Another year has whizzed by and Sci-Fi is still pulling the punters in at the Box Office. Genre movies seem to have polarised this year – science fiction gets the big budgets and whizzy special effects, while horror films have tended to lurk in the darkness, veering towards the cheap, nastier and grimier end of the market. And sadly there were fewer cult specials or fantastic foreign films this year.
Year of the Matrix
Matrix Reloaded / The Matrix Revolutions
2003, we were reliably told by those happy souls at Warner Brothers, was The Year of The Matrix. Or the year of two Matrices, a pile of anime, some dodgy sunglasses and a bug-ridden (or was that meant to be ironic) computer game. Neo and Trinity are back for 4+ hours of slow-mo, gravity defying fisticuffs and embarrassing smooching. The residents of fashion conscious woolly-jumper clad Zion are still concerned about the imminent destruction of their frankly rather grim city by machines intent on using them like giant Duracell batteries. It’s up to messiah-in-waiting Neo, aided and abetted by various cohorts, to wrestle with existential cod-philosophy, cryptic mythical character names and multiple copies of panto-cackling MIB Agent Smith. Although the wire-work has become ubiquitous over the past few years The Matrix still packs a punch visually.
Hey it’s got vampires and, get this, werewolves too. And they don’t like each other. Add some weapons, lots of gothic sewers and some fashionable industrial-metal music and entertainment must surely follow. It’s not art but it sounds pretty cool. Sadly the end results are cool in an entirely different way. Sub-Matrix slow-mo shrapnel vie with Goth-chic Crow-style sets and lighting. The results are messy, the effects average and even an occasionally easy-on–the-eye cast in tight leather can’t generate more than a modicum of enthusiasm. Half the time the editing is so sloppy you don’t know what’s going on, the other half of the time you wish you didn’t know as risible dialogue puts the final stake into the heart of this limpid effort. Grief, the vampires hardly even feed and half the time they just shoot at each other. They are supernatural creatures, let’s have some shape-shifting and razor sharp teeth not Uzi’s with “special ultra-violet, steeped in garlic and covered in hawthorn” bullets. Waste of time.
With a list of influences as long as the arms of that stretchy guy from the Fantastic Four (more on that next year… maybe) The Returner is a pot pourri of science fiction and action clichés wrapped in a bundle of garish time-twisting effects and gratuitous violence. Hit-man (or Returner) Miyamoto (check: cool shades, check: trenchcoat, check: cool guns and slow-mo wirework) accidentally shoots a girl from the future and has two days to sort out this conundrum whilst falling in love and shooting lots of people. Cool, surprisingly poignant and just cracking good entertainment – what popcorn blockbusters are meant to be… minus the price tag.
Trench-coats. Shades. Guns. Lots of guns. Slow-mo wire-work. Expressionless faces. Sound familiar? 2003, year of the Matrix rip-off, although this time blended with some Orwellian-lite society and a nod towards THX1138. And having a “society without emotion” does not “explain” the quality of the acting.
Heroes, Villains and Those Who Are Quite Undecided
He is Ben Affleck aka Daredevil – blind super-lawyer by day defending the weak and victimised against corporate criminals, blind leather-clad super-hero by night defending the weak and victimised against any sort of criminals. Worst of this dastardly bunch is Kingpin, the city crime, er, kingpin who probably bumped off Daredevil’s parents. Before you can say “angst-ridden multi-millionaire” we’re into a hotchpotch of superhero modus operandi – Crow-style city and bar fight, Spiderman-style swinging around, Batman-style OTT super-villains and misunderstood love-hate nemesis side character with spin-off potential. It’s all fine and dandy in a “Goth-chic constantly raining city” kind of a way and everyone wanders around with either po-faced severity or in panto-villain mould, which is pretty much expected. But therein lies the problem, there’s nothing wrong with Daredevil per se but nothing particularly noteworthy either. Diverting but no more.
Jim Carrey, a newscaster whose dream job of lead anchorman is dashed by some upstart at his TV station, is having a not-good day. Being set upon by street punks, losing his job and crashing his car are only the start. Then it rains on him. Our hero blames the only entity he can – God – claiming he could do a better job. Unusually God, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Morgan Freeman, gives the disgruntled Bruce divine power and promptly nips off for a well-earned vacation. At first all is fine, he can metamorphose those pesky punks, make love like a sex machine and part soup in bowls with his celestial vigour. But naturally, as is inevitable, it’s not all rosy – omnipotence has its downside. So far so Groundhog Day with a different prime concept but, rather like this year’s other big Hollywood comedy Anger Management, once the concept has been gleaned the script plods along with clockwork tedium. And despite the 12 rating (one single use of the f-word, stop this madness please, that’s you Master and Commander too) there is nothing dangerous to edge the comedy. You could set your watch by it.
Word of mouth caused Hulk to be the biggest week-to-week drop of any film this year. The general consensus was that the graphics were rubbish, the action unbelievable and it took far too long for anything to happen. Piffle. Perhaps people just aren’t used to films with scripts, characterisation and dramatic tension anymore. Emotional vacuum Bruce Banner (confusingly played by Eric Bana) wrestles with his angst and tries to come to terms with his psychologically scarred childhood. Naturally he’s a scientist and a shocking accident results in unusual side effects. These side effects, as fans of the popular TV show will no-doubt fondly recall, result in muscular gain, wrecked clothes and a tendency for skin tone to head towards the green side of the spectrum whenever he gets riled. Where the TV show adopted a low-tech approach to transformation, Ang Lee’s Hulk is all multi-million CGI, leaping from mountain peaks like an elephantine gazelle and hurling military hardware about like a kid with the wrong Tonka toy at Christmas. All top destructive stuff but the complaints came nonetheless – apparently the effects weren’t realistic. Excuse me? It’s about a giant green bloke who rips all his clothes off bar the ones covering his modesty and goes on city trashing benders – realism isn’t built into the concept. Hulk is all the better for stylising its mayhem, externalising its character’s psychological hang-ups and painting them in large expressionist brush-strokes. Ang Lee’s deliberate comic-book framing and editing, his expert use of character development and uncluttered focus have turned what could have been a by-the-numbers comic-book film into a pulp drama.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Wouldn’t you know it – the revolution against the machines is in trouble again? So is John Connor, again. So they send another machine back in time to protect him again. It still looks like Arnie and it’s still several models down from the “unstoppable beast of liquid metal blah blah blah” that those naughty robots have sent from the future. Again. Only this time the unstoppable mecha is a chick. With the largest green-lit budget of all time it would have been nice to have had a script in there, but you can’t have everything. This time round Johnny boy needs help; mommy’s dead and there’s no suitably empowered female to replace her. Instead we are, for the most part, in whimpering abused woman territory here except, of course, for the sexy robot woman because all women who look like that are clearly evil. And thus 100 minutes of boys jumping from exploding stuff unravels in a mildly diverting manner while Arnie delivers a “side-splitting” collection of “hilarious” quips. The film is rarely dull but ultimately you’re left with a huge portion of “what’s the point?” with a side order “been there done that”. And as for the 12 rating, what did they think they were doing?
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life
One time cinematographer Jan de Bont takes the reigns for Lara’s second big screen outing. Angelina Jolie’s Dunlop lips and pneumatic add-ons appear, much like her digital counterpart, to be growing substantially between sequels. Perhaps if there is a Part 3 someone should coax Russ Meyer out of retirement. This time Lara’s quest is to thwart more ancient machinery shenanigans being planned by a mad despot. This time the crucial “bad idea” is to introduce an ex-lover and full time scallywag into the equation to help/hinder her in her globetrotting excursions. This undermines the whole “one woman defeating a world of scurrilous men” concept that made the first one so enjoyable. That said the film is dynamic and pretty to look at. The stunts are impressive and tactile, something many of this year’s blockbusters have failed to address – if you have a car chase, film it using cars (that’s you 2Fast2Furious2Tedious2Mucheffort).
Ultimately though, Tomb Raider doesn’t quite make the grade for all its side-saddled gunplay and tourist-friendly Britishness, because of haphazard pacing and lazy peripheral characters.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
If the much publicised rifts are to be believed, this should perhaps have been titled The Beleaguered Film of Not-So-Gentlemen as Stephen “treat them like cattle” Norrington and Sean “I’m an A-list star, young whippersnapper” Connery slugged out the artistic differences. In the end fans of the comic are likely to be perturbed by the Americanisation of the League (box office, you understand) and everyone else by the general pace. It certainly looks the part, dark and fantastical, with the Nautilus in particular being a triumph of design over practicality, but this is very much a film that foregrounds the design over the substance and revels in its eccentric anachronisms. All very nice but the character interaction is all based upon event rather than any tangible emotion. That said there’s always something to look at, the snow sequences are marvellous, the action suitably grandiose and there’s even time for Nemo to let rip with some wacky martial arts. Somehow you can’t imagine James Mason doing that…
Apparently they are still not what they seem as the plot opens out from what, in part one, was effectively a 100 minute prologue. X2 (as it apparently likes to be called, quicker to text probably) opens with a tight combination of suspense, action and intrigue as an audacious assassination is perpetrated by a mutant that can seemingly teleport at will, leaving just a whiff of smoke in its gargoyle looking wake. But naturally things are not as simple as they first seem. Rather like the Nazi connections in part one (which also strain to Singer’s Apt Pupil) X2 doesn’t hide from “big issues”, acting as a metaphor for society’s treatment of race and disability and, more importantly, the ways that society’s underdogs react to their predicament. Magneto is not so much irreconcilably evil as reacting against a society that persecutes him; fellow Shakespearean heavyweight Dr X(avier) prefers a softer approach. Ultimately the real evil is humanity and politics, grabbing for power while honest mutants struggle to understand their roots and their place in a world that doesn’t trust them. Overall the combination of action and emotion with a script that has at least some intelligence (in other years one might veer towards the expression “pretentious” but 2003 was “Year of the Matrix” so we’ll let it pass) is something to welcome in the vacuum that is the modern tentpole flick.
