasionally annoying and much of the iconography jaw-droppingly tasteless but its main problem lies in the fact that however hyperactively imaginative it is, it remains a detached and cold experience. Far more satisfying was Zack Snyder’s long awaited Watchmen, a two-and-a-half hour adaptation of one of the defining comics of the 1980’s. Inevitably Watchmen is held in such high esteem that whatever Snyder did someone was going to get annoyed about it (“they cut the psychic space squid!”) but film is film – it isn’t a comic. Obviously they had to leave some things out but what is surprising is how faithfully the whole thing plays – it’s as though Snyder sacked his storyboard artists and just grabbed another couple of copies of the collected edition at his local Waterstones. Superb effects and mercifully not toned down to appeal to a PG-13 audience Watchmen was spectacular, thoughtful and brutal. The title sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
Hollywood also provided a number of non-franchise/comicbook SF films this year, some of them preposterous, some a little more thoughtful. Surrogates is set in the future where humans interact with each other through surrogate robots (all, naturally, better looking than they are in real life), thus reducing crime to zero and making everybody happy, except for those who choose to reject this life of lethargic hedonism and live outside the sterile cities. Cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) has to leave his relatively blissful surrogate life to investigate the death of a real person – the surrogate shot by a shadowy figure wielding a new type of weapon. This is all eminently watchable SF puff with a few good ideas and a couple of well staged action set-pieces; this is after all a Bruce Willis film, not Tarkovsky. The problem is that once the high concept idea has drawn you in your left with a big pool of ‘so what’ – especially when you realise that the trailer does, in fact, show you the entire movie, only quicker.
Knowing’s mildly preposterous premise – Nicolas Cage becomes aware of impending future disasters via a time capsule message at the local primary school – turns into an interesting and engaging film thanks to Alex Proyas’ direction. The denouement doesn’t quite live up to the promising start, but it’s worth a watch, particularly for the elaborate and spectacularly staged disaster scenes, which added an odd combination of thrill and sobriety to the often absurd proceedings.
Now District Nine was a pleasant surprise. ET refugees have been placed in a camp in South Africa and are getting restless due to the appalling conditions. The Multi-National United organisation is given the task of closing the camp down and evicting the unpopular “prawns”. Tension between human and alien is inevitable. Why can’t the aliens just go home? Combining action with social commentary District Nine was one of the more thoughtful action SF films of the year. Not so Outlander, although it did have aliens and action. In fact, it was ludicrous – ‘Vikings meet aliens’ probably best summarises the plot. A human-looking alien crashes to earth several centuries ago and has to ingratiate himself with a bunch of violent Vikings before they make peace with each other and all set off to fight a big alien monster together. With lots of action, not much story and no introspection, it passed the time.
Where would we be without Roland Emmerich and his cinematic Götterdämmerungs (not forgetting to include a new and innovative way of decimating the White House)? In 2012 the world is going to end. The Mayans predicted it, so it must be true. It’s because of those wretched mutating neutrinos that are causing the earth’s core to boil and we’re all doomed. Everyman and failed author (John Cusack) must save his family from a series of increasingly bombastic natural disasters and two-dimensional stereotypes. Cod-science hokum of The Core (2003) variety make this an enjoyable, if overlong, spectacle – you’ll laugh, but not when the film-makers want you to.
You know, you can wait years for a time-travel love story, then two come along at once. Both The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button depicted the difficulties of holding down a long-term relationship while one of the partners can’t function properly in time. In the Time Traveller’s Wife, Henry (Eric Bana) cannot stay still in time and flits in and out of his lover Clare’s (Rachel McAdams) life. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born an old man who progressively grows younger. Both films have merits, but were overlong you can’t help wondering whether the time travel element just spices up an otherwise not particularly fascinating love story. Or is that too cynical and unromantic?
The glorious Inglourious Basterds is included because it all happened in an alternative universe – honest, it’s Tarantino’s re-imagining of WW2. Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France… an elite squad of American soldiers kill and scalp Nazis. Meanwhile cinema owner Shosanna is planning her own revenge on the Nazis who slaughtered her family earlier in the war. Overlong at 153mins, this is a Tarantino talky that’s sporadically violent but its tongue remains firmly in its cheek. And Brad Pitt’s Texan-Italian accent is just hilarious.
Shorts was another SF/fantasy, you know, for kids, from everyone’s favourite hyperactive big kid Robert Rodriguez. This is pure wish fulfilment fun that doesn’t patronise but could alienate adults with its stream of consciousness ‘cool’ stuff like crocodiles, bogey monsters and mini-aliens. The narrative is made of a series of shorts that are not in chronological order but it’s easy to follow but you’re left wondering why they bothered – maybe it’s a primer for watching Pulp Fiction (1992) in later life?
And away from the big hitters there were some smaller or quirkier offerings this year, although this sector is finding funding increasingly difficult as studios hedge their bets on larger ‘tentpole’ flicks in proven genres. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of willingness on the part of many multiplexes to take a risk with smaller movies so that the chances of seeing all but a few of the independents outside London is slight. Terry Gilliam returned to form with The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, a wonderful, if slightly ramshackle (but therein lies much of its charm) flight of imagination. Tony finds himself involved with the magical but rickety travelling theatre of Dr Parnassus – a medieval throwback anachronistically creaking its way through modern London. But the imaginarium is not what it seems – it contains a gateway to surreal and dangerous worlds of the subconscious – and Dr Parnassus has a terrible secret that he is keeping from his daughter Valentina. Interest in the film centred primarily on this being the last performance by Heath Ledger, who died before filming had been completed – the occasional substitution of his character with Johnny Depp /Jude Law/Colin Farrell actually feels right for the film and adds a further level of surrealism to proceedings. There’s more imagination in this modestly priced carnival of the bizarre than in a score of Hollywood fantasies and even a Python-style ‘dancing policemen in drag’ segment. At times shocking, hilarious and just sheer bonkers The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus’s DIY ethic and gung-ho acting do much to ingratiate it with viewers.
In Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn, a number of apparently unconnected characters find their lives entwined in an unexpected way in contemporary London. Meanwhile in the religion-rife metropolis of Meanwhile City a vigilante called Preest escapes the authorities and seeks answers amongst the oppressive urban landscape. This is an ambitious film that takes in sf, religion, suicide, drug addiction and homelessness amongst its many themes. The mise-en-scene is impressive on a film with such a low budget; the Gilliam-meets-Dark-City (1990) landscapes of Meanwhile City contrasting with the low-key normality of contemporary London. The downside is that the multiple plot strands require a lot of goodwill from the audience as they take a while to unravel and there is a nagging sense the film is too clever by half. That said it is different, imaginative and ambitious in scope – something that not too many British films can claim.
Duncan Jones’ Moon was one of the highlights of the year. Energy shortages on Earth are a thing of the past because, on the dark side of the moon family man Sam, aided with chirpy robot GERTY, are responsible for controlling the mining of resources that the earth needs. Sam is coming to the end of his three-year stint on the station and looking forward to seeing his wife and daughter again. But then strange things start happening… A heady mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Dark Star (1974), Silent Running (1972) and Solaris (1972), Moon may wear its influences on its sleeve, but it makes the final product its own. The effects (though partly CGI) have a tactile quality that recall pre-Star Wars intelligent SF and are better for it.
Similarly low-key in the effects department, Cold Souls shows Paul Giamatti having trouble getting into his role in a Chekov play. He finds an innovative solution for his acting angst: a high-tech company who can extract and store souls. Giamatti has his put into storage with the aim of restoring it post-performance, but he doesn’t realise there’s an international trade in souls and his ends up inside a Russian soap-opera actress who is unwilling to trade it back, even if it does look like a chickpea. Cold Souls sank without a trace on release – a real shame for this low key, quirky and underplayed but very, very funny film. Think Charlie Kaufmann (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich)-lite with a wonderfully self-deprecating performance from Giamatti, who basically plays a version of himself, and you’re there.
Horror films traditionally perform well in a time of recession – if you’re having a bad time horror movies show others having it far worse plus plentiful added gore – the perfect antidote to downturn blues. Vampires too are all the rage but, wouldn’t you know it, the big hitters are aiming squarely at teens this time around. Twilight: New Moon made a killing at the box office. Bella’s still with Edward, but after an accident at a party, it turns out the vampires can’t restrain themselves and so they leave to resist future temptations. Bella becomes an adrenaline junkie and meets a new friend, Jacob. He’s a werewolf. So that’s alright then. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant was an attempt to bring vampires to a slightly different teen demographic than the anodyne ‘Mills and Swoon’ of Twilight. Darren Shan meets an enigmatic-ish vampire at a freak show and after a series of tedious encounters leaves his ordinary life, dies, and joins the Cirque Du Freak as a vampire. While the freak show itself is interesting and mysterious, the film doesn’t have staying power and ends up being anaemic (not good for a vampire film) and annoying. Even the Brits chipped in with the pseudo-exploitation, pseudo-comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, a cynical and frankly embarrassing effort all around. Fortunately it wasn’t all so-called comedy and teen moping, as Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In proved to be one of the year’s highlights. Oskar is a bit of a loner. He’s getting bullied at school and seems to find it hard to make friends. Then a strange girl called Eli moves in next door. She smells a bit odd and can’t stand sunlight but the pair form an unlikely friendship. However it appears that Eli has a craving for human blood. Let the Right One In is understated, intriguing and atmospheric – a real slow burner with sporadic moments of violence and one of the best bully comeuppance sequences in the history of cinema. This is a horror film for the art-house audience but one with enough humanity to broaden its appeal. Unlike, say Twilight, it doesn’t feel the need to explain the vampire conventions, it just gets on with the plot.
Thirst was Park Chan-wook’s latest, a deviation from his ‘vengeance trilogy’ and the candy-floss images of last year’s I’m A Cyborg. A priest has become a vampire following a blood transfusion, comforting patients in hospital and then drinking their blood after hours. He does at least feel bad about it. But after starting an affair with the wife of a friend he embarks upon a new life of hedonism. With lashings of sex and violence, Park takes his time telling his story and laces the content with his usual brand of black humour.
Based on a Japanese anime of the same name, Blood: The Last Vampire was, bizarrely, a Hong Kong, France, Japanese, Argentinian co-production which followed the anime for the first half and then deviated wildly to produce something a bit more conventional in tone but no less ambitious. Saya works for a secret organisation dedicated to the eradication of demons. She looks 16 but is, in fact, several hundred years old and can easily dispatch vampires with her trusty samurai sword. When she is sent to an American military base she realises that this may be her opportunity to finally destroy the evil arch vampire Onigen. OK so the scripting is poor, the acting variable and the computer effects quite ropey, but the action is great, courtesy of Cory Yuen, some of the visuals striking and they never let ambition be dampened by a meagre budget.