The Core suffers from a number of fundamental flaws. Firstly a film full of woolly democratic-republicanism was never going to win the “hearts and minds” of a deeply polarised public just prior to a war starting, more a point of bad timing. Secondly the film took itself far too seriously and advertised itself as (you may want to sit down at this point) Science Faction (geddit?). When boiled down you have Armageddon inside the Earth with a cast of highbrow Hollywood actors hamming it up in a ship, while every twenty odd minutes some form of groovy new catastrophe hits a major world landmark. Get the oddball crew together, spot the flawed but decent character who’s inevitably going to redeem themselves by selfless self-sacrifice, then add a touch of Seventies disaster flick and Fantastic Voyage. So there’s more cod than the North Sea (but then that’s not too tricky) but at least for once the heroes rely on brainpower, not macho posturing. The opening is a real oddball puzzler with people just dropping dead and a The Birds rip-off in Trafalgar Square sets things up nicely. It becomes formulaic and “deadly grim 50’s scientist” serious after that but at least they tried. Hey, the French guy kicks the corporate Coca Cola machine too.
Films about writers, particularly Hollywood screenplay writers, have long been a small but defined genre-ette. In A Lonely Place, Lost Weekend, Paris When It Sizzles the formula is simple – writer, normally alcoholic, struggles in vain to realise his (always his) former potential whilst wallowing in self-doubt and misery, normally uplifted by female level-headed intervention at some point. It’s easy to see why – these are written by Hollywood screenwriters struggling in vain to realise… etc etc. Charlie Kaufman has, however, gone one step further by putting himself into the script as the central character with a (fictional) brother, both of whom are writing very different screenplays. Charlie’s trouble is that he is basically adapting an inadaptable book about illegal orchid hunting. The film is about the book, adapting it and not adapting it, and about how reality and Hollywood clash. Whether this is clever or not is hardly relevant because it feels clever. Cage gives flawless performances as the two brothers and the self-references to Jonze/Kaufman’s previous film Being John Malkovich is a nice touch.
Bizarrely, despite the brief impressive effects shots with their oh-so-processor-heavy volumetric renderings, Solaris is basically a chamber piece, with four people in a drawing room (albeit one millions of miles from home) where people sit and ponder as though in a Chekov play, and loads of weird stuff happens, involving spirits that seem to be re-creating important individuals in their past lives. And, wouldn’t you know it, the guy sent to investigate these spooky-but-oh-so-existential psychological projections is none other than, you’ve guessed it, a Chris Kelvin, who’s lost his wife and is going a bit loopy. Now Tarkovsky fans may bemoan the lack of a ten-minute single take around a ring road or the savage bisecting of the three hour plus running time, but this is a big studio production with a big star that dares to be intelligent, thoughtful and languidly paced. It’s (please sit down) a real science fiction film. From Hollywood no less! You should be rejoicing. Rated 12A for one use of the ‘f’ word and George Clooney’s bottom.
Charlies Angels: Full Throttle
Apparently the general consensus was “silly”. It’s Charlie’s Angels you know! More high-octane gratuitously over-the-top action with totally unnecessary glamour shots and innuendo assault the eyes, while the ears take a pounding from the pick ‘n’ mix MTV soundtrack. That hair-sniffing fruitcake from part one returns, although sadly Bill Murray has been replaced by the decidedly inferior Bernie Mac. But who cares as the bubbles get unleashed, bombs explode, wirework kung-fu goes even more slow-mo and there are really stupid motorcycle fights to contend with? Somewhere in all this there’s a plot but frankly we’ve forgotten it. Not as riotously fun as the first film but still a big bundle of low attention span eye candy that never gets bogged down in real world physics. As predicted last year the trend for women who fight was just that and any hope of equalling Hong Kong’s impressive range of female fighting flicks has drained away by Charlie’s Angels lack of box office clout. C’est la vie.
Shanghai Knights/Medallion/Tuxedo – A Jackie Chanathon
Shanghai Noon remains Jackie Chan’s only half decent Hollywood outing, mainly due to the interaction with Owen Wilson and a discernable Hong Kong feel to the fight scenes. Second time round and things ain’t so rosy. Transported to a bizarre alternative Victorian London complete with characters both fictional and real, the bungling buddies are out to save Wang’s sister and inadvertently prevent the devious massacre of the royal lineage to appoint that bloke off Queer As Folk as king. All very alternative history but B-movie acting, an incomplete script and some fairly lacklustre fight scenes take its toll. What’s more the chemistry between the two leads in part one has evaporated. What’s more bizarre is that as bad as this is it is still head and shoulders above Jackie’s other two outings this year. The hugely delayed Medallion (originally Highbinders) is a laughably inept fantasy outing with ludicrous wirework and ropey effects. Meanwhile The Tuxedo is one of the most painfully embarrassing pieces of celluloid tosh ever to grace a cinema as Chan becomes a spy by donning a high-tech James Bond gadget strewn dinner jacket. It’s virtually impossible to describe the sheer awfulness of this loathsomely unfunny venture into science fiction.
The Horrors, The Horrors
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (remake)
A slight change in the title spelling and a bit of trendy “retro seventies” styling can’t disguise that this is a pointless exercise on par with the van Sant remake of Psycho. Here the gore is laid on to “hard-R” levels because the kids need viscera (apparently) without realising the whole point of seventies horror cinema was its intense inescapability. The original film was banned here for two decades not because of gore, but because there was nothing that could be cut without intrinsically ruining the film. First time round you covered your eyes when you thought you saw the hook go in; here you see the hook, the shock’s over in a blink and you’re left with an average slasher at best, a blasphemous travesty at worse.
What with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake trying to bring back the mid-Seventies horror (unsuccessfully) Wrong Turn looks, oh, a few years later to the time of hideous mutants gorily dispatching their nubile victims in some backwater inbred part of the Southern states. Here Deliverance meets TCM meets The Burning as Eliza Dushku (you know, Faith from Buffy) and her cohorts are hunted like animals by skilled, but oh-so-ugly, crossbow wielding cannibals. Gasp as bits are hacked off, shudder as they have to stay quiet as their friend is being carved up on the table and marvel at the number of sudden jumps that you knew were coming but made you jump anyway. Lowest common denominator film-making but done with a sense of gleeful nastiness and gratuitous early-80’s teen nudity all too often absent from modern horror.
The Fangoria revival, where the make-up crew are more important than the cast, is well and truly upon us. A group of youngsters go for a holiday in a remote cabin in the country (can you see where this is going yet?). There they set light to a diseased raving nutter who manages to slosh around vast quantities of puss-laden blood over the car, the house and them before running off and, unbeknownst to them, contaminating the water supply. Soon the youngsters start falling foul of a hideous flesh eating disease, have to contend with the world’s most insane cop and a community of, yep you’ve guessed it, creepy yokels. A love poem to exploitation slashers, Cabin Fever is a delirious, unrepentant, gross horror nasty that knows its sources and adds some touches of its own. However the BBFC must have nodded off for about half of the film because how this ever got a 15 rating is anyone’s guess.
Freddy vs Jason
Take one inexplicably successful 80’s to 90’s horror pop icon who’s never been in a half decent movie (except that 3-D bit with the bloke’s eye in Part 3). Add one inexplicably successful 80’s to 90’s horror pop icon who’s only stared in one decent film (if you don’t count New Nightmare). So that’s about 15 films between them. Not great odds, especially as crossovers are notoriously contrived and rather dodgy. And yes Freddy vs Jason is convoluted, base and shamelessly exploitative. But it’s also a Ronnie Yu film, he who managed to turn the Child Play franchise from sub-Freddy tedium to the deliriously ludicrous heights of Bride of Chucky. And he doesn’t disappoint here. There are enough bizarre dreams, blood gushing walls, OTT wirework fights (might be de rigueur in Hollywood now but remember Yu was doing Bride With The White Hair years ago), needless heavy petting, massacres, twists, deaths and corpses to fill a trilogy. Yu knows he’s making popcorn fodder pure and simple, this is flamboyant but unpretentious film-making, albeit one with a deeply pongy screenplay…
The Ring remake
Why oh why oh why? That’s the question when faced with a US remake of yet another non-American language film, in this case the “so recent the original had barely finished shooting” Ringu. It could never have lived up to its slow-burning creepy low budget predecessor. To be fair it is effective in some places and nowhere near the unmitigated disaster it so clearly should have been. It succeeds with the newly added material that has nothing to do with the original, where it falls badly is in the recreations of Ringu’s key scenes; all the gore and make-up effects in the world can’t match the frisson of the original.
The thing about haunted houses is that it’s usually obvious that you shouldn’t go inside one. They look big, gothic and generally have creepy butlers so are a bit of a giveaway really. But change the setting to a block of flats and suddenly it doesn’t seem so implausible. Yoshimi is the woman in terror trapped in her own home, haunted by fleeting Don’t Look Now style visions of figures in the rain. And it even rains inside, dark mucky water that envelops the sound and drips with creepy intensity constantly keeping the viewer on edge. To add to her phantasmagorical problems she’s also trying to maintain custody of her daughter, protecting her from… well that would be telling. Hideo Nakata stirs up the creeps yet again in another understated, slow-burn high shiver masterpiece. Await the “pointless Hollywood remake”™ with the same dread as all of his other (superior) films.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Aye, aye, me hearties. Shiver me timbers. Ooh arrr yer scurvy dog etc. The box office disasters of huge budgeted flicks such as Pirates (Polanski) and Cutthroat Island (Harlin) had put the cutlass well into the dead man’s chest. Until now. Mercifully the pirate film is back with a vengeance and a yo ho ho. Prepare to have your buckle well and truly swashed for over two hours of zombie ghost ships and sword fights. The scripting is great, the undead angle inspired, the action is old school meets new and the whole thing zips along at a tidy pace. Johnny Depp shows his mettle with this year’s most barnstorming performance but Geoffrey Rush holds his own in true eye-rolling fashion. Gore (the bloke behind the pointless remake of Ringu) Verbinski has come up with the summer’s best popcorn flick by a mile. Based (improbably) on a fairly lacklustre Disney World ride we await with eagerness the inevitable spin off It’s A Small World. With multinational zombie children of course…
Prison dramas are nothing new. You know the genre conventions– someone is shoved in the slammer for a crime they didn’t commit and the new fish has to cope with the prison hierarchy, the sadistic guards, the “food rations knocked to the floor” and the regular punishments. And normally there’s forced labour too. All these elements are present and correct but with a twist because this time it’s a kid cast into a hard-labour camp for juvenile delinquents on trumped-up charges pertaining to the stealing of some charity training shoes. And work he does, digging huge holes in the desert heat day after day, watched over by the guard under the command of the mysterious and cruel warden. Naturally there is a nefarious plan afoot and some poisonous lizards to contend with. With a fragmentary structure that slowly reveals a superbly constructed plot, excellent scripting and uniformly consistent acting this is unpatronising, thoroughly engaging and dramatic. An intelligent film for families? John Voight acting? Whatever next…
Snake of June
It’s Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s cheap, black and white and has a central love triangle with two men and a woman, one of the men played by Tsukamoto-san himself, who also edits, writes, shoots most of it and probably makes the lunchtime ramen for everyone too. Here the central character is eventually empowered by initially humiliating erotic blackmail games involving highly dubious technology in an outpouring of orgone energy that threatens to disrupt the whole fabric of the film. Kinky, controversial, underground cinema at its best but not recommended for those of a delicate disposition or a tired desire for films that equate cutting edge with the size of the budget rather than the quality of the imagination. This year’s “must see” cult film…
There he is! Film over. Nope, seriously Pixar’s latest delight is a delightful as you’d expect although unfunny clownfish Marlin’s constant self-loathing can grate a bit, as can the repetition and the repetition. The usual collection of easy to identify characters with bizarre traits, microsecond perfect comedy timing and fishy gags make this a true family film in the best sense of the term. Surfer turtles, sharks trying to beat their carnivorous habits in self-help groups and a tankful of idiosyncratic sea-life populate all corners of the film. Marlin’s son Nemo has been fishnapped by an Australian dentist and it’s down to the widower (he lost his wife and his other few hundred kids in a brutal pre-credit attack) to get him back, aided by Dory, a fish with a memory as long as a… sorry what was I on about?
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
So Peter Jackson finally reaches the final hurdle, galloping past the three hour mark and annoying Christopher Lee in the process. So is it any cop? Well it’s spectacular to be sure, those dollars have been well spent (T3 looks crap: $180million=100mins LOTR looks fab: $300million=600mins you, as people with different usage of the English language might well hypothetically say, do the math) and Jackson sure knows how to fill the screen. However leaving Lee out was a BIG mistake. Ultimately the threat of hoards of horrible beasties is pitched right and the scale and detail of the battles is very succinct, but there is no real adversary that the audience can relate to. It’s all too abstract, just some flame-eyed wotsit on a stick and some blokes so scary they are hidden by big cloaks. The running time fair whizzes by but there is a feeling that perhaps the Star Wars style ceremony should have concluded proceedings, leaving those of us who imagined the Shire being ravaged by old Sharky still a distinct possibility. They could even have stretched out a straight-to-video coda for that. Still we’re nit-picking, because ultimately this is a tremendous achievement.
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary
Imagine pitching this one to Jerry Bruckheimer: “Jerry, you’re gonna love this – it’s Dracula, you know that old book, done properly but like, get this, entirely through the magic of ballet. That’s right, ballet Jerry, and what’s more we’ll set it to the music of that foot-tapping master Gustav Mahler. And film it like a silent film with super 8 stuff and everything! Jerry? Jerry?”
Insane Canadian genius Guy Maddin’s intense reworking of Bram Stoker’s novel is based upon the production by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Before you turn away this is one of the films of the year, a dizzying blur of fast editing, stylised sets and black and white photography emphasised with crimson-tinted blood. Quite simply stunning Maddin has transformed the, let’s be frank here, mad concept into a rare beast – a rollercoaster of an art film. Exquisite cinematography mix with distinctive use of sound (you can hear footsteps when they are relevant but all the characters speak through title cards) to make, and we don’t use this term lightly, a unique cinematic experience. Another classic from one of the world’s most distinctive auteurs.
Wiping forever (hurrah!) the rancid memory of that Spielberg atrocity Hook comes PJ Hogan’s take on the Peter Pan story complete with curious Al-Fayed involvement. So what do you get? You get a pile of visually arresting special effects, wire-work and sword-play that goes together to make a coherent and internally consistent film. Shock. This is what effects are meant to do – take you to another place, one that’s NOT like the real world at all. We are in CGI Mary Poppins land here, albeit with a darker edge, big fluffy clouds you can bounce on, whole years mirrored in a day and fjords of fairies (fjord, of course, being the collective noun for fairies) sprinkling glittery magic dust on the land. Fabulous. Tinkerbell is morally confused. Peter is suitably hedonistic, wondrous and a little bit creepy. Richard Briers is an excellent Smee and Hook is a perfect combination of evil, dastardly and conniving. Wendy’s turn “to the dark side “ (so to speak) is both believable and frightening. Visually gorgeous, imaginative, exciting, emotional, literate and fun. No modern day re-imaginings. No Robin Williams. Just great entertainment with a heart and soul. And, in case you’re asking, we DO believe in fairies. Yep, we do. We do.
Not only a remake but also a pop-friendly reinterpretation of the classic Cartesian mind-body problem Freaky Friday scores many plus points for its deconstruction of modern society and the rocky relationships between children and parents. Jamie Lee Curtis is a popular author and psychoanalyst who becomes swapped in mental form with her hard rocking grungy-but-with-a-heart-in-there-somewhere teenage daughter. This allows for that rarity in family films – one in which the kids can rightly bemoan their parents’ behaviour and vice versa. That it manages to debase the two scourges of modern society – mobile phones and psychoanalysis (daughter dispenses with all the analytical crap and just tells is like it is) is merely the icing on the cake. Good solid fun, it’s not the greatest thing since unsliced bread but is a cracking romp nonetheless.
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
Three evil Sylvester Stallones are responsible for an insidious plan to rule the world through an interactive immersive video game platform that is, apparently, impossible to win. Yuni must take on the game and reclaim his sister’s life! Think eXistenZ but like, you know, for kids. Oh and you get cool but headache inducing 3-D glasses to don at appropriate moments (in fact most of the film). Not up to Rodriguez’s first Spy Kids films but a lot of fun nonetheless, with relentless action and constantly impatient but coherent camerawork (Rodriguez, like Tsukamoto below, edits his films, shoots, does the music etc – he just has more money). It’s fast, short, frothy and fun and you can play the “spot the cameo” game too. Also from Rodriguez this year the bizarre Once Upon A Time In Mexico, a distillation of Mexican spaghetti westerns with some delirious imagery and “man of the year” Johnny Depp in fine form.