There were a couple of horror-thrillers worth your attention: Orphan was a welcome revival of the creepy kid film. Kate and John – married, two children – wish to add another to their brood. A local orphanage reveals Esther, a polite and talented child and the family adopt her. But Esther is not what she seems, not just in her unfashionable clothing or ‘foreign’ accent, but the events that happen around her. What is her dark secret? Orphan is tense, exciting and slow burning. It’s a modern horror so has to have a nasty scene at the start just to make sure you don’t think you are watching Kramer vs Kramer (1979). The denouement is preposterous and although the final act can’t top the build up it’s still a cut above the norm. In Jennifer (daughter of David) Lynch’s Surveillance there’s a very nasty serial killer on the loose and the body count is rising. FBI weirdoes Anderson and Hallaway interrogate the witnesses and suspects at a local desert police station. But the stories from addicts, kids and police, all seem to tell the tale slightly differently. It’s nasty and deliberately weird but Lynch does use her limited budget well. It is an interesting thriller, if too clever for its own good.
Jennifer’s Body was the latest offering written by Diobolo Juno Cody. Jennifer is the most popular girl in school. All of the girls want to be friends with her, and all of the boys want to have sex with her. Her best friend Needy is a nerd. Jennifer ends up as a sacrifice in a rock band’s Satanic ritual and becomes possessed by a demon, causing her to chow down on the local jocks. Jennifer’s Body wants to be Heathers with demons but it doesn’t quite work; there’s plenty of gore but no real tension and the premise doesn’t really follow through to anything.
In Zombieland pretty much the whole world has been taken over by zombies. The few survivors search for the last remaining Twinkies and head out to a theme park because it seems to be the best thing to do. There’s plentiful fun in this po-mo horror comedy with an excellent cameo from Bill Murray adding the icing to a very bloody cake.
And let’s not forget the low budget ‘sensations’. Colin told the sorry tale of a zombie’s miserable existence, unusual in that it followed the plight of the zombie and not the survivors of whatever plague had afflicted the world. It allegedly had a budget of about £45, an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers the world over, was innovative and engaging, if overlong by about 20 minutes. (Why don’t horror directors realise that 80-90 minutes is the perfect running time for a horror flick?) Paranormal Activity currently has the record for the biggest budget:earnings ratio ever. A simple plot involving a couple who’ve just moved into a new pad, there’s definitely some sort of presence ensuring that they won’t get a wink of sleep. A Blair Witch for the end of the Noughties?
Triangle was another small film that managed to pack a decent number of scares into its running time. A yachting trip ends in near disaster when the weather turns nasty and a group of friends have to be rescued by a passing liner. But why is the ship deserted and why does Jess feel as though she’s been here before? You think you know where Triangle is going to take you, but it manages to defy expectations and turn itself into a relentless little number with a few shocks along the way, turning it into an Escher sci-fi horror rather than the standard supernatural/psycho mix we’ve come to expect.
Even Sam Raimi eschewed the megabudgets of Spider-man and returned to his Evil Dead days with Drag Me to Hell, a tale of a yuppie who is cursed by an old gypsy. Energetic and frenetic, with typically gross-out scares and shocks, it wasn’t Raimi at his best, but was enjoyable (and importantly funny) hokum nevertheless.
And then there were the sequels: The Descent 2 was actually pretty decent – it started immediately after the original had finished and, while it’s hard to buy the premise that the sole survivor would immediately return to those dank caves with the monstrous creatures inside, it does deliver the scares and gore, just not the originality. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans didn’t see Kate Beckinsale in her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number™ because this was a prequel but that didn’t stop it from being another waste of a premise. Still, at least the franchise didn’t go the route of many horror vehicles as the latest (and weakest) The Final Destination felt obliged to become 3D as did the re-make of My Bloody Valentine. It wasn’t the only re-make (so help us…) as Friday 13th, Last House on the Left and Halloween 2 wasted valuable screen estate that could have been showing Let the Right One In. Incredibly Halloween 2 was an even worse re-make of a film that was terrible in the first place. And just when you thought it could get no worse there was Saw, where are we now, Saw 6? Its relatively lacklustre box office should have killed the franchise stone dead but oh no, apparently the problem wasn’t the film, it was because it wasn’t in 3D…
Despite the general air of media and economic malaise there were a few reasons to feel upbeat about the year. But with increasing pressure on lower and middle budgeted films, escalating conservatism in multiplexes and a panacea to all ills that involves wearing uncomfortable plastic glasses, the future may well become more myopic, albeit with an extra dimension thrown in (at a surcharge).
So, the winners are:
Best SF: Moon
Best Fantasy: Coraline and Up!
Best Horror: Let the Right One In
Special Remarkable Comicbook Adaptation Award: Watchmen
At last a year to rejoice for the box office was topped this year by the most preposterous and overblown science fiction fantasy ever committed to celluloid. No, not The Dark Knight (that topped the US box office but not the UK), but the hilariously inept Mamma Mia! – a film so shockingly amateur it defined a whole new anti-cinema aesthetic. Things, as the irritating song goes, could only get better…
Except for a few exceptions it was more of the same. Hollywood retrenched into safe genre films and PG-13/12A friendly bubblegum pictures despite the seemingly endless quest to become “darker” to reflect our times. Maybe the credit crunch will see the chickens coming home to roost in an industry nervously anticipating tightening budgets and a slew of strikes that had been foreshadowed by the television industry. The currently accepted ‘wisdom’ (if there is such a thing in the gambling world of the blockbuster) is that mid-budget dramas and musicals are the feel good solution to everyone’s ills – not just Mamma Mia! but in the shadow of the sleeper mega-smash of the year Twilight. The roaring financial success of this modest, at times claustrophobically shot in painstaking angst ridden goth-lite close-up, is initially difficult to understand. Huge swathes of ‘repeat what the audience has just seen five times in case they nipped out to get popcorn’ dialogue, much pained pouting and a virtual absence of action until the final showdown pad out the two hour timeline. But somehow the central premise is so audaciously simplistic (girl loves vampire), the passions so bubbling hot yet rendered as chaste as LazyTown that it comes across as quaint. Still the lack of fangs and the sudden need to introduce conflict in case the film really didn’t have any plot do go against it but Twilight does point to a more character led future (indeed some of the sparse effects here arguably aren’t even necessary). Vampire films in general go through phases of popularity, they’ve been in a bit of a slump recently, so expect a revival of more toothsome bloodsuckers in the coming years.
The Dark Knight – Heathe Ledger is The JokerHollywood’s on-going affair with all things comic book saw no signs of abating although some cracks are beginning to show. No cracks in the remarkable, record smashing returns from The Dark Knight – the second highest grossing film of all time in the US. Director Christopher Nolan gives a thinly veiled allegory for our current time and predicament – questioning responses to terrorism, the surveillance society and the disintegration of individual morality in the face of increasingly anarchic brutality. Heady stuff for a 12A superhero film (indeed the rating became an issue with irate parents complaining that their 5 year old kids were freaked out by the menace on show) and for the most part it succeeds. Christian Bale returns as Batman and, like most incarnations post-Adam West, is less important to the film than the villain. Here the villain is played by the late Heath Ledger, a truly frightening performance as the Joker, forever banishing that dreadful Jack Nicholson pantomime. It’s so easy to become enthralled by the performances, the spectacular cinematography and the political/moral subtext that you miss the film’s failings – it’s far too long and edited on autopilot, the final pay-offs happening too late and are way too convenient. A set-up for a sequel seems to mark the further decline into cynicism that the rest of the film is so eager to avoid. A similar set-up can be seen in the similarly overlong but enjoyable Iron Man, a Marvel franchise but where the central character’s wealth and gadgets feel more DC. Robert Downey Jr is in career reviving mould as Tony Stark, a scummy weapons dealer who, following capture in the Middle East gets himself out of a tricky scrape by building a metal suit of awesome destructive capability. Back home he refines it, gives it a maroon lick of metallic paint and is reborn as high flying super-techno-dude Iron Man. Icing on the cake would have been the use of Black Sabbath (like in the trailer) but for the most part the film succeeds on its own rollercoaster terms, getting credible love interest Gwyneth Paltrow once it had done its political fudging in the first half. Far less successful, either commercially or artistically, was The Incredible Hulk. We were promised a whole different film from Ang Lee’s superior but inexplicably derided Hulk (2003) but in many respects this was more of a semi-sequel remake with an increasingly hysterical Tim Roth camping it up as a Hulkier-than-thou opponent to brooding Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). The wildly fluctuating scenes of ‘meaningful’ introspection, lost love and doomed heroics contrasted with hyperbolic action as various CGI hulky things bashed seven bells out of each other and chewed the scenery. It was amiable enough while it lasted but its memory, like its box office returns, swiftly faded away. Taking no prisoners and eschewing the trendy need for comic book introspection and its relations to US foreign policy Hellboy 2: The Golden Army galloped out of the stalls to deliver the most enjoyable of the year’s comic book films. The irony that the word enjoyable be used in the context of a film whose lead character is not only a demon from the pits of Hell but, gasp, smokes tobacco is not lost on anyone. Guillermo del Toro brings the visual imagination of his arthouse work into the blockbuster arena and blows a raspberry in the face of its earnest rivals. An uneasy truth between the magical realm and the human world is about to be broken when evil elf Prince Nuada (Luke “Bros” Goss) seeks the pieces of a broken crown that will give him control over the mighty Golden Army of 70 x 70 robotic human killing machines. Only the red faced, wise cracking Hellboy (Ron Perlman) can stop the plan through outrageous punch-ups and against-the-odds battles. Mayhem ensues. Naturally.
Further portents to 2009 occurred as the first trickle of 3D films started to work their way onto the screen – a trend that will inevitably increase in anticipation of James Cameron’s long awaited return to the big screen with Avatar. Gone are the green and red lenses and in come custom-made glasses. Unfortunately two rival systems and the expense of new equipment has meant many cinema chains have yet to invest in the technology necessary to project 3D (certainly outside of London) resulting in a number of flat prints being released to impoverished outreaches. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a mildly diverting version of the Jules Verne favourite with Brendan Fraser taking the kind of physical pratfalls he is most famous for. Viewers watching the flat version were perplexed by the unfathomable shots of “stuff” being waved at the screen but the simple quest-arrive-escape story with dinosaurs, a kid and a love triangle was an easy way to pass an hour and a half. All the in-your-face effects work in the world could not rescue the truly lame CGI Fly Me To The Moon where a plucky trio of juvenile flies attempt to sneak onto Apollo 11 and get to the moon. Bad jokes are repeated ad nauseum (“oh my lord… of the flies”) and the kid-friendly bodily emissions scenes (including having a fly covered in snot sneezed directly into your face… in 3D) wear very thin, very quickly. The final live action appearance of Buzz Aldrin insisting that the film you’ve just watched is made up (no shit, Buzz) and that there were, in fact, no flies on him is just bizarre.
RECRegular readers of our annual round up will know our thinly veiled disdain for hastily remade films of normally superior films that just happen to not be made in English. Although the pace is beginning to slacken a touch (the height of the J-Horror boom having long since past) the audacity of one film in particular is jaw dropping. So this year we’ve had One Missed Call, a remake of a Miike Takashi film that is not, in all honesty, his best (we await the big budget remake of Visitor Q with eager trepidation), Jessica Alba in a deeply unnecessary remake of the Pang Brothers’ glossy shocker The Eye and a toned down to the point of tedium rerun of the superior Thai shocker Shutter. If that were not enough Austrian bad boy Michael Haneke remade his own film virtually shot for shot in a photocopier remake of the classic Funny Games. Why Michael, why? But the biggest insult of all was yet to come. In April came the release of [REC], a Spanish horror film that did something very few horror films have done recently – scare. A taut, white knuckle ride that actually used its shaky first person camera to logical and terrifying effect [REC] follows a low budget film-crew filming a television documentary about the lives of workers who work after hours. Following their subjects, a fire crew, into a building where an old lady is apparently trapped in her room they soon find themselves imprisoned in a complex where very bad things start to happen. Now [REC] may not be original, it steals from a huge variety of sources, but makes them its own with ruthless efficiency. Quite clearly the horror film of the year. More horrific though is the unnerving sign of Quarantine – a lazy remake that cropped up with indecent haste in November the same year. Madness. And, we just refused point blank to go see The Day the Earth Stood Still. So there.
There were a fair number of CG films that hit the big screen last year and they ranged from the sublime to the substandard (Dreamworks, please stop with the Madagascar thing, it was rubbish first time around). Best of the bunch (and a contender for best film of the year) was Pixar’s Wall-E, a delightful tale of the last functioning waste disposal robot on earth, dutifully going about his job of cleaning up the planet which has become basically a giant rubbish tip (the human race has cleared off into deep space to let him get on with it) until he falls in love with super-robot Eve. A charming tale, the first half hour of which is told virtually entirely visually, proving that cinema doesn’t need to rely on dialogue to tell a story. Yes, it had the usual heartwarming message in the end, but it was a good story, supremely told and with great characterisation. To get an audience to empathise with a solitary character who isn’t even alive is a great achievement, to make that character so appealing to all ages is nothing short of a miracle. In future they will teach this film as an introduction to arthouse cinema. Trust us on this one.
Kung Fu Panda was very silly indeed and no bad thing. The laziest creature in the village, Po the panda, suddenly ends up joining an elite fighting squad in order to fulfil a prophecy. Cue lots of training sequences and fat panda jokes. Yes, it has the usual heartwarming message in the end – it’s OK to be yourself – but Dreamworks seem to have realised here that a good story combined with well-executed action and comedy sequences in addition to the voice talent, makes for a superior experience. For martial arts buffs there were even enough references to films from the seventies and eighties to keep them happy (Five Venoms anyone), a departure from the usual one-year old cultural myopia that prevails in Dreamworks post-modern output. Keeping with the Occupation Animal title theme, Space Chimps, however, was best left well alone although better than the aforementioned Fly Me To The Moon.
The surprise treat on the CGI calendar (after all Pixar only surprises when it isn’t good) was Igor, a modest film which told the tale of a hunchbacked assistant who aspires to be a mad scientist and create an evil being. One for all the family, even its heartwarming message was a little bit sick and therefore much funnier than all the other heartwarming messages that are de rigour in this field. Igor cunningly relied on strong visual gags and used its more limited resources to create a more angular and stylised environment that exactly suited its subject. Think Ren and Stimpy make a Tim Burton film. With songs. To top it all it even had gloriously over-the-top supervillains which, frankly, was exactly what Quantum of Solace could have done with instead of relying on corporate non-entities, moping around like an angst ridden teenager and a slew of increasingly irrelevant action sequences. Tips for DC Bond #3: Lighten up, get a proper villain and for griefs sake get a plot.
Horror films have diversified a bit this year and the best of these moved away from the overt gore (yes, we were bored with the Saw franchise after the first one, 5 really didn’t push any buttons… other than the off one) that has typified the genre for the last few years and replaced it with tension. Some did both. Did we mention how good [REC] is? Anyway, Frank Darabont seems to have gained himself a reputation as the director who makes decent versions of Stephen King stories (no mean feat given the track record) and this year saw The Mist hit the big screen. For no readily apparent reason, although it’s bound to be military, a small town in Maine becomes engulfed in a mysterious mist. And nasty things lurk within – deadly creatures capable of tearing a man apart or infecting them with deadly poison. A group of survivors camp out in the local supermarket and attempt to see off the threat but soon they start splitting into rival factions, creating as much tension inside as out. The Mist is basically a monster movie – big splattery effects coupled with lots of tension – which also takes in a serious message about fanaticism and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The combination of high horror thrills and pessimism is a sure-fire winner. Another cracker of a horror lay in the Spanish Guillermo del Toro produced El Orfanato (The Orphanage) a slow burning, creepy and fascinating film. Laura (Belén Rueda) buys her childhood orphanage in order to re-open it as a facility for disabled children. Once there, her son begins to play games with invisible friends and becomes increasingly disturbed. The orphanage seems to develop a life of its own. Laura seeks parapsychological help but does she really want to uncover the secrets of the past? With only brief moments of gore on screen The Orphanage relies on frisson and melancholy to weave its eerie magic – the number one film of its year in Spain it shows the appalling lack of diversity at the UK box office by being the ONLY non-English language film in the top 100 of 2008. At number 97. You barbarians. Speaking of unexplained events, The Happening, M Night Shyamalan’s ‘creepy movie with a twist’ was unusual in that it didn’t have a twist this time – unless you count Mark Wahlberg interrogating a plastic plant a twist. Although heavily derided there are a number of stand out moments that make the film worthy of your time – notably the serenely unnerving opening sequences. In Black Water a small family group go for a river trip in the Australian outback and get attacked by a giant crocodile. The end. Actually, Black Water is a reasonable film – it’s fairly tense and does a good job of getting across the boredom of waiting to be rescued. Even though the scares are obvious and signposted, the croc is well executed – hidden for much of the time but delivers when it’s required to attack. P2 was very similar to Black Water but it replaced the river with a car park and the crocodile with a serial killer but lacked the tension and replaced it with a solitary scene of extreme gore. But if all this seemed a bit, well, tame, Tim Burton’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had enough gushing blood to satisfy the most hardened of gore-hounds. If they could stomach the music. Sweeney Todd a.k.a Benjamin Barker returns to London to take revenge upon Judge Turpin, the man who stole his wife and daughter from him and banished him to certain death. He opens a barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s shop which sells ‘the worst pies in London.’ With the help of Mrs. Lovett, Todd means to rid London of the corrupt aristocracy, and hopes to be reunited with his daughter, Johanna, who is now Judge Turpin’s ward. As is to be expected from Burton, this is has stunning set design and the performances are terrific. Bonham Carter is fabulous, as is Depp, and even Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t upset the apple cart (Gervais take note) in this tale of bloody revenge, a dish best served, presumably, encased in pastry.
A number of fantasies were aimed squarely at family audiences, although everyone missed out on the 6th part of the Potter franchise in 2007 for reasons known only to Warners (is it rubbish then?) Still, Prince Caspian heralded the second of the Narnia franchise. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are back in Narnia, summoned by Susan’s horn, blown by a desperate Prince Caspian, escaping assassination. Over a thousand years have passed since they were last there and Narnia has become a more barbaric place, with the Telmarine wanting to destroy the magical creatures of Narnia, and Caspian with it. The kings and queens have returned but can they muster an army big enough for the fight ahead and where’s Aslan when you need him? Ultimately this was an epic adventure for all the family but with a less enchanting or engaging plot than the first film with a greater emphasis on impressive battle scenes than on relating to the characters.
The Spiderwick Chronicles starred Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore as good twin/bad twin who, with their mom and sister, begin a new life in their great aunt’s house. But little do they know that when Jared (bad twin) opens a magic book, their world will be turned upside down as they become aware of magical creatures in the garden, including an ogre who will stop at nothing to get hold of the book and destroy the creatures it chronicles within. The Spiderwick Chronicles is one of the better fantasy offerings this year, enhanced by truly excellent performances by Highmore. The protagonists feel more realistic – the parents have just split up and the kids are having a hard time – which lends an air of plausibility to the fantasy world which lurks beyond their front door. Superior effects and a brisk running time made for a genuinely exciting adventure – far more engaging than the books it was based upon. Inkheart was an amiable little number from the books by Cornelia Funke. Meggie Folchart and her father Mo (Brendan Fraser) are both bookworms although Mo doesn’t read stories out loud to his daughter. Why? Well he’s a silvertongue and when he does the characters come to life in the real world. The terrible consequence of this is that someone in the real world has to replace them. That happened to Meggie’s mum when she was just 3 and now Mo is searching desperately for the book – Inkheart – inside which he believes she resides. But the evil characters from the book are all too real, they’re in our world and want to rule it. Inkheart is a kind of lost opportunity – it feels as though it should be good and there’s a wealth of characters to choose from, but somehow it just feels like a who’s who of kidlit with a not particularly convincing evil nemesis. Much better was Penelope, a contemporary fairy tale about an heiress (Christina Ricci) born under a curse, which makes her resemble a pig. The curse can only be broken when she finds true love with “one who will love her faithfully.” It’s sweet and romantic, funny and engaging without being too cloying – the rom-com reimagined as a contemporary fairy tale. Hyperactive, eye-searingly bright and utterly barking was Speed Racer from the Wachowski brothers, based on the Japanese cartoon Mahha Go Go Go. Speed Racer, for that is his name, is born to race but it’s clear that the championship he’s driving in is full of evil cheating corporate sponsors. Realism is not a word in Speed Racers dictionary, a film so bright you need sun factor 40 to prevent burning. Revolutionary use of editing, and sugar-rush visuals make this very much an acquired taste – a taste it seemed many were unwilling to try.
Quirky? Bonkers? Hilariously violent? It’s all good for us. In Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted Wesley’s (James McAvoy) cubicle job and cheating girlfriend life are ended when he finds he has inherited his dead father’s assassination skills and starts working for the Fraternity, a clandestine group of killers whose credo is “kill one save many”. Tough training follows with scary pouting Angelina Jolie at the helm and a deadly game begins to be played out between rival assassins. This, then, is madder than a bottle of stupid pills… but in a good way. It’s so bonkers that it features the Loom of Destiny – a ridiculous plot device that sees orders woven out in some weird de Vinci code telex manner. Bullets curve. Cars apparently fly. Much goes “bang”. Still, the action setpieces are astonishing and the pace breathtaking that the raw stupidity isn’t there to be derided, it’s there to be embraced.
In Be Kind, Rewind, Jack Black becomes magnetized when attacking an electricity substation (don’t try this at home, folks) and unintentionally destroys every tape in his friend’s video store. In order to satisfy the store’s most loyal customer (Mia Farrow), the two men set out to remake the lost films, which include Ghostbusters, The Lion King, Rush Hour, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy, and Robocop. Like much of Michel Gondry’s output (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) Be Kind, Rewind has a great premise that matures on subsequent viewings. The remakes of the movies put you into film geek heaven; they are pure inventiveness and very funny but also quite inspiring – you too feel you could create your own Sweded masterpiece. There’s also an underlying story about the nature of the local community as the video store is under threat from the developers, just in case you need a heartwarming message too, as well as a questioning of hard line corporate tactics against fan homages to copyright material.