The Bride has been put in a coma for six years following a massacre on her wedding day that left everyone dead, apart from her. Naturally she’s not impressed with events but rather than seek therapy she takes matters into her own hands. You see Bride was once part of an elite gang called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, so she’s not someone to cross lightly. Problem is the very people who instigated the hit are her ex-comrades and their boss Bill. Now Bride has made a list of who’s been naughty and she’s working her way towards killing Bill. First let’s get this straight: there is one big, big problem with Kill Bill – it’s only half a film. That said it is a very good half, packed to the gills with cool stuff and more exploitation classic references than you can shake a bo stick at. For those of us weaned on Shaw Brothers films, Baby Cart, Jack Hill, Larry Cohen and Kinji Fukusaku this is like the cinematic “best of” cover-version of your favourite gleefully unsound films. There’s an anime section, silhouette scenes and lots and lots of cherry coloured blood gushing in torrents over the beautiful oriental sets. It’s got Sonny Chiba in it! Its got snow, zen gardens and The 5678’s. It’s got the music from Battles Without Honour Or Humanity in it. Someday all entertainment will be made like this, only three hours long.
Oh my God! It’s Billy “Oh my God!” Connolly. Saying “Oh my God!” A lot. Exploiting (as you do) a wormhole to 14th century France, what better bunch of people to check out the retro-warfare action on offer than a troupe of military grunts and an ark of fresh-faced archaeologists? A “fax machine for objects” has the side effect of journeying people to the aforementioned French countryside but, wouldn’t you know it, travelling too many times makes your arteries go skew-whiff. Billy “Oh my God!” Connolly has got himself stuck in the past and it’s up to his son and a variety of companions to get him back. Cue wildly fluctuating accents, the entire cast insisting at every turn that they are not English and a case of Star Trek “spot the red shirt” that pretty much decides who gets it when from word go. By no means a total disaster, this is cod-strewn light entertainment with most of the action taking place in-camera rather than in-computer and is the better for it. Oh my God!
This updating of Treasure Island in a sci-fi setting is a jolly good ride marred only by irritating Ben the robot, but mercifully his unfunny mannerisms don’t see the light of day until two thirds of the way through. Inventive, spectacular and fun it was, of course, a flop. Like Atlantis.
And the winners are (paradiddle pur-lease):
Best Horror: Dark Water
Best SF: Solaris
Best Fantasy: Holes
Special Yo Ho Ho Award for Most Enjoyable Romp: Pirates of the Caribbean
Smug Award for Best Film Last Year: Spirited Away
With cinema audiences reaching their highest levels since the 1950s, sf seems to be as popular as ever. And why not, Hollywood budgets are larger than ever and the technology to put fantastic images on the screen is improving all the time. This year has seen many combinations of genres – the sf-fantasy, sf-horror, fantastic horror, horrific sf – it’s hard to place many of these films into neat categories, so we’ve arranged them alphabetically, just to be awkward.
Here’s a curio – a Japanese live-action anime filmed in Polish. An Illegal VR game produces rich rewards or possible insanity to its players as they complete mission levels for fame and fortune. The result is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen – breathtaking but deliberately false CG, retro equipment and cyberpunk grime rub shoulders with existential ponderings, politics and mythological intrigue. The Eastern European setting is no mere gimmick (xXx, Rollerball etc take note) as Oshii has steeped his film in the worlds of Kieslowski and Svankmajer (for the most part the film is desaturated almost to the point of being monochrome)… as well as throwing his anime book of tricks in the ring with gleeful abandon. Hard to see where this film was aimed (other than us!) or how it was supposed to make any money, but made it was – if only there was more sf that
Oh the omens were good. Blade was one of the more successful of recent comic adaptations – good gory vampire fun. Guillermo del Toro made the excellent vampire film Cronos. Mix the two, then add shedloads more violence, stunts and action. Remove the need for a time-wasting story (you got that in part one), bring in Donnie Yen for the fight choreography and voila! A surprisingly pale shadow of its former self. Nice shots of disintegrating vampires in the dawn can’t disguise a plot that has a high initial concept but no teeth.
Hey, your kooky dad’s gone and got a super watch that makes time stop when you want (or at least go very slowly) so you can do loads of neat stuff to impress the hot new chick in town. But sinister forces want their timepiece back for weapons research and dad goes missing, presumed incarcerated in a secret government test laboratory. What could have been a good fun adventure sadly falls for the “seen the trailer, seen the film” problem (see Men In Black II) and then proceeds to fail to ignite anything outside of these moments.
How this one got a 15 certificate is anyone’s guess but Dog Soldiers is a cracking little British horror film filled with the usual clichés of the genre, but without the familiar “knowing” teenage commentators. Mercifully the earnest tone of the characters makes the black humour work particularly well amongst the jumps and occasionally graphic gore. The story concerns an army training patrol who seek sanctuary in a lone farmhouse when it becomes clear that something or somethings are baying for their blood. A jolly decent British werewolf film.
Donnie is a troubled lad with a history of psychological problems that require some serious medication. It doesn’t help that he is urged to commit sociopathic acts by a grisly six foot bipedal rabbit. Richard Kelly’s astonishing and assured debut, Donnie Darko plays its American independent card with pride – surreal, laid back and occasionally shocking. Throw in a geriatric author whose Philosophy of Time Travel helps to explain the simple but effective CGI temporal tentacles that emerge from characters at key points, as events escalate to an apocalyptic Halloween, you have one of the year’s more strangely compelling films.
Eight Legged Freaks
In true B-movie fashion a barrel of bubbly green toxic waste finds its way into the local eco-system resulting in a gigantic increase in the size and viciousness of a plethora of spider species. Knowingly crossing its love of 50’s cold war sci-fi morality tales with a pile of CGI, Eight Legged Freaks does its best to entertain and, for the most part, it succeeds. Dumb fun which never takes itself seriously, it sadly falls apart on the tension front – there is never any surprise as to who is going to make it.
Excellent creepy Korean/Hong Kong horror with top-notch visuals and incredible use of sound. Our heroine has received an eye transplant and is struggling to see through the blur of her new eyes. What she seems to see along with the real world are the dying, being led away by a murky black figure. Yes the links to Hands of Orlac and The Sixth Sense may be obvious, but the use of stylistic camerawork and a gradual increase in the unease, including a line of revelationary dialogue that’ll leave you cold, make this a real winner. Don’t miss.
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial 20th Anniversary Re-issue Special Edition
One of the most loved, cherished and successful films of all time. Adored by critics and audiences alike for its wonder and enchantment. And who are we to argue? Well we will: E.T. is not only saccharine, manipulative and mean-spirited, but is over-long, plastic and lifeless. E.T. epitomises the cynical corporate manufacturing of false emotion to produce knee jerk audience reactions. It couldn’t get worse than this. Or could it? In another piece of revisionism Spielberg has actually managed to make his ghastly film even more hideous. Now, the FBI don’t carry guns (in America!), their weapons CGI’d into safe walkie-talkies to show that they are caring, sharing authorities. Nasty, disgraceful film-making packaged for a stupid, ignorant market. And if you disagree we’ll see you outside…
So it wasn’t like the comic then. Get a life! Wake up! It couldn’t be like the comic. It’s a film. It ain’t twenty odd hours long. Shhheeesh. Visually one of the most sumptuous films of the year and, for a Hollywood blockbuster, it even had a strong political subtext. In bringing Jack the Ripper to the screen the Hughes Brothers have done a remarkable job in adapting Alan Moore’s multi-layered masterpiece, pushing the source material as far as it could, without resorting to being either gratuitous or coy (a very fine balance). Depp is as great as ever, his character’s strong deviation from the minor role in the comic helps bind the film together and provides a context for the viewer. Mix with some stunning cinematography and exceptional set pieces and you have one of the year’s most under-rated blockbusters.
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Miike Takashi. Not a man to shirk controversy but he’s managed to confound everyone with this 116 minutes of barking utter madness. Our hero family have a guest-house in the mountains but hardly anyone shows up and when they do they have an unfortunate tendency to pop their clogs. To prevent it affecting the business the family simply bury the corpses. But there’s a new highway being built soon… right where those unfortunate ex-guests are interred. And everyone keeps bursting into song because this is a musical, with all the (von) trappings of families skipping across the mountains or cutting to kitsch studio shoots. That’s when they don’t all suddenly turn into animated plasticine figures for the dangerous scenes or gross ones. The most unusual (and funny) fantasy horror of this year, by a long way.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chris Columbus once again plays it safe in the second Harry Potter film – slavishly following Rowling’s book to the point of cinematic incoherence. That said it looks the part, most of the acting is spot on (Branagh is great) and it certainly doesn’t balk on the scary stuff either. Harry’s second year at Hogwart’s is plagued by the opening of the mysterious Chamber of Secrets and the worrying trend for fellow classmates to become paralysed. Incidents come thick and fast and the tone gets significantly darker as the film progresses. Sadly this pace leaves little room for character development or all-important fleshing out of details. Think of it as a talking illustration.
Pitch: Friday the Thirteenth’s Jason comes back again. In the future. In space. And kills people. Again. And there’s CGI blood. How novel. And it was toned to get an R rating. Stop this madness. We’ve had twenty years of this rubbish.
What’s this? Another American teen horror? But wait! No post-post-post-modern reflexivity. No “shagging = death”, “drugs = bad” clichés. Just creepy supernatural chills mixed with a road movie. It’s filmed with enough confidence not to just pump up the body/gore quota, yet it remains nasty when needed. By no means essential viewing, at least it tries to break the current teen-scream mould. Bonus point for keeping the soundtrack down.