In a case of “you-wait-years-for-a-hand-held-horror-to-come-along-then-three-come-along-at-the-same-time” [REC] (horror film of the year TM) was joined by the virally marketed hype machine Cloverfield and Romero’s dead-cam Diary of the Dead. Cloverfield, on the crest of immeasurable buzz, proved an adequate, taunt horror about a (alien?) invasion that causes chaos and death. The “one tape recorded over another” conceit helped iron out the characterisation and it was undoubtedly tense at moments. The short scenes of match-moved monsters were eerily realised even if the actual monster itself was a bit dubious. Even lower on the budgetary scale Diary of the Dead shows how far cheap effects technology has come. Effectively a pumped up student project (it is rough around the edges) Diary squeezes every cent out of its budget and proves once again that Romero is as much interested in politics and criticising society as he is on horror par se. The almost throw away ending (the reason the film received an 18 rating) is so casually chilling its political and humanitarian implications are all too real and all too much to contemplate.
Back out of retirement was monosyllabic killing machine Rambo and wise crackin’ whip weildin’ grave robbin’ Indiana Jones. In Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull we’ve moved on to the cold war era (despite the twenty year hiatus… hmmm) and a pitch-perfect camp performance from Cate Blanchett heralds a new “race to the artifact” mission for Indy – this time involving crystal skulls of an unknown origin that can send a man insane (or at least make a man John Hurt, here as a crazy professor). This sets up the standard run of action set pieces and comedy asides which in the main are refreshingly tactile but lose their charm when the CGI becomes more obvious. While it’s good to see Karen Allen back after over a quarter of a century less welcome is the addition of Indy jnr (although he’s nowhere near as bad as he could’ve been) and a widely fluctuating Ray Winstone. And let’s not talk about the ending. Or the fridge. John Hurt has had a bit of a type-cast year, being a professor of some idiosyncrasy in both Indiana Jones and Hellboy II as well as in Álex de la Iglesia’s barking mad modern giallo The Oxford Murders. A series of bizarre murders (or are they?) are connected by obscure mathematics (or are they?) with reluctant amateur sleuth (or is… well you get the idea) Prof. Seldom begrudgingly teaming up with an idol-worshipping mathematics wunderkind played by Frodo Baggins. Increasingly hysterical and convoluted The Oxford Murders manages to be insane enough to allow its most macabre and offensive elements appear just another normal part of a what is basically Inspector Morse meets Freaks or Dario Argento’s A Beautiful Mind. 10000 BCAnd while we are talking implausible and convoluted what words can describe the lunatic incredulity of 10,000 B.C? They are capturing folk to build the pyramids. With mammoths. D’Leh finds his hottie Evolet is captured by the brutal builders and so he sets about getting her back (there’s some mythical gubbins here but we’ll gloss over that for the moment). This involves following them on foot from artic ice to rain forest heat (in the space of about half an hour walking!) to desert, befriending initially hostile tribes along the way and earning the trust of a sabre-toothed tiger. Yes. Really. The fact that the score and direction point to some epic and worthy statement picture make the event all the more hilarious for their attempt to be worthy. Sort of like Apocalypto. For kids.
In the old days the word “jumper” meant something rocking chair crooner Val Doonican habitually wore but over the years this functional, cozy but fashionably dubious item of clothing has become more acceptable, particularly following its prominence in The Matrix and its sequels. And now we have Jumper – not a comfy piece of knitwear (always feeling better when some lived in holes had materialised) but a science fiction film from director Doug Liman (he of Go, Bourne Identity and the slightly unhinged Mr and Mrs Smith). David Rice (Hayden “youngling killer” Christensen) finds out he is a jumper – that is someone able to teleport anywhere he wants to. Great. Free money from banks and the life of Riley awaits. Except that he’s not the only one and his kind are not welcomed, not least by the paladins, a centuries old organisation who will do anything to eradicate them, and paladin Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) has got him in his sights… It had so much potential but the ideas fizzle out after an intriguing start and Liman’s decision to use Greengrass inspired shaky camerawork drains any sense of excitement from the action, crazy given his previous competence in that area. A missed opportunity that just ends and then has a hasty tacked on “room for a sequel” epilogue. In their dreams.
In Inkheart this years busiest genre lead Brendan Fraser (John Hurt beats him in roles but not for leads) is Mo “Silvertongue” Folchart whose unusual ability is to be able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world. Unfortunately in a sort-of-physics way each action has an equal and opposite reaction so someone from our world ends up wandering the fictional lands – often not very pleasant ones at that. This is a fate that has befallen his own wife, which is why he now reads without moving his lips and why he is searching for a copy of the inexplicably rare book she has fallen into, Inkheart. Now, with his daughter, he searches antique bookshops for the missing tome (think Ninth Gate. For kids) but wouldn’t you know it the nasties from Inkheart (led by a supremely gurning turn from Andrew Serkis, a panchant for excess that suited him well in the muddled but enjoyably tasteless splatter comedy The Cottage) want world domination – something they intend to achieve by taking the reluctant Silvertongue out of retirement. A time passing fantasy of the old school (plenty of prosthetic and in camera work here) with a cast clearly enjoying itself (Jim Broadbent, Paul Bethany in typically top form and even Helen Mirren) Inkheart passes by admirably and enjoyably but without the verve it really needs to raise it that little bit higher. Meanwhile in Bedtime Stories Adam Sandler finds he is able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world…with far less enjoyable results. There’s more alleged comics in fantasy films when a near death experience causes Ricki Gervais to see dead people in the annoying Ghost Town – a sort of Sixth Sense meets Topper without either of those films charm. Still the supreme irony that Mr Gervais (last seen trying to ruin the otherwise excellent Stardust and managing to wrestle any vestiges of enjoyment from Night in the Museum) plays a dentist here at least means that we get to quip that this film was as funny as having teeth pulled.
That man Fraser again in the belated sequel The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor where this time Rachel Weiss has wisely jumped ship to be replaced by Maria Bello, a point made in some excruciatingly poor attempts at comedy earlier in the script. This time round the “mummy” in question is cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li) who will, as legend dictates in these films, be undefeated if XY and Z conditions are met. Once things get going its exciting enough in a seen-it-all-before kind of a way and at least the injection of hostile yetis brings a (probably unintentional) smile to the face and Anthony is typically in form as the ruthless General Yang but the problems remain (sticking to type, John Hannah irritates) compounded by a “is that it?” denouement and a criminal underuse of Jet Li only exacerbated by an even more underused Michelle Yeoh. A waste of opportunity and talent. Jet Li fared better in The Forbidden Kingdom, a far better than expected east-meets-west fantasy in which a bullied American boy called Jason (Michael Angarano) finds himself transported to ancient China when he becomes the owner of the Monkey Kings magic stick. Thing is said stick could revive the Monkey King and hopefully defeat the evil Jade Warrior who has the regal simian trapped, so naturally he wants the stick for himself. Helping (and occasionally hindering) Jason on his journey are Lu Yan (Jackie Chan reprising his drunken master roles) and Silent Monk (Jet Li), occasionally joined by Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu). For younger new-comers to the martial arts film this is an ideal introduction (and a good companion piece to Kung-Fu Panda) although Jason may be a bit young to see the copy of Bride With the White Hair he clearly possess. For older viewers this is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Chan and Li fight on screen – an enjoyable scene given the limits of the family-friendly rating.
Out of nowhere comes one of the highlights of the year. Admittedly it’s one of the highlights of the year 1981 but that’s not a bad thing, it was a good year for low budget science fiction. Neil Marshall, he of Dog Soldiers and The Descent fame, returns with the hugely enjoyable if disreputable Doomsday. If last years Tarantino/Rodriguez films were homages to their ill spent youths then Marshall has clearly relished returning to his – in this case the post-apocalyptic joys of Mad Max 2 and John Carpenter’s peerless Escape From New York. Eden Sinclair has a job to do – to go to Scotland on a mission. Problem is Scotland has been cut off to prevent the Reaper virus infecting the rest of the UK. Only thing is that the virus has cropped up in London and the only hope seems to come from a land which everyone thought was inhabited only by corpses. But no Scotland has a violent tribal society of cannibals and freaks that will do anything to stop the outsiders. Non-stop action and excessive violence (the UK fortunately didn’t suffer the indignity of the R-rated print) make Doomsday a high-fun, high-octane thrillride of the highest B-Movie order (that’s a compliment!), also finding time for a soundtrack that includes Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Adam and the Ants as well as a sequence that looks like Duran Duran’s Wild Boys video set in an abattoir.
You’ve got to admire Hollywood’s desperation at trying to tap into the lucrative gaming market but surely by now the constant attempts at bringing interactive entertainment to a distinctly un-interactive big screen have shown that the results are messy. At best. Apparently not because here we find Max Payne (the irony being that the studio’s wanted a PG-13 rating in the US so Moderate Payne might’ve be a better title), played by everyone’s favourite guy with a plastic plant for an analyst Mr Mark Wahlberg, the tale of a cop out to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. Except it’s not that easy because there’s some heavy duty Hell inducing drugs on the street and blah, blah, blah. Some nice visual touches can’t save the garbled plot and sagging narrative.
Normally we have a saying in these reviews “sometimes we watch them so you don’t have to” but in the case of the remake of Robert Wise’s peerless The Day The Earth Stood Still we didn’t watch it. Some sacrifices are too great, even for Vector (I mean what next? Remake West Side Story? Sound of Music? The Haunting? Oh, wait…)
At least some superhero films tried to escape the tried and tested formula and offer a different slant on matters. We’ll ignore the by numbers “comedy” tedium of blink and you’ve forgotten it spoof Superhero Movie and concentrate on two very different films with strikingly similar premises. In Hancock Will Smith plays a hard drinking superhero out of favour with the public, his acts of chivalry inevitably ending in chaos and destruction. Inevitably the cynicism and dark humour give way to a lighter film (there’s a bit of a schism going on here in the film) but its enjoyable while it lasts. Bizarre is the word for Dainipponjin Dainipponjin (Big Japanese Person) debut feature from writer-director-comic Hitoshi Matsumoto, one half of comedy sensations Downtown. Matsumoto is the titular character, a dour, unpopular middle-aged guy interviewed for a documentary. Every once in a while he is juiced up by electric power stations and grows in size to fight an increasingly deranged selection of aliens. A combination of ultra-low-key and ridiculous camp this is clearly a contender for most odd film of the year.
X-Files: I Want To Believe The Franchise Has Finally Sputtered Its Last Breath reunited the star of the excellent but naughty Californication David Duchovny with Gillian Anderson – as Moulder and Scully. This time the duo (Scully now a catholic nurse, Moulder a shabby recluse) are investigating claims by a bleeding eyed defrocked kiddy-fiddler priest played by Billy Connolly that he has visions that could help them on a high profile kidnapping case. Please no more. This is also a plea that can be labelled at the irritatingly titled AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem, a further kick in the egg sacks for the venerable franchises although at least it doesn’t go the PG-13 route of AVP (or whatever it’s called).
Star Wars: The Clone Wars comes in-between episodes 2 and 3, a spin off of the TV series of mini-CGI episodes. Despite the expansive palette offered by the big screen and some clever design touches the film all but disappeared in the swamp of summer tentpoles.