Lilo and Stitch
Pretty much ignoring the last ten years of Disney animation that has pushed the studio headlong into CGI spectacle to keep the kids watching, Lilo and Stitch looks to more traditional methods to tell its story (with the added advantage of being cheaper). Little Hawaiian Lilo befriends the irascible and occasionally destructive extra-terrestrial Stitch. Madcap adventures occur, mercifully far from ET territory and saccharine sentimentalities. The result is one of Disney’s most enjoyable flicks of the last decade.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson returns with advertising that tells you Gandalf didn’t snuff it in part one and a much publicised CGI Gollum. Mercifully the script plays some liberties with the text in the name of cinematic coherence (Potter, are you listening?) but Jackson’s real gift lies in making crystal clear sense of the book’s numerous battles and political shenanigans in a way that doesn’t stop everything stone dead in its tracks (Mr Lucas step forward). The canvas is wide, the battles epic, violent and mythical – as they should be. The sense of dread and impending doom are not toned down, this is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, with no real resolution. This is perhaps its fault – while The Two Towers equals (and in the battle at Helm’s Deep surpasses) its predecessor in terms of spectacle, it cannot hope to maintain the same attachment to its central characters. Like the hobbits, we are shown the bigger world from that of the isolated microcosmic Shire as the implications of the quest (and its possible failure) become more apparent in relationship to the whole of Middle Earth. And in this turmoil creepy Elrond hustles his aristocratic folk off somewhere safe (bar a couple of token lower class archers) leaving everyone else to face the music of the lidless eye, the bands of marauding orcs and the treacherous wizards. This is a nice touch in two ways – at once it politicises the struggle between bourgeois and proletariat in a way that subverts Tolkien’s slant on the matter but it also allows the romance between Aragorn and Eowyn to be more tragically romantic. Jackson attempts to flesh out (everso slightly) at least one female character from Tolkien’s phallocentric tome. This is assured, commercial film-making at its very best – from the Ents storming Isengard to the dead in the marshes; anyone expecting much better might as well never enter a cinema again.
Men In Black II
Here come the men in black (again) they won’t let you remember (you wish). When MIB hit the scene it was gloppy fun, family entertainment with a good line in attitude and great one-liners. Most of all it was fresh. Second time around and the promise is bigger budget, bigger effects and bigger paycheques all around. It also seems so suddenly stale and laboured as the same plot of part one is recycled for our scant amusement. Watchable but no more, MIBII feels worse than it probably is because it is so relentlessly average and safe as a franchise product – exactly what the first film tried so hard to avoid. C’est la vie.
Here’s something to fill you with dread – Spielberg directs Cruise in a PK Dick adaptation. Shudder. Fortunately though (and against all expectations) Minority Report proves to be an enjoyable and intelligent sf film which actually requires its audience to think once in a while. And despite the trailer-friendly special effects, this isn’t a film that feels the need to wallow in effects for the sake of them – indeed there’s probably more big buck effects potential in Dick’s original. It’s not perfect and they’ve simplified some elements of the story to allow a human-precog interaction absent from Dick’s work, but overall the modern-retro future designs combined with the confidence to play it with subtlety works.
The Mothman Prophecies
Richard Gere ditches the smoothy persona and becomes an angst-ridden journo on the trail of the Mothman in Mark Pellington’s understated supernatural thriller, based on the “True Story” yawn-a-page by John A Keel. Influences include Lynch’s Lost Highway, The Sixth Sense and Nakata’s The Ring, and full marks should be given to lack of sensationalism within the material. Wisely ditching the tone and most of the extraneous conspiratorial UFO-logy of the book, Pellington has created a mature, if imperfect, film. If anyone condescendingly informs you that books are always better than the film, you need do no more than to point them in the direction of The Mothman Prophecies and be quietly smug.
My Little Eye
Heralded by some commentators as the future of British horror, My Little Eye can’t fail to disappoint. Another Big Brother-style “teens in a house” horror, the conceit is all very well but it leads nowhere and there is far too little tension. It may deserve top marks for using the limitations of the budget to the film’s advantage, but the mise-en-scene is inconsistent and ultimately, if you want scares, you’d be far better off watching Dog Soldiers.
Across the various quantum dimensions, variations of Jet Li are being bumped off. The result? The remaining ones become increasingly powerful until only two remain. Who will become the One? As Li’s Hong Kong work begins to seem like a thing of the past, his latest Hollywood offering injects trendy CGI into the deliberately over-the-top wirework that has become his trademark. Yes, The One is unashamedly trash and treats its ludicrous premise with more respect than it probably deserves, but it never outlives its welcome. The two Li’s (one good, one bad – you got that?) slug it out by hitting each other with motorbikes and other heavy metal machinery while leaping about like possessed frogs. Those expecting depth and plausibility would do well to avoid this one, but Wong’s hysterical direction makes this a daft but enjoyable romp. Best served with a few beers.
The Powerpuff Girls
Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles – sugar, spice, all things nice and secret ingredient Chemical X. So post-modern it hurts, the combination of knowing references, vaguely hip music, bodily fluids gags and 50’s B-movie trappings merge with 60’s US and anime influenced designs to make something you either “get” or don’t. Frenetic and lurid as ever, the trio’s occasionally impetuous over-exuberance is as infectious as it is fun. Suitable for small kids and open-minded adults only – boring people can suffer under Blossom’s withering laser-eyed stare.
Queen of the Damned
A belated (and far more low key) sequel to Interview With A Vampire sees a new Lestat and a safer 15 rating for the Anne Rice franchise. Set in the amusingly unscary goth-rock world the stakes (so to speak) are raised (so to speak) when the Queen of the Damned is reincarnated to decimate the earth, burn everyone’s souls and do all that other gloomy nihilistic despair stuff. The titular queen electrifies the screen with her vicious, wordless presence, but for the most-part this is designer fluff for morbid teens with a soon-to-be-dated contemporary soundtrack.
Reign of Fire
Dragon films are to fantasy fans what cannibal films are to horror fans – you always have high hopes but somehow it never quite works. Enter Reign of Fire. Christian Bale is present at the release of an ancient dragon from deep beneath London. Fast forward. Dragons have decimated the world and the few survivors have to decide whether to hide or fight – a decision “helped along” by the arrival of dragon hunter Matthew McConaughey and his band of sky diving renegades. Reign of Fire is an amiable enough romp in the post-apocalyptic mould but therein lies its problem – it’s billed as a dragon flick. Sure there are a few flying about and quite impressive they are too, but by relying on a budget-friendly plot that ignores the bits you want to see (hordes of dragons trashing major cities for example) there’s a sense at feeling cheated. Not a disaster by any stretch, but a film that seems to have a beginning and an end, but no middle.
Mercy me if we don’t have Paul Anderson’s best film ever! Sure it’s still ropey but it’s an improvement nonetheless. One of Film Four’s last productions (sniff) at least it’s a big budget multiplex job so the company can go out with a bang and not a wimpy British social comedy. Mira Sorvino spends most of the time trying to recall who she is whilst fighting zombies and pointlessly attempting to keep her clothes on. Not art, but you’ll dig the zombie dogs, the odd “jumpy” bit and forget it quickly. People criticised this film for being disposable trash without subtext – they’re right, but surely that’s the point?
More studio/MPAA hassles dogged this long delayed re-make of Norman Jewison’s Slap Shot of the future. Use this as an excuse if you want, but Rollerball, despite a couple of nice ideas (that don’t even begin to work), is an unmitigated total mess of a film. Huge chunks of the action have gone missing, the casual sexism feels like a cheap seventies exploitation flick and the acting is poor. The games themselves are rambling rubbish, make no sense and are frankly just plain stupid.
We may not know what “scooby” means but we sure know what “doo” is. Inexplicably popular summer no-brainer filled with lame gags and a crass oh-so-postmodern plot. At times you long for the crudely animated 2-D counterpart (early ones naturally, avoiding the Scrappy abomination) on the basis that at least it was shorter. The characters, bar Scooby, look the part though (mind you they did in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and the mise-en-scene is a pretty good approximation of the cartoon. Writer James Gunn has done better work in the past though – check out Tromeo and Juliet, now that is post-modern comedy at its best.
Mel Gibson stars as an ex-Reverend who has lost his faith and his wife in M Night Shyamalan’s crop circle creeper. Are the signs in the fields a hoax or indications of extra-terrestrial intelligence? As usual Shyamalan plays the low-key card to best effect (reunited with chilled out cinematographer Tak Fujimoto), often cranking up the tension with little more than a light bulb and some creaky sound effects. Seat wetting events follow and if you look too hard the whole thing comes apart but hey, this is a sf horror film, you are here for the chills and Signs surely delivers. Even if Shyamalan’s cameos are creeping into the realm of supporting roles…
Bitten by a genetically modified arachnid, our hero Peter Parker finds he has developed spider powers, powers he’ll need to fight crime and defeat the treacherous Green Goblin. And get the girl. Storming through the box office Raimi manages to put behind that unfortunate trailer from Summer 2001 behind him. Even if the studio execs cut some of the effects budget there’s no doubt that (Green Goblin’s occasionally dodgy look aside) this is an impressive and occasionally exhilarating experience. Raimi’s focusing on the human side of the Spiderman story makes the character more engrossing and believable, so that the whole piece works like a drama rather than a clotheshorse for all the whizz-bang stuff.
Officially Japan’s most successful film ever, Miyazaki’s young heroine must survive a horrifying and surreal environment in an effort to save her parents, who have been transformed into gluttonous pigs by the town’s magic and their own greed. Like a terrifying Alice in Wonderland this film has sent many a small Japanese child wailing out of the cinema, but it remains yet another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli; a combination of wonder and horror. The combination of predominantly cell animation and Miyazaki’s eye for composition and characterisation put this head and shoulders above western competition who still seem set on the idea that animation is strictly for kids. Miyazaki’s films are childlike not childish, a distinction Disney would do well to re-adopt.
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams
Robert Rodriguez gives us a second helping of his diminutive spies (part of a proposed trilogy). It all rests on Rodriguez’s shoulders (he writes, produces, shoots, directs, makes the tea etc) to deliver the goods and fortunately he doesn’t miss a beat. Yes it’s ludicrous but that’s what we like! Fast, loud, innovative and fun – bizarre Harryhausen references abound, the design is fabulous and it’s even got Steve Buscemi as a mad scientist. Our two heroes face the threat of another global takeover but their skills are further tested by two rival spy kids who have better gadgets than they do. Their long suffering spy parents (and grandparents) prove as delightfully ineffectual as ever as the action centres on the mysterious island – home to hybrid animals, bickering skeletons and flying horseshoe magnets. You know it makes sense!
Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
The normal defensive response to this is: well it’s better than The Phantom Menace. Viewed as an extension of silent cinema’s use of film Attack of the Clones works well, but the over-cramming of plot, sometimes disorientating parallel editing and plethora of silly names do much to dampen this one down. Rather like The Empire Strikes Back the tone is significantly darker as the tale recounts the rise of a clone army and portents to the war to come (presumably) in Episode Three. Visually and aurally arresting (and not just the effects – some of the details and composition are pure cinema) there’s much to enjoy but also much to endure. Even if Yoda kick butt he does.
The latest in the William Tingler Castle re-makes, 13 Ghosts sadly misses the ghost glasses gimmick of its illustrious inspiration and goes straight for the mid-budget jugular. Another haunted house flick, this time an inheritance from a mad relative who has 13 ghosts trapped inside his building provides the impetus for a group being stuck in the midst of it all. Of course these can be released by a variety of retro-mechanics and arcane demonic gobbledegook. Ultimately it’s all very samey and rather dull, but the set design of the house (and the tricky cinematographic challenge it must have caused) is among the most impressive of recent years – all glass, brass and mirrors. Sadly, like the inferior travesty The Haunting, great sets do not a great film make.
The Time Machine
Simon Wells adapts H.G. Wells in this easy to watch but easy to forget telling of the classic novel(la). Updating Pal’s wonderful work on the 1960’s version to the CGI age may not be to purists’ tastes but it works more as homage than a rip off as aeons rush by in seconds, landscapes remould and the cycles of life and death are repeated at an ever-increasing pace. A darker and far more traditional film than could have reasonably been expected, even if some of the “blame on war and government” stuff has been toned down, there’s enough here to keep you engaged without resorting to needless eye-candy.
The big question looms… Why? Spending millions of dollars on a remake of a foreign film is no excuse to compensate a viewing audience that refuses to read. In the case of Vanilla Sky (a re-make of The Others’ director Amenábar’s Abre los ojos) the occasional plot twists and reality moulding make it unsuitable for the short on brainpower anyway! Cruise is ideally cast as a narcissistic son of multi-millionaire who, following a car crash after an altercation with a long-time girlfriend, undergoes extensive facial reconstruction… and possible charges for murder. Sadly, despite Cameron Crowe’s deft handling of the film, it all descends into maudlin self-pity and ends with an explanation designed to hammer the “meaning” into the heads of even the most in-bred of preview audiences. Ultimately it stays so close to its source at times (Crowe refers to it as a re-mix, Cruz plays the same role and even Cruise looks exactly like his Spanish counterpart) you wonder why they bothered.
CGI Stuff – Monsters Inc, Ice Age, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius
The all CGI rollercoaster continues to develop in momentum although after the sad financial returns from last year’s Final Fantasy the emphasis is now firmly on the tried (and lucrative) family/kids market. Monsters Inc confirms Pixar’s place as the CGI people to watch – forget the rendering (albeit delightful) and just enjoy the characters and story. Big monsters + cute kid = top film. Exciting, funny and genuine. With nowhere near the clout of Pixar, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius plants its feet firmly in the kids mould – fun but not much for adults to enjoy, and some of the rendering looks surprisingly early-90’s. Ice Age is, however, a bit different – basically reworking Dinosaur (there are even similarities to Monsters Inc in that two monsters befriend a defenceless human) with a hint of Chuck Jones anarchy, its problem lies with the shift in styles. Ultimately you care more about the unfortunate mute squirrel than the buddy-buddy tedium of the main characters. Another place to find CGI in the cinema is before the film you’ve paid your six quid to see. These are proving lucrative springboards for testing techniques, pad out the running time of the feature and more importantly see a long welcome return to the animated short. This year’s highlight was The Chubbchubs, although For The Birds demonstrated that Pixar could be as amusing as ever. And you don’t HAVE to have kids to see them.
And the winners are (drumroll, please):
Best SF-Fantasy: Spy Kids 2
Best Fantasy: Spirited Away
Scariest SF-Horror: Signs
Scariest Horror: The Eye
Special Takashi Miike Award for Utter Bonkersness: The Happiness of the Katakuris
While the number of exclusively SF films are a bit low this year, those that are borderline (crossing over into the fantasy or horror genres) are on the increase. But then again how often do “true” SF films come along? And what is an SF film anyway? If SF is the extrapolation of the contemporary to perceive a logically plausible future then really Final Fantasy is the closest you are going to get (spiritual questions excepted) this year. If you view SF as a method for commenting on the present by altering actuality or perceived near-futures then Josie and the Pussycats is your film. Then of course, came the Hypes of the Year – both based on popular novels. Perhaps most surprisingly the one film that most definitely is not SF is the one that virtually everyone agrees is a “must-see” is The Dish. In the end it seems that whether a film can be marketed or justified as SF is irrelevant to whether it is perceived as such.
Imagine a table laid with the finest savoury food you’ve ever tasted; little canapés, stuffed olives, tasty cheesy nibbles, fresh bread. The aroma. The feel of your saliva glands bursting with antici…pation. Then imagine the horror as the renowned chef who has created these delicious morsels unloads a dumper-truck of artificial sweetener over the whole lot and bids you bon apetit. This is what watching A.I. is like. Unforgivable and a further plunge to the “not good” side of the Spielberg swing-o-meter that hasn’t seen a good film in 12 years (which admittedly is still ahead of Ridley Scott’s 17 years and counting – this year’s risible Hannibal reaching a nadir). If you must watch it then switch off or walk out when it feels like the end, you’ll thank us for it and probably like it.
Atlantis: The Lost Continent
Well, the story ain’t exactly bursting with originality – young bumbling geek and his group of companions, some of whom have, gasp, ulterior motives, discover the legendary lost city of Atlantis. Cue adventures, excitement, misunderstandings and betrayal before all is nicely resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the bad guys. What makes this film worth watching though, apart from the merciful lack of bad musical numbers, is the delightful animation. Japanese anime has become increasingly influential on Western films – characters’ eyes are becoming bigger, their noses are more snub-cute but more importantly the action has become far more dynamic. In many respects it’s a return to Disney’s glory days of the 30s and 40s. The ending is almost abstract as the source of Atlantis’ power prevents the volcano’s lava destroying the city, it’s a sequence that tries to live up to the masterful work of Miyazaki and if it never comes close (Disney may have the cash and the staff but they can’t compete with the delicacy, ambiguity and occasional ferocity of Miyazaki) it is nonetheless a welcome step in the right direction. Shame it lost shed-loads of money which, combined with similarly poor box office for Final Fantasy as well as last year’s Titan A.E. and Princess Mononoke, makes the possibility of less demanding animation increasingly likely in the west.
SF Japanese style, released to cries of despair in its native land. Why the fuss? Well the near future plot revolves around the staging of a government-sponsored game show where contestants have to kill or be killed on a specially modified island. Armed with a random selection of weapons from sub-machine guns to the awesome tea-tray, the combatants have three days to kill each other. There can only be one survivor, a rule enforced by the exploding collar – a stylish fashion statement that everyone must wear. The whole sordid affair is commented upon with helium-induced glee by a bubbly, bouncing front woman and the progress in the film can be seen at regular intervals thanks to a handy “people left alive” tally. So far, so good but Battle Royale’s trump card is that the contestants are all roped into the game by their long suffering schoolteacher (played by the inimitable ‘Beat’ Takeshi), resulting in two hours of 14 and 15 year olds mutilating each other in the name of entertainment. Sick, socially appropriate and wickedly funny.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
In a great year for popularist French films Brotherhood of the Wolf is a crowd-pleasing combination of heritage gore, monster movie and multi-racial martial arts. A sweeping pot-pourri of a film, it occasionally falls foul of its everything-into-the-pot ethos, but gains top marks for exhilarating camerawork and design. 9 out of 10 Hollywood blockbusters (when stating a preference) declared that they wish they’d been this instead.