Once great hope Mathieu La Haine Kassovitz saw a further career blooper with garbled nonsense Babylon A.D. – a messianic sci-fi future The Transporter 3 with Vin Diesel an over earnest man-for-hire transporting the potential saviour of the world (nearly two dozen languages off pat by age two credibility fans) along with her guardian, Michelle Yeoh playing a nun. We’re not making this up.
So a mixed bag of a year. What is perhaps encouraging is the signs of an emerging confidence in mid-budget films, providing they get adequate distribution, over the increasingly familiar eye-candy of the blockbusters.
Films of the Year:
2007 was the “Year of the Threequel”, an unwieldy term that referred to the bewildering number of sequels churned out by the major studios, many of which had reached the magic “trilogy” point but also included head starter Harry Potter 5 and catch-me-up wannabe Fantastic Four 2. An optimist could allude to increasing box office revenue producing better films. A pessimist would point out a dearth of imagination within the studios, turning successful products into factory franchises, aware that, providing enough money is hosed at the special effects, the punters will gleefully turn up in droves. It’s easy to moan about vacuous tat, until you remember that film is primarily a forum for entertainment – intellectual themes and solid dialogue are welcome extras in the greater scheme of things. Then you look at the unadulterated tedium of Ocean’s Thirteen and suddenly your critical faculties are reduced to desperate levels as the nicest thing you can say about this criminal waste of time and celluloid is that it wasn’t as bad as Ocean’s Twelve. A similar damnation with faint praise could be levelled at Resident Evil: Extinction, the third in the series of films loosely based upon the popular Capcom franchise. Saying it’s better than part two is not really helpful given that Resident Evil: Apocalypse was the worst zombie film of all time. Extinction, directed by Russell (Razorback) Mulcahy, is at least a passable film as Alice (Milla Jovovich) hooks up with a group of survivors looking for a quiet life in zombie-free Alaska. But dastardly corporate meanies Umbrella Corp want Alice dead so they can experiment on her DNA. Although there’s plenty of zombie action to enjoy, the film lacks tension. Better, but not a patch on the taut original, was 28 Weeks Later, where zombies (who aren’t really zombies but they do a really good impersonation) terrorise what remains of Britain after the US military have declared London to be free from contagion. Which of course it proves not to be. Plenty of gore, although some of it (yes, the helicopter bit) doesn’t sit easy with the serious tone of the film and its themes about loss of love, humanity and self-control. Still, it’s an interesting piece with a British backdrop that manages to hold its own.
Planet TerrorThere was more zombie action in Robert Rodriguez’s jaw-droppingly tasteless Planet Terror where an experimental airborne virus turns a community into flesh hungry maniacs. What sets Planet Terror apart is its impish glee, as it piles on each new atrocity to hysterical levels. Rodriguez simply puts as much mindless fun as he can muster onto the screen, with zombies spraying gallons of blood, chowing down on victims or being pulled into pieces. Hilarious for gross-out fans, the humour is simplistic but hits the mark – “This case is a no-brainer,” declares a mortuary attendant as he turns over a corpse, revealing the back of the victim’s head is missing. The film even goes as far as to degrade the stock, skip frames and, in one audacious move, miss an entire reel! The only fault is that, due to a disastrous turn at the US box office, this was not released as a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof under the title Grindhouse, meaning that we had to pay twice to see what should have been a three-hour programme of irresponsible fun, complete with guest director trailers including Werewolf Women of the SS featuring Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu. Extended by half an hour and overlong by, oh, about half an hour, Death Proof is a far talkier affair, with Kurt Russell playing Stuntman Mike whose death proof car allows him to engage in a peculiar pastime of deliberately causing fatal road accidents.
Back with the threes, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was probably the year’s most anticipated film, coming on the heels of the stupendously successful (some might add “inexplicably” here) Dead Man’s Chest. Our swaggering semi-anti-hero-villain Cap’n Jack Sparrow is having a tough time having been swallowed by the Kraken in part 2 and finding himself in Davy Jones’ Locker. Meanwhile the regular crew, including a reanimated Barbossa, are seeking a way of releasing Jack, against their better judgement. Having written themselves in a corner at the end of part two it seems as though the only way out for the film-makers was to create a whole pantheon of gods and artefacts to give the film a sense of gravitas and mythmaking, something which was almost absent from the refreshing original. It’s all strangely reminiscent of that other “back to back” self-satisfying clunker The Matrix. Admittedly the visual design is impressive but overall the effect is that of a pudding so over-egged it may as well be called an omelette. Coming in early in a packed season of tentpole flicks Spiderman 3 initially appeared a touch disappointing but Raimi’s sure-footed and exhilarating direction coupled with his ability to include, shock, characters with emotions that aren’t limited to love or anger alone makes for superior entertainment. The Spiderman films have always challenged the boundaries between good and evil, fate and design and this time round is no exception. Peter has not only to wrestle with his conscience, he also faces the wrath of former buddy Harry Osborn, now re-inventing himself as the vengeful New Goblin, as well as Uncle Ben’s real murderer – transformed into the Sandman. Compounding his problems is some alien goo that turns his powers up to eleven but makes him a narcissistic idiot. When he finally realises the error of his ways his rejection of his dark sides leads to the birth of his most evil foe yet… Venom. Spiderman 3 suffers from a case of too many crooks spoiling the plot, almost as though they had decided that this was to be the last film in the series and that they might as well roll out their favourite bits from the comic books in one big bundle. The result is a bit muddled – the comic relief sections either helping to balance the dark tone of the film or stop it in its tracks depending on your point of view, but at least it has some coherence and the action is superbly staged throughout. Coherence was sadly lacking in the dreadful Shrek the Third. Dreamworks have finally got their render engine to sing but sadly they seem to have lost any ability to animate their characters resulting in individual shots looking fabulous… until they move. Shrek faces becoming the heir to the land of Far, Far Away but still prefers the quieter life so tries to arrange a replacement. Meanwhile Fiona is belatedly paying homage to McG’s Charlies Angels films by setting up a trio of “not meant to be like Disney Princesses gone hard-ass” kung-fu fighters to prevent the smarmy Prince Charming pulling off a coup d’etat. The end result is a film entirely devoid of humour, bar some lazy post-modernism that was wearing thin last time around. Be warned, a fourth outing and a Puss In Boots spin-off are in the pipeline. Still it’s not as though other animation companies can rest on their laurels. Disney produced Meet the Robinson’s, a bizarre, lifeless cross between The Jetsons and The Time Machine where orphan inventor Lewis is dragged to the future by William Robinson (Will Robinson – how clever!) to see a world of “zany wonder” that is under threat from Bowler Hat Guy – a pantomime villain with ill-fitting trousers, an outrageous cape and handle-bar moustache who appears to have wandered in from a Penelope Pitstop cartoon. Sadly the maudlin orphan scenes sit uneasily with the Futurama-for-kids future world and the “wacky humour” falls as flat as my soufflés. Remember, Disney ditched its 2-D department to make films like this over Lilo and Stitch or Beauty and the Beast. At least temporarily (see Enchanted). Far better for being cell animated was Goro (son of Hayao) Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea which, complete with all the exquisite background paintings and Ghibli animation we’ve come to expect, was surely destined for greatness. Sadly the end result, while sporadically exciting, is unevenly paced and relies too much upon understanding details from the books. Adherence to the text is, of course, not crucial for creating a good film but Goro was a first time director trying to live up to the reputation of the greatest living cell animator and there is a sense that the film is “Greatest Hits of My Dad”. It has the feeling of buying a classic album and finding out it’s been re-recorded by a cover band. Tales from EarthseaTales from Earthsea doesn’t balk at showing fantasy violence, something western animations are still a bit wary of doing, though Beowulf may well make strides in changing that. So it’s nice to see the re-birth of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a CGI extravaganza which goes to show that fighting in films can be fun again although there’s no way that the gore of the original comics is likely ever to be realised. A more bizarre concept is the aforementioned Beowulf, made with the same motion capture technique used in, of all things, Polar Express, a retelling of the millennium old Anglo-Saxon poem scripted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. It’s hard to imagine how this got green-lit, a state of the art $150million CGI fantasy featuring people being skinned alive, ripped into little pieces and massacred by psychotic deformed monsters. Add to that the sight of a computer generated naked Ray Winstone poking a deranged Crispin Glover in the eye or Angelina Jolie propagating her race through metamorphosed seductions (including fashionable 8th Century high heeled heels) and you wonder not only “what were they thinking?” but “how on earth did they get a 12A rating for this?” The answers are academic, the result is a strange but compelling mixture of ancient and modern – exciting, visceral and raw, steeped in atmosphere and surprisingly refreshing in sticking to the morbid tragedy of the story. The script makes modern sense of the classic poem without overly dumbing down, the salty talk among the soldiers, the foetid air of decay and the ever increasing tales of (unlikely) bravery all follow the testosterone fuelled tradition of heroic epics, as much about bravura as actuality.
Recently animation has been steering away from cell to CGI but there is one branch of the animated film that has been less conspicuous in recent years – the live-animated mix, a hybrid that started as far back as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) with pioneering animator Winsor McCay interacting with the delightful titular dinosaur. This year two films took different approaches to the way this sub-genre could be adapted to a modern family fantasy, one using CGI, one cell animation (oh, and a pile of CGI too, just in case). Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys), directed by everyone’s favourite genre maverick Luc Besson and based upon his books, takes Arthur (Freddie Highmore) on a journey deep into the garden of his grandmother to recover treasure buried there by his missing grandfather and save the family home from an evil property tycoon. Arthur must engage in a moonlit ritual ceremony to shrink himself to the size of the Minimoys, tiny environmentalists. While miniaturised, our hero finds time to fall in love with a feisty princess called Selenia and, armed with a magic sword, sets out to set things right. Arthur turns into a CGI version of himself when joining the Minimoys, blurring the lines between real and fantasy in a deliberate way. This is a charming film, a simple and diverting adventure with a good heart and much to enjoy, even if the voice acting (in the UK dub) is a touch variable. Even more unexpectedly enjoyable is Disney’s Enchanted, the Mouse House’s answer to the hip Shrek films, which sees the studio partly return to its cell animated roots. The premise is a plainly generic combination of fish-out-of-water meets pre-teen rom-com with the added twist of being a “Disney Princess” franchise piece – not an inspiring prospect, but somehow it pulls it off by being feelgood, yet cynical enough to be plausible. Having fallen in love at first sight, Princess Giselle is to marry a handsome prince, after much singing and a day of strictly chaste courting. It is not to be, for an evil queen dumps the gullible princess into a well… that leads to modern day live action New York. Where Enchanted Enchanted works is in the total belief in the Disney-verse as separate from our reality and what happens when the two clash together. The opening animation is a pitch perfect distillation of all the woodland clichés from their classic output. When the action moves to New York this ethos is turned on its head with deliberately unlikely live action musical numbers. Admittedly once the resolution is under way everything becomes a little by-numbers but this safe Pleasantville-in-reverse is diverting uplifting fun nevertheless, proving a family film can be engaging and charming to most ages. This is something the makers of the $200million travesty Evan Almighty would have done well to have thought about in this mirthless, charmless, turkey sequel to the tolerable Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty. This time Steve Carrell takes the lead as an congressman who’s given the task of building an ark, old school style. And that’s it. As funny as the plague (every joke is laboured), its anaemic take on religion is pretty much insulting to anyone, and ultimately it is just plain bad film-making. And no, we aren’t even going to say nice things about Morgan Freeman because, frankly, he chose to do it and presumably got paid. Night at the Museum was a more satisfactory affair as Ben Stiller gets a job as a security guard in the Museum of Natural History and discovers that the exhibits come to life each night. Only Ricky Gervais’ irritating performance put a damper on what was a generally amiable fantasy. Similar shenanigans could to be found in the less frenetic Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, where Dustin Hoffman plays the 243-year-old eccentric owner of a magical toyshop.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is not about internet savvy grannies but a return to the day-glo squabbles of our four superhero chums as they take on board another bout of relationship issues while trying to save the world, oh, and maybe Reed and Sue could finally get married? This time the apparently indestructible Silver Surfer, pawn of snack-on-a-planet bad dude Galactus crashes in on the party, partly invited by a mashed up Dr Doom. It’s moderately exciting with bigger effects sequences and at least some attempt at moral dilemma but again Ben is miserable, Reed is boring, Johnny is annoying and Sue is either invisible or looks constipated. There’s even more Marvel in the air as Nicolas Cage finally gets to become Ghost Rider. When Peter Fonda offers to cure his father’s illness in return for his soul, reckless stuntbike performer Johnny Blaze takes the bait and becomes the demonic ghost rider whenever the devil bids him. But there’s an even badder boy in town, Blackheart, who plans to find a contract that will unleash the power of 1,000 souls and give them power over Hell and Earth. Unwittingly Johnny has become the executor for Mephistopheles. Cage is in his element hamming up these kind of roles, adding a touch of Elvis (a la Wild At Heart) and a completely bizarre sweet fetish to his range of quirks but it’s not enough. Rather like the original comics, it feels that the film’s premise of damned souls and flaming skulls is totally at odds with its Comic Code Seal of Approval. Cage also appeared in Next as a Las Vegas magician who has the vaguely useful but marginally silly ability to see a few minutes into the future. There should be loads potential for the film to play with time and create something interesting but it’s completely blown away by an all-too-linear plot and an “is that it?” ending.
Never one to blow up one car when you could blow up ten, the hyperactive and much maligned director Michael Bay seemed like a good choice to do Transformers, after all what can possibly go wrong with big robots that change into cool stuff beating the living daylights out of each other while trashing lots of cities and military hardware in the process? a) mecha are cool b) metamorphosing mecha are cooler and c) throwing a & b around is even cooler still. Add a blistering amount of carnage and the results are an 84 minute energetic whoop out loud action romp. Except. Except that it runs at 144 minutes. Sadly in the midst of the action is one of the most cringe-worthy geek bonding stories since ET and a truly horrible teen-fantasy romance. It is achingly bad, like they had spliced that Citroen advert with Weird Science. Cheaper and far better for it is Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch, the sequel to the wonderful Night Watch, which provides more eclectic and eccentric thrills, the innovative effects once again proving that a bit of imagination can often produce something as spectacular as Hollywood’s money-hose. We await Twilight Watch with eager anticipation.
Back to numbers again but not in a threequel way. 1408 sees another in the endless stream of Stephen King adaptations where the titular room number is investigated by a doubter of the paranormal. Genuine creeps give way to a disappointing conclusion but it’s a worthy ride. Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 has the hilarious premise of a man being persecuted by a recurring number, a paranoia he gets from a small publication strangely prominent at a local bookshop. Is this just a psychotic quirk (he is, after all played by the ever variable Jim Carrey, here in not-at-all-over-the-top mode, well at least compared with the film), or is there some “dark secret”? Well of course it’s the latter as the plot spirals into murder, hallucination and madness culminating in dark revelations. Utter hokum from start to finish but it holds the attention as it tries to grasp the convoluted plotting with both hands and run with it straight faced. Mr Brooks tried a similar feat with Kevin Costner having conversations with his alter-ego trying to curtail his passion for serial killing. This alter-ego (William Hurt) is on screen and refreshingly free of special effects trickery or cheesy voiceover – the effect is startling in its bare-faced simplicity. Brooks’ “one last” job is marred by a voyeur who wants to get in on the action. Like Spiderman 3 a bewildering class of additional villains makes the whole feel more like professional wrestling minus the lycra but there’s enough inventive material to keep you engaged and the performances are nicely balanced. Balanced is not something you could accuse 300 of, a breathtaking, hilarious exercise in overindulgence and bombastic excess. Indeed it is so full of machismo that some cinemas handed out testosterone repellent to worried customers. No-one can talk when shouting will do as Gerard “airbrushed pecs” Butler leads his Spartans to certain doom, leaving piles of corpses in his wake in order to prevent the Persians taking their land. But these are no ordinary corpses, oh no, these are a deranged assortment of masked ninjas, gimps and trolls, armoured elephants and treacherous freaks butchered with super-spraying CGI blood and limbs, all ruled by the campest villain in cinema history (yes, even camper than the one in Bride with the White Hair). Loud, brash and without irony the sheer pace carries this stylistic interpretation of Frank Miller’s comics to its inevitable climax. That said at least it lacked the pretensions of the tedious Gladiator or the nihilistic übermensch trappings of Mel Gibson’s lovingly crafted grimfest Apocalypto – a strange experiment in brutality where the bare-bones plot – man goes from A to B and back again while bad shit happens – makes for an almost fableistic tale of the decline of civilisation through the eyes of a “real man”. Gibson’s insistence on shooting his epic in Mayan keeps an otherworldly distance from the frequently intense scenes of utter carnage on show. Also in the same subgenre was the slightly unhinged Pathfinder, where the rejected son of a Viking grows up in a native American tribe, spearheading escape and rebellion against future Scandinavian oppressors. Brief strokes of visual inventiveness can’t hide the loopy premise and the foreshadowed “guys chained together trying to tiptoe over dangerous mountain passes” scene is just hilarious.
Order of the PhoenixHarry Potter’s status as grim 12a goth-lite again had many younglings turned away from cinemas or desperately seeking adult accompaniment. Order of the Phoenix still suffers from a script that just condenses Rowling’s sprawling novel rather than adapts it, a sort of visual Reader’s Digest. Rather than cut chunks out of the book we gloss over them, removing some repetition but also character and depth. Still this fantasy manages to retain a politically anti-authoritarian edge as the increasingly totalitarian wizarding authorities oust Dumbledore from Hogwarts and instigate a grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (a genuinely unnerving performance from Imelda Staunton) to quell any dissent. Indeed some of the Hogwarts declarations look like they crept in from Ripping Yarn’s Tomkinson’s School Days. Sadly the climax is over too quickly to take in Harry’s loss and Helena Bonham Carter’s truly terrifying Bellatrix Lestrange is underused to make way for the increasingly wide net of regulars they need to squeeze into the running time.
A decade ago the idea that a fantasy film would make any money would be laughable but how times have changed. With Lord of the Rings over and the Potter lad rapidly approaching graduation the search is on for the next fantasy torchbearer. Last year’s Eragon and this year’s The Dark Is Rising proved you couldn’t just throw a popular book at a film studio and hope to make anything from it, whether the quality of the original is debateable or excellent. Although integrity to the spirit of the book is something a film-maker should strive for it is impossible to recreate something in a completely different medium. The big contender for the early Christmas season was undoubtedly The Golden Compass, a stupidly expensive adaptation of a fair chunk of Philip Pullman’s preachy, polemic but sporadically exhilarating The Northern Lights (apparently the budget didn’t stretch to naming the film correctly in the UK). Glossy, impressive visuals and a menacing performance from Nicole Kidman make for a lean and exciting adventure. The break-neck pacing and tight scripting follows our insolent and feisty heroine Lyra as she journeys North to free kidnapped children, aided by the last remaining Alethiometer and her ever changing daemon. Her adventures take on magical flying machines, ageless witches and, best of all, hard-rucking polar bears. By ignoring the wearisome sections of the book and getting on with the adventure The Golden Compass manages to make a stab at restoring faith in the tentpole flick with its sheer pace and bravura. There was more from Neil Gaiman this year with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Stardust. Despite a (relatively) modest budget this turned out to be a real treat as lovelorn Tristan ventures beyond the wall that mysteriously separates his village from a dangerous fantasy world in order to retrieve a shooting star for the undeserving focus of his amorous intentions. Stardust maintains its own internal logic that makes it an eminently satisfying romp in the spirit of The Princess Bride. After an unspectacular start the film throws a bewildering array of witches (Michelle Pfeiffer in a career topping role), camp pirates of the air (Robert de Niro, would you believe) and assorted ghosts, curses and magic into a feelgood pot of celluloid fun.
Similarly there was a time when the horror film was dead and buried but recent years have seen a huge resurgence of interest in the genre. The result? Well we’re beginning to see the cracks once more – horror films follow trends more quickly, aggressively and cheaply than virtually any other mainstream genre so it doesn’t take much for the marketplace to become saturated with apparently indistinguishable product. This year the litany included Hostel 2 (Hostel, with chicks!), Paradise Lost (Hostel in South America!), The Hills Have Eyes 2 (a sequel to a re-make), The Hitcher (Sean Bean plays Rutger Hauer) Saw IV (the Saw trilogy is over… let’s start another one) and, of course, Halloween. Or should we say “visionary director Rob Zombie’s re-imagining of Halloween”? HalloweenAnother woeful attempt to re-make a John Carpenter film (we await Escape From New York with utter dread) Zombie replaces 100% of the tension with boring violence and completely destroys Michael Myers’ unexplained bogeyman persona by giving him a massive backstory about childhood hardship. Like we care. Others had a stab at originality – Black Sheep saw two rival brothers at their family homestead battling over more than inheritance as a new breed of genetically altered sheep prove not to be the money spinner anticipated when it turns out they have a taste for flesh. The sheep that is. This New Zealand film has more than a nod to early Peter Jackson in its range of genre caricatures, slapstick and OTT gore and while it’s always entertaining it’s never quite as funny as a film about killer sheep really should be (although using mint sauce as an acid substitute is pure genius). Also notching up points for trying something a bit out of the ordinary 30 Days of Night places its roaming nosferatu in an Alaskan outpost where, cut off from the outside world and a month in arctic darkness, the inhabitants stand little chance against the undead. Surprisingly effective direction, including a superbly detached overhead massacre that recalls, of all things, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, 30 Days of Night uses its comic book origins as a striking jump-board for the on-screen bloodletting. Scary stuff made enjoyable with an air of the fantastic and some John Carpenter style sieges. I Am Legend replaces the pompous self-righteousness of The Omega Man as Military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) seeks a cure to a virus that has decimated humanity and turned pretty much everyone into light-sensitive beings with an insatiable appetite for blood. Neville is immune and his only companion lies with his dog Sam and a collection of shop dummies at the local DVD emporium. Although the film spares graphic blood-letting its deliberate build up and nihilistic tone make for a refreshingly solemn blockbuster which, despite its upbeat conclusion, really does offer its hero a desolate fate.