Cats and Dogs
The potential for a great film stuffed with James Bond gadgets, international canine politics, allergy cures, mad scientists and big quadruped punch-ups may be there, but Cats and Dogs is a dog of a film. A reactionary piece of propaganda that asserts that all dogs are patriotic defenders of the US flag; the political overtones are distasteful and seem to be saying that wealth equals morality, that the only women who are not wholly evil are not worthy to have a home of their own and that any non-US nation is inherently suspect. Some of the CGI definitely bears the hallmarks of rushed-out-for-the-holidays-itis. Still Mr Tinkles’ character means that it is not entirely a lost cause, it’s just that the overall film is such a missed opportunity. And besides, cats rule.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
How long has it taken to get a decent bit of stylised wire-work into Hollywood? Too long, and ironically now you can’t get away from it (although if you’re after gentle laid back film try The Man Who Wasn’t There, mentioned here because we couldn’t think of anywhere else appropriate to put it). While The Matrix may have introduced it to a wider audience it took Crouching Tiger to put it into context. What Ang Lee has managed to do is redefine HK-style cinema as art, no mean feat for a Wu Xia film as most reviewers limit themselves to Wong Kar Wai (whose only Wu Xia film Ashes of Time was kept from these shores until Crouching Tiger made it “acceptable”) or John Woo, dismissing others as merely metteurs-en-scene of cinematic junkfood. So while many may have been surprised by the cross dressing (it’s a staple of the genre), the surreal nature of the fighting (it’s a staple of the genre) and the pathos (it’s a staple of the genre), it doesn’t detract from a sumptuous and, in Hollywood terms, groundbreaking film. Suddenly Iron Monkey is issued in the US and reaps comfortable returns at the box office, and a Mandarin language film grabs some statues. Scoff all you want but this is good news.
Possibly the flimsiest excuses for putting this in a round up of SF films but frankly it has got a rocket in it, so it sort of counts (sadly we couldn’t twist things far enough to include the remarkable Tears of the Black Tiger, Amélie or Moulin Rouge). The workers at an Australian satellite station are given the task of broadcasting man’s first steps on the moon live to the globe, a task not made any easier by its location in a sheep paddock and a series of unfortunate mishaps. As much about a small rural community as it is about the space race The Dish sees all the actors on top form with some mercifully restrained direction. Gentle, delightful and not in the slightest bit cloying, The Dish is a wonderful feel-good comedy that cannot be recommended highly enough. Even cynics can enjoy.
Dungeons and Dragons
Admit it, you missed this one as well didn’t you? Well in the name of “art” and Vector we didn’t. Quite simply the funniest film of the year we howled through every atrocious moment, almost requiring medical attention at some of Jeremy Irons’ gluttony-rich scenery feasting. Not convinced? Try this: Tom Baker as a geriatric elf, Richard O’Brien as the campest king of thieves, needlessly moulded female armour, pointy ears, horrible dialogue, dreadful acting and very silly names. In a year of lacklustre blockbusters and tired screenplays it takes something really special to plumb the depths – D&D’s the one. Pack a D20 and a six-pack.
It’s Ghostbusters for the Noughties! Only jaw-droppingly poor. Interesting CGI and some intriguing ideas cannot begin to compensate for third-rate arse gags and sorry acting. Dripping with teeth-grinding scenes of unimaginable crassness, the poster is by far the best bit.
Square Soft’s ambitious and hugely costly all CGI feature was generally condemned by critics as slight and avoided by the public at large. Anything good to say about it was levelled at the heroine’s hair. A shame really, as Final Fantasy’s deceptively simple story can be viewed on many levels, the attention to design and pacing is superb whilst the score quite simply one of the most portentously serious in a long time. Breathtaking visuals, alien aliens (how often can you say that?), action, adventure, a decent female lead role for once and a mainstream film that tackles questions of identity, ecology and spirituality. Buy it on DVD and curse that you couldn’t be bothered to see it on the big screen. Which we did of course. Twice.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars
So JC returns at last from his brief sojourn into the Vampire genre to direct an SF/Horror hybrid. However mish-mash is probably a more appropriate term. A group of cops set out to transport a dangerous prisoner from a holding gaol across Mars to a secure facility. But on arrival they discover that most of the camp population have somehow become possessed and are now fearsome fiends, with painful looking body piercings and strange rituals. Told in flashback, the film holds little in the way of suspense as you know the final outcome pretty much from the beginning. Despite a thoroughly respectable ensemble cast and good use of mise-en-scene, it just doesn’t quite work. Enjoyable hokum, but one expects more from Carpenter.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
One of the hypes of the year. Well, this looks great and features another droll turn from the stunning Alan Rickman. That’s the good part. Unfortunately Chris Columbus (it should’ve been Gilliam directing), while sensibly opting for a British cast, sadly appears so in awe of Ms Rowling’s book that he doesn’t pare enough of it to make the characterisation work. This results in a film that never fails to interest but is distanced from actually making the audience care for the characters as anything other than (delightfully realised) walking illustrations. Sometimes judicious editing and restructuring are essential to make a film work as a film…
Josie and the Pussycats
Blink-and-you-missed-it Archie comic post-modern update with great tunes, heaps of consumerist irony and spot-on performances all around. Josie’s frothy pop-punksters are spin-doctored into stardom by Alan Cumming and his bubbly-bitch boss following an unfortunate “accident” resulting in the disappearance of (s)hit boy band duJour. But sinister plans are afoot involving hi-tech underground capitalist marketing, brainwashing America’s youth and world domination (insert maniacal laugh here). Infectious lightweight fun, cruelly discarded on initial release – this year’s missed hit.
Jurassic Park III
JPIII is streets ahead of its wretched predecessor in terms of… well everything really, but is still pretty dodgy. Wisely the film ditches basic storytelling principles (beginning-middle-end) in favour of a “get on with the dinosaurs” middle-only approach resulting in much more action. Preposterous in the extreme with a bizarre solution to restoring estranged families (throw your only son on a dinosaur inhabited island for a couple of months before kidnapping a palaeontologist and enlisting the services of B-picture mercenaries to get him back again) at least there are jumps, thrills and spills to be enjoyed in-between your mouthfuls of popcorn. Dire characterisation, occasionally ludicrous set-pieces and a non-ending do their best to dampen whatever lacklustre enthusiasm you can muster, but it passes the time. Remember, The Lost World (1925 and re-issued on video/DVD this year) and King Kong (1933) are still the best dinosaur films ever made.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Beginning with outrageous fetishistic sexualisation through voyeuristic editing, the Lara v. Robot opening gets most of the fan-boy wet dreams nicely out of the way before settling down into familiar “Indiana Jones” style territory. Angelina Jolie makes a surprisingly good Lara Croft (although less said about Jon Anaconda Voight’s oh-so-ironic part as her father the better) and being a Simon West film at least the action is exhilarating. Of course it is disposable tosh with some dreadful dialogue and delivery, a plot from a B-movie producer’s wastepaper bin and more product placements than The Shopping Channel, but nice use is made of Angkor Watt and the ending is strangely reminiscent of The Final Programme, just don’t ask why…
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings
Peter “ne’er a bad film” Jackson has done it – a splendid three-hour adaptation of Tolkien. Ditching the usual (Tom “always first to go” Bombadil and the Barrow-wights among many) Jackson’s film makes far more narrative sense in the uprising of Saruman in Isengard than the book ever did. Huge battles, Boschian Mordor, really horrid orcs, aloof elves, a tantalising glimpse of Gollum, mercifully underplayed invisibility transformations and big, big sets mix with picture perfect cinematography and Howard Shore’s not-too-cute soundtrack. The editing’s great, Gandalf is perfect riding the fine line between party-thrower extraordinaire and terrifying vessel of destructive power and you even forget that the hobbits are in reality the same size as the rest of the cast, due to the subtlety of the effects work. A packed cinema full of kids marvelled at it, and the adults were entranced too, so you can’t say fairer than that.
The Mummy Returns
OK so The Mummy wasn’t going to be winning any awards for literary merit or plausibility but it was a helluva lot of fun. The sequel goes for the “re-make with knobs on” approach but sadly the film cannot live up to its predecessor. Yes, the battles are impressive, there are jumps, flashbacks, sword-fighting, airships and all manner of icky curses. Unfortunately some of it seems a touch stale and the horror aspects of the original have been ousted by spectacle. Worst of all is the appalling Scorpion king – he’s rubbish when just a bloke and laughably rubbish when half man/half scorpion, rendered in some truly abominable CGI. Still fun, still watchable, still dumb, but a let down nonetheless.
Planet of the Apes
A-ha. Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of The Planet of the Apes. Presumably he “re-imagined” it as an average, disposable piece of lightweight tosh without a single memorable human character, replete with uncharacteristically insipid cinematography, no human experimentation and a selection of endings pinched from Boulle’s novel, Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture and Kevin Smith (allegedly – but even if you had written that ending would you have admitted it?). Disappointing and Burton’s least Burtonesque film since Batman.