Perhaps the most surprising sf film came in the shape of Sunshine – British made, with a half-decent budget and a cast you actually have heard of. What’s more it generally treated its audience with a modicum of intelligence. When the sun shows signs of sputtering out a team of scientists are sent to jump start it but mysteriously disappear. Seven years later a new team aims to repeat the mission – with less catastrophic results – and save the planet from eternal night. Okay, so Sunshine is basically Alien meets 2001 (with, dare we suggest, a hint of The Core?) but frankly it’s been so long since we’ve had a big screen existential sf blockbuster that we’ll forgive it. Yes the film is left wanting a prologue and some of the action is incongruous but generally the tension is palpable, the acting believable and the cinematography is simply ravishing.
Also a big screen must see is Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arthouse film, which is very different film from the Rashmon-inspired Hero and the convoluted melodrama House of Flying Daggers. Sumptuous sets and lavish visuals add sheen to this tale of lust, hatred and betrayal. Rot beneath the surface threatens to plunge the country into ruin and bloodshed as the Empress plans a coup d’etat over her husband, who is in turn arranging to have her slowly and painfully poisoned. Each is aware of the other’s plans (in part) but neither can lose face by admitting it. Some truly spectacular martial arts sequences pepper this almost Shakespearean tragedy and there’s no denying the audacity at merging two such apparently disparate genres to such ravishing effect.
More threes in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, the director’s third film, in which we follow the attempts of Hugh Jackman’s Tom to save his dying love across the ages. Set in (you’ve guessed it!) three separate time strands – 16th century, present day and 26th century – the film linked through the ages by its protagonist, rendered immortal by an ancient tree. This dense, exquisitely designed romance is a visual treat, the by-product, paradoxically, of a tortuous pre-production history. The result is a glowing, sumptuous feast for the eyes that is astonishingly free from CGI (save in compositing), relying on old-school micro-photography effects to realises its psychedelic extremes. Maybe it is not as profound as it would like to think but it is undeniably an intense, surreal and thought-provoking cinematic experience. A similar charge could be levelled at Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko. SF is only one element of this comedy, musical, drama set so near in the future it’s probably the past by the time you read this. Is it a work of genius or madness? Only you can decide.
Overall 2007 has been a disappointing year for genre with only a few lights desperately twinkling out of the darkness. Even the likes of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a perfectly solid, decent film, or the sporadic raw genius of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE felt just a little lacklustre. It’s difficult to see where the market is heading – clearly there is still a huge interest in the blockbuster film but the ubiquity of CGI is increasingly looking like the Emperor’s Not-So-New Clothes, a way of justifying budgets for films that really need a better scripts. Ironically there is hope in two of this year’s major, if heavily flawed, releases – Beowulf shows that new technology can be used to create something bizarre and yet still turn a profit while Enchanted shows that there is still merit in solid film-making and old school techniques. Maybe these will sow the seeds of a refreshed industry, striving to provide something new but in a way that acknowledges what worked in the past. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck with Shrek 17 and the next 5-hour Pirates movie. Now that is scary.
It is fairly pointless lamenting the lack of hard SF on the big screen as frankly it is unlikely to give the box office returns necessary to sustain more than the occasional oddity in these less artistically inclined times (exceptions like Primer, good as it is, slip well below the big studio radar). But there is some intelligent SF out there that shows the genre can escape from the gee-whiz techno-fetishism of the blockbuster showcase spectacle that (come on, admit it) we all love. Amidst the mediocrity that has defined this year’s big names there have been some surprisingly intelligent entries that also, shock, provide entertainment value. That this year provided as many examples of good sf as it did can only be applauded, even as we lament the more vacuous or self-worthy of offerings plied by the major studios.
Superman ReturnsDonning the costumes and looking serious for the third time comes those mutinous mutants mired in a miasma of moral ambiguity – The X-Men. Will it be curtains for mutant kind as a “cure” for their afflictions is about to be issued? Will two top thesps out-camp each other with serious prognostications of victory and Armageddon? Will the disenfranchised angel-winged son of the anti-mutant executive turn to good(ish) mutantdom or bad(ish) mutantdom? Will Wolverine ever stop being such a pathetic macho bore? Surprisingly Brett Ratner’s “if it doesn’t move, make it move” ethic resulted in a perfectly serviceable piece of film-making. The battles are big, the stakes are high and any deficiencies with the rushed effects are glossed over with the sheer scale and exuberance of the spectacle. There’s time for introspection and a bit of political ambiguity – just not as much had Bryan Singer been at the helm. But Mr Singer had a superhero project of his own – the stupendously expensive Superman Returns. Having dumped Earth to “find himself in the stars” dippy hippy Superman returns just in time for megalomaniac Lex Luthor to cackle his way through another insane plan involving world domination. Lois Lane has given up the thought of having Superman’s kids (insert Mallrats quotes here as necessary) and shacked up with Mr Sort-Of-Alright-But-A-Bit-Boring and had a kid. Singer clearly reveres both the character (bizarrely – Superman is the most rubbish superhero ever) and the original Christopher Reeves outings. This proves to be both the film’s success and its undoing. With all the seriousness going on, the mythmaking, the post-modern adding of angst, you are eternally grateful for Kevin Spacey’s barnstorming performance as Luthor. The film is a truly spectacular event picture of the old (i.e. Superman 1978) variety which doesn’t just bombard its audience with eye-candy but makes them wait a bit between the glorious set-pieces. The downside is that after an hour and a half it seems as though the ideas have dried up. Inevitably as a genre gains mainstream attention the spoofs start rolling in. With effects technology becoming more affordable the opportunity to parody is becoming easier, especially when anyone in spandex automatically opens themselves to a certain degree of ridicule. Previous attempts include the sublimely idiotic Mystery Men and last year’s limp Sky High. With Jack Black donning the stretchy pants in Nacho Libre the superhero has been brought down to earth with a shuddering bump as he tries to work his way through the lower ranks of the Mexican wrestling circuit to fund an orphanage. Less low-key is Ivan Reitman’s hit-and-miss My Super Ex-girlfriend. Luke Wilson is the hapless fellow who makes the error of dumping Uma Thurman – hell hath no fury like a superwoman scorned. Her vengeance is relentless, but only sporadically amusing.
The last decade has seen a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of the horror film but history repeats itself and we are seeing the fruits of success in the inevitable line-up of sequels and remakes (we won’t trouble you with the tedium of The Fog or demean ourselves wittering on about the PG-13 rated travesty The Wicker Man). So we have Grudge 2, a sequel to a re-make and a re-make of a sequel where Sarah Michelle Gellar (soon to be seen in The Return whose poster isn’t exactly the same as The Grudge at all, honest) passes the spooky reigns to another group of creeped-out strangers in a strange land. Hey, at least it’s not dubbed. More haunted houses in An American Haunting which is, well, like The Haunting (1963) but set in America. And not as good. Amiable enough, with a good turn from Donald Sutherland the film-makers were clearly unsure how to market their film so added in a needless bookending device. Final Destination 3, another entry in the guilty pleasure fairground ride of a franchise (this time they even set it in a fairground) where teenagers who escape their pre-destined death face gruesome and elaborately over-the-top demises. Although exceptionally graphic, the sheer loopiness of the set-pieces and the sense of ghost train joie de vivre makes this a great popcorn-muncher. Kate Beckinsale returns wearing her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number (TM) in Underworld: Evolution, an improvement on the first part but still a complete mess. It’s vampires vs werewolves again with our foxy vamp in the thick of the trouble. And then there’s that sick bunny of a film Saw III (so successful that you can guess what we’ll be writing in twelve months time…) – so revolting that they had to call ambulances to cinemas to aid distraught patrons. Well it is exceptionally sadistic, relentlessly nihilistic and misogynist (let’s see, she’s naked and tortured, he’s clothed and tortured…) but ultimately you never get to know any of the characters except by their means of death. The twisty revelations are fun but by the time you get there you’re hoping everyone’s put out of their misery quickly so that you can rush home and make a cup of tea. Eli Roth doesn’t make this mistake in the similarly brutal, borderline xenophobic Hostel. Roth’s ghastly frat boys stomp around Europe in search of cheap sex and drugs, their Animal House (1978) antics resulting in some very messy business in the heart of ex-Soviet Europe. It engages precisely because Roth has invested time (arguably too much) establishing the characters. Sean Bean fans will surely have rejoiced at the thought of not one but two horror films starring the actor. The Dark, set in Wales, shot on the Isle of Man for tax reasons, has the actor living in a remote cliff-top house. His ex-wife and daughter arrive and the daughter begins to see a ghostly girl who wishes to return to the land of the living. Unfortunately her return means that someone else must take her place in the world beyond. The Dark comes into its own because of its menacing monsters – a bunch of surly killer sheep. It almost manages to pull off this most unlikely of threats. Mr Bean also has wife and daughter issues in Silent Hill, a stylish adaptation of everyone’s second favourite Konami video game franchise (the chances of a Dance Dance Revolution film seem surprisingly slim…). Ultimately this is too reverent to its source material (at one point she searches a desk, finds a key and later has to open a door with it – they may as well stick an energy bar in the corner of the screen) and as such comes across as a series of surreal zombie set pieces intercut with Mr Bean looking anguished and helpless. It does, however, look fabulous and is, surprisingly, centred almost entirely on the female characters. But it is very stony-faced in its dedication to being “serious” horror, an accusation that could not be aimed at Snakes on a Plane. The title is the film and as prime a concept as they get with tough guy Samuel L Jackson getting irate about those “oedipal” snakes on this “oedipal” plane. His job is to protect a valuable witness from assassination by a powerful crime syndicate. The syndicate’s way around the problem is breathtakingly stupid and impractical – get the passengers impregnated with pheromones and let loose hundreds of poisonous, randy snakes on a jumbo jet mid-flight. Snakes On A Plane mostly lives up to its B-Movie premise with dumb jumps, scares and crass humour. There’s more fun in the British horror comedy Severance, a sort of Carry On Hostel, as a group of itinerant office workers on a team building exercise in Eastern Europe find themselves lost and under the watchful eye of some very nasty psychopathic killers. Featuring the cringeworthy motivational boss and the usual range of office caricatures (the toady, the stoner, the geek) the twist lies in the bloody demise of these fishes out of water. Slither tried desperately to take the gross horror comedy back to the heights of Peter Jackson’s most famous film Braindead (1992). Unfortunately it missed its mark, but it tried hard. Written and directed by James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet, Dawn of the Dead remake and, er, Scooby Doo) it stars Firefly’s Nathan Fillion as a hapless police officer in a small town investigating some very strange and sticky goings on. It’s fun while it lasts, with an amiable cast, but the gags are only for chuckles and the gore’s too gross for a non-horror crowd, but not gross enough to put it on par with Braindead. Still, it hit the spot better than Scary Movie 4 or the big screen debut of Ant and Dec in the overlong Alien Autopsy.
The immediacy of the horror film, its very disreputability and links with grunge culture, has given it a distinct advantage when it comes to putting the finger on the pulse of audience expectations, at least at a basic level. Horror has consistently proved to be a highly profitable niche genre and the returns on often modest budgets are solid. The small budgets and high turnaround give horror much of its relevance – note how quickly the trend for creepy 12A horror gave way to the sadistic excesses of Saw III and Hostel post Iraq (an almost identical reaction to that of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s) as horror films mirror society’s fears. Cinematically SF has, by nature of its development time and general reliance on special effects technology, always had to catch up. Last year’s responses started trickling in with Lucas’s declared anti-Bush Episode Three and Spielberg’s twin responses of War of the Worlds and the non-genre but extremely good Munich. Fortunately this year’s offerings are less bombastic, more considered and offer some hope of revitalising the science fiction genre, which has recently been consisting of guys in spandex and big spaceships. This is the dystopian science fiction film where the future isn’t all good guys and bad guys, there’s little in the way of extra-terrestrial interference and the metaphors relating to the current political climate are as clear as a freshly Mr Sheened window.
V For VendettaThree very different films all offered a bleak vision of our near future, but what is surprising given their diversity in tone and style – one is slick, one grimy, one animated – is how good they all were. V for Vendetta naturally attracted the ire of many – any Alan Moore adaptation gets a grilling regardless of quality (LXG was fair bait, From Hell was seriously underrated). But V for Vendetta told its story well, intelligently and packed in some action too, even if Matrix fans wanted more kung-fu and literary sorts couldn’t take the noise. Add the politically radical message favouring a sort of anarcho-communist future for Britain with terrorist acts aimed at the government and the net result is one of the more thought-provoking pieces of popcorn fodder in years. More strife for Blighty in Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P. D. James’s Children of Men offering a world of anarchy and violence as the population descends into nihilist self-interest following the failure of anyone to conceive for nearly twenty years. If there is no future generation why bother protecting anything? Clive Owen stumbles unwittingly on a potential saviour for the future, putting his life in jeopardy and forcing him on the run in a police state on the brink of collapse. Cuaron films his dystopian future with a grimy realistic look that is at times astonishing – the immediacy of events reinforced by some of recent cinema’s most memorable long takes. A bleak future also awaits an animated Keanu Reeves (no sniggering at the back there) in A Scanner Darkly, surely cinema’s finest attempt at adapting Philip K Dick. Undercover cop Bob Arctor must break a drug ring, a ring in which he finds himself the main suspect. A user of the highly addictive Substance D, his hold on reality becomes increasingly weak as the investigation progresses. Richard Linklater uses a rotoscoping technique to disorientate the viewer and place them in a world of hopelessness and paranoia – the drug talk moving from slacker stoner humour (a Linklater speciality) to outright hostility in a few hazy sentences. Any hopes that the ending would be less bleak than the novel are shattered.
Fortunately, as the dystopian films show, there is more to cinematic science fiction than wacky aliens and super-powers. More contemporary forays into the speculative or fantastical fiction have been attempted this year, with varying success. Unfortunately this year’s The Lake House, featuring Keanu again, managed to [re-make a perfectly acceptable modern Asian film in American for no readily apparent purpose and] throw any plausibility out of the window. The principle is loopily charming – two people in the same house, separated by two years, form a slow romance by writing each other, a feat achieved by an apparent time rift in their postbox. Sadly the Euro-art-film pretensions and the way that the characters can interrupt each other mid-letter – how does that work then? – drain any suspension of disbelief. Tony Scott, the film-maker for whom the term intellidumb was invented, returned with another Jerry Bruckheimer produced piece of slickness. Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Bridging the gap between the dystopian science fiction film and the superhero film was much derided Aeon Flux. Moving along at a pace that shows its roots as MTV’s successful anime homage the film never flags in its inventive visual style and parade of futurist surrealism. Although ostensibly a live action interpretation of Japanese science fiction staples it nonetheless has the feel and design of a European science fiction comic, one where the ideas and vision supersede cohesion. Ultimately it fails because it tries too hard to make everything coherent, but this is a minor point for what is, for the most part, originally executed genre entertainment.
The Great Yokai WarWith the big three franchises off the radar for this year (Mr Potter returns for what we hope is a better outing than the pompous Goblet of Fire in 2007 as do the Narnia crew, while hopes of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit fade into “what if…” territory) there seemed to be little for fantasy film fans to sink their teeth into. Even Tim Burton took a backseat after the mighty one-two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the sublime Corpse Bride. There was Gore Verbinski’s cash cow (more on that later) and some smaller contenders. Eragon told the tale of a farm boy who found a dragon’s egg and fulfilled his destiny defending his homeland from an evil king, played with lashings of ham by John Malkovich. The small British film Mirrormask looked gorgeous, but somehow didn’t live up to its promising beginning. A ravishing triumph of film-making, but where the heart was superseded by the design, this Gilliam-esque fairy tale is still well worth a watch. Speaking of whom, Gilliam himself managed to return closer to his old form and familiar themes with Tideland where a young orphaned girl is left alone in her house on the prairie. Described by Gilliam as “Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho”, Tideland is funny, moving and strange. Pulling a stunning rabbit out of the hat following last year’s insane superhero film Zebraman, Osaka’s most notorious and prolific filmmaker, Miike Takashi, came up with an epic fantasy unlike any other – The Great Yokai War. Filmed for a ridiculously low budget this is free-form imaginative fantasy at its finest. Bullied schoolboy Tadashi becomes the Kirin Rider at a local festival and is set the task of recovering the Great Goblin Sword. This is a required item because there is evil stirring. Tadashi is accompanied by a variety of yokai, spirits that inhabit all things, on a dangerous journey to confront the evil lord and save Japan from destruction. What sets The Great Yokai War apart is the sheer range and diversity of the creatures in its bulging bestiary; rubber necked women that snake around, umbrellas with tongues, walking walls, cuddly rodents, scaly fishmen, bubbling pollutant monsters, there’s probably even a kitchen sink there. Over a hundred unique creatures populate the frames of the film, all of them with distinct personalities. Less suitable for the kiddies is Tsui Hark’s glorious return to form Seven Swords – a fantasy epic re-working of (surprise, surprise) Seven Samurai (1954) where a disparate band of heroes armed each with one of the titular swords do their darndest to stop the dastardly overlord from pillaging the land. This is exhilarating film-making, visceral and energetic, packed with scenes of superhuman endeavour, deep tragedy, betrayal and loyalty. More big blades abound in the (tragically straight to video here) CGI feature Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a chaotic mismatch of alternate realities, fantasy and science fiction. It’s a bit of a mess but who cares when it looks this good? There are motorbike chases, demons, giant robots, packs of savage dogs and hardly a moment goes by without some universe-threatening punch-up. Obviously those seeking realistic physics need to steer clear but for sheer entertainment this is in a class of its own.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest proved to be the year’s most profitable film, indeed one of the most profitable films ever. The original was the sleeper hit of its year but the sequel went, inexplicably, through the roof. You’d have to be pretty po-faced not to have enjoyed every goofy minute of Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest offers more of the same, only bigger, louder and with larger coffers of doubloons to splash out on the production. But somehow the end results seem a little less enthralling – like coming off the best rollercoaster ride ever and going on again. It’s still enjoyable but a little of the magic is gone. Kiera Knightly goes all bodicey-feisty, Johnny Depp is superbly outrageous and Orlando Bloom still can’t act for toffee. The basic premise seems to be to split everyone up in a convoluted way so that they can get back together in an even more convoluted way. There are some great set pieces, cannibals, kraken and all manner of cod proclamations. A similar tale of all-out set pieces could be levelled at Mission Impossible III, the feature debut for J. J. Abrams, the man behind Alias and Lost. There are more rounds fired than a John Woo film, more big explosions than Bond and lots of gadgetry and techno stuff. The film is worth mentioning for the trailer alone – a brilliant piece of work that totally wrong foots the audience. Sadly, though the towering performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman is all that there is to recommend it, it’s overblown, overlong and frankly just plain dull. The immediacy of hand-held camerawork that made Children of Men so immersive appears lazy here. If you’ve got a budget, buy a dolly. Far better in the gadgets and hi-jinks genre (Bond’s back to basics approach excludes it from this round up) was the affable Stormbreaker, based on the popular books by Anthony Horowitz. This really is teenage wish fulfilment as schoolboy Alex Rider finds himself capable of avenging the death of his adopted parent because he has inadvertently learnt the skills necessary to be a top British super-agent. Yes it’s preposterous but find a film listed here that isn’t – Stormbreaker is fun, exciting and, more to the point, (Pirates – that’s you) coherent. Meanwhile Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Far more low-key was The Thief Lord, a nicely understated children’s fantasy shot though an apparently muddy lens around the streets of Venice. It’s an escape fantasy that takes two brothers into an underground world of homeless children under the protection of the self-styled Thief Lord. The way that the existence of magic is kept in doubt places the film ostensibly in the real world but the melting plot of literary homage (Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Something Wicked This Way Comes) indicates a more fantastical outcome. An ideal Sunday afternoon watch with the kids.
Two lady in the water films vied for our attention. One, the teen-chick-flick Aquamarine, offered Splash (1984) with hunks, the other, Lady in the Water, purported to be a fairy tale. M Night Shyamalan’s latest was not greeted well by the critics or the public. Caretaker Cleveland Heep finds a naked Narf in an apartment complex’s swimming pool. She needs to return to the Blue World in the claws of an eagle but is being hunted down by vicious creatures that dwell in the grass. Shyamalan always manages to make the extraordinary appear ordinary, it is one of the things that makes his work so appealing. The Lady in the Water continues the themes that are present in his other works and has the potential for being a great little film. Unfortunately it never realises this potential – the plot regularly grinds to a halt only to be kick-started by another revelation squeezed out of the knowledgeable but irritatingly tight-lipped Mrs Choi and some of the self-reverence is a touch tiresome
Pan’s Labyrinth Probably the most difficult films to categorise this year were Pan’s Labyrinth and The Prestige. The former, by director Guillermo del Toro, was moving and imaginative in a way quite unlike any other. Set in 1944 during the Fascist overtaking of Spain a young girl, Ofelia, is forced to live with her new step-father; an evil captain who treats human life as nothing more than an inconvenience. However her new home has an old labyrinth where she meets a domineering faun who tells her she must complete three tasks to claim her rightful place as princess of a grand kingdom. The contrasts between the magical realm and the hell of war make Pan’s Labyrinth a fairy tale for adults – at times brutal, at times beautiful. Throughout the film you doubt everyone’s motives bar Ofelia’s, so the tension is mounted high. This is magical film-making at its very best – Gilliam, Burton and Svankmajer rolled into one. More magic in The Prestige, from Christopher Priest’s novel, as two magicians form a deadly rivalry. Assured and perfectly crafted, The Prestige benefits from tight scripting and a superb cast to make another (really, this is too much in one year) intelligent film for adults. Unfortunately the teaser trailers promised Batman vs Wolverine, causing cinemas around the country to be invaded by fidgeting brats to the 12A rating. Add some swearing please, Mr Nolan, and make the next one a 15…
Perhaps the dearth of franchise excess helped things along but, almost in spite of itself, 2007 turned out to be a solid year for genre cinema.
The Winners (and there were many, many contenders):
Best SF: A Scanner Darkly
Best Fantasy: Pan’s Labyrinth
Most Gruesome Horror: Hostel