Truly a film for all ages the marvellous Shrek has had more than its fair share of eminently justifiable praise – if you’ve seen it nothing we’re going to say is going to come as any surprise and if you haven’t then where the hell were you in 2001?
Robert Rodriguez in U-rated shocker! Fast and furious fun from start to finish this is the cool kids’ flick of the year with super-spy parents being held hostage and only their kids to save them. Cue mad gadgets, jet-packs and nuclear powered submarines. Where else can you see Antonio Banderas at the mercy of a pantomime cackling megalomaniac Alan Cumming (it’s that man again) complete with an army of guards who are, literally, all thumbs? More action and ideas in ten minutes than most Hollywood blockbusters cram into two hours; bonkers concepts, mad sets and frenetic camerawork. As deep as a small puddle but sheer entertainment nonetheless.
This Year’s Horror
The delayed release of the Wes Craven produced Dracula 2000 (imaginatively re-titled in the UK as, wait for it,… Dracula 2001) couldn’t disguise the tedium of the finished film. Packed with some interesting ideas, particularly relating to Judas Iscariot, any affinity for the project is dampened by needless editing, that annoying tendency to show gross things but just a little bit so it doesn’t offend, and an entirely unconvincing Dracula. Well, he’s fine swishing the cloak about and stomping around in leather trousers, but please don’t let him open his mouth. A plethora of unsubtle Virgin (the shop not the preferred type of vampire victim) product placements drive the final stake well and truly home. Far better (relatively) was Forsaken, an AIDS allegory fusion of John Carpenter’s Vampires and Near Dark. Not original by any stretch but eminently watchable, occasionally shocking and only let down by a weak finale. Jeepers Creepers was a run-of-the-mill teen horror with jumps aplenty. It managed to tread the now over-familiar post-postmodernist route (how many times do we need to be told how to watch a horror film?) but dared to be different at the end, amidst an otherwise predictable plot. As for Bless The Child and Lost Souls… don’t ask, and please don’t get us worked up to mention the truly abominable Scary Movie 2. However one to watch out for is The Others, the sort of horror film that’s been missing from the big screen for too long. No gore, no fx overload, just a thoroughly creepy haunted house story. Who cares if you’re savvy enough to know what’s going on? With splendid performances all round, this is a rare treat – a horror film that genuinely scares and shocks. Also well worth a peek is the low-budget Canadian lycanthrope film Ginger Snaps, mixing art, gore and Buffy as one of a pair of suicide obsessed sisters finds herself growing a tail and having an insatiable urge for human blood. Top stuff. Follow-up fans will be pleased to have seen the excellent sequel to spooky Japanese shocker The Ring (title? guess…) received a limited release – we implore you to catch up with this series right now and join us in awaiting the release of Ring 0, hopefully next year. Those of a nervous disposition are invited to seek their kicks elsewhere. Add Audition to the equation and Japan look like retaining their crown as makers of interesting and audacious horror.
And the winners are:
Best (and fluffiest) SF Film: Josie and the Pussycats
Scariest Horror: The Others
Fantasy Winner: The Lord of the Rings (inevitably)
Best SF-by-the-back-door: The Dish
Film That Didn’t Match Its Hype: Planet of the Apes
A few years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find a science fiction film in the cinema. Nowadays there’s hardly a week that goes by without you being able to see something sf at your local multiplex. But have they been any good this year?
What, You Mean The Book Came First?
The most critically mutilated and hated film in living memory, Battlefield Earth‘s reputation lay in the fact that no-one (apart from us!) went to see it but felt compelled to put in their bit about how wretched it was. Chief concern was the “S”-word, a word so powerful that Battlefield Earth came close to being banned in some European countries on the grounds of religious propaganda and brainwashing! In the cold light of day it is but a Hollywood blockbuster: big, stupid, has an impressive ending that rivals Independence Day in its requirement to suspend disbelief and generally keeps you entertained. It feels closer to 1970’s sci-fi than the modern variety but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Flawed, looks cheesy and has some stinking dialogue, but ultimately the most offensive thing about it is how they manage to get in McDonalds product placement. Mindless piffle but more rewarding than Gone In 60 Seconds or MI:2.
Breakfast of Champions
A film starring Bruce Willis that played screen #35 out of 35 at Warner Star Village for one week only? The answer is Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful book. Unfortunately most people just didn’t get it which is a big pity as this is another in a long line of flawed but brilliant Vonnegut films. Its main fault lies in the fact that in order to get anything out of it you need to be familiar with the source. We were and loved every minute of it.
A Clockwork Orange
After a quarter of a century of self-imposed ban and the proliferation of grainy nth generation videos, Kubrick’s sf masterpiece gets the cinematic treatment it always deserved in a shiny new print and gorgeous mono sound. So what if the “yoof” stayed at home and missed out on the re-release of the year, it’s their loss. Still as brilliantly satirical and viciously camp as the day it was filmed.
Tim Burton’s re-telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a real visual tour de force, confirming his position as the auteur of big budget Hollywood. Living proof of the tag line “Heads Will Roll” this is a decapitation fan’s dream with some simply astonishing effects realising the headless horseman’s violent predilection for removing the noggins of all and sundry. The title is apt, although visually sumptuous, costumed to the max and with seminal performances from all concerned, emotionally the film seems a bit, well, hollow.
Big, Bold, Beautiful And Brainless?
Unlike the undistinguished and diluted John Woo/Tom Cruise Summer smash MI:2 Charlie’s Angels is blissfully unconcerned with matters of taste, decency and being serious. And all the better for it. Our three angels have to prevent the cessation of privacy that will be invoked if the Black Star consortium use stolen software that traces vocal DNA by using their mobile phone communications satellite as a high-tech tracker. We are in politically incorrect territory here but hey, all the girls kick ass better than their pathetic male counterparts. All the glasses are colour tinted, all the gadgets are Avenger’s daft, everything that could be believable is escalated to the preposterous. There are big explosions, intricate heists, computer hacking, car chases, lederhosen, guns, cunning disguises, crass gags and lots of fashionably improbable wirework martial arts. More insane than a farm full of cows, it’s as though the filmmakers have tossed every action idea into a kitsch bowl and mixed it up using a camp whisk.
A brilliantly obvious premise (actors in a TV sf-show are kidnapped by aliens who think they are really that heroic) accompanied by great effects and a cast clearly enjoying themselves, Galaxy Quest manages to ride a fine line that could have killed it dead. Neither mocking the fanbase nor relying on the audience understanding fandom, it gets on with pastiching every sf cliché. Starting in Academy ratio, the film opens into glorious anamorphic Panavision revealing the enormity of the situation. Rickman steals the show and, whilst this is not going to bear too many repeat viewings, it’s a helluva lot of fun while it lasts.
The Hollow Man
Paul Verhoeven alert! Sadly this is Verhoeven-lite with many of the potentially more disturbing aspects of the screenplay shuffled to the background. It’s a pity because Bacon gives a sound performance, even when transparent, as a man driven to madness by apparently irreversible invisibility. Complementing his performance are some quite remarkable and graphic effects that unfold like a living Grey’s Anatomy. The voyeuristic aspects of the story bode well but unfortunately it deteriorates into another Terminator-style “how many times can we kill him” ending that just seems tacked on. Better than average, but Verhoeven can do so much more.
Mission To Mars
Brian de Palma fails to realise the promise of his early career by producing a stupefyingly dull 2001-meets-ET with a red filter wedged to the camera, some impressive but tedious effects and a decidedly ropy latex alien. Watch Phantom of the Paradise again instead and save your pennies.
Another underplayed and intelligent film from the Sixth Sense’s M Night Shylaman, this subtle offering concerns Bruce Willis, the only survivor of a train crash, being led to believe that he might just be a real life superhero.
Bryan The Usual Suspects Singer proves his worth in The X-Men, Marvel’s grim crusaders bought to celluloid life. Treading the ground between serious (concentration camp prologue, mutant rights, moral ambiguity on both sides) and spectacle (cracking costumes, twenty foot long tongues, people thrown about like rag dolls and lots of pyrotechnics) the attempt to make a thought provoking popcorn film works to some extent. All the performances are exemplary, the set pieces stunning and Hollywood’s return to using outrageous wirework is most welcome for those of us who like their spectacle to be spectacular and their art artistic.
Smaller, Sweet And Strange
Being John Malkovich
Although the Coens’ madcap version of Homer’s Odyssey O Brother Where Art Thou? was mighty strange you were at least prepared for it, not so with Spike Jonze’s barking Being John Malkovich. A puppeteer finds himself engaged in a business enterprise renting out John Malkovich’s inner self via a doorway found behind a filing cabinet on a half-sized floor in an office block. As you do. A great fantasy which, while it ultimately peters out a touch, has more than enough to maintain a “cult film” status. An assured debut feature.
What if your memory was restricted to the last few minutes of your life? How would you live? In Momento the answer is to use a system; tattoo your body with messages and Polaroid everything you come across. To reinforce the premise the film is structured in tight pockets correlating to Leonard’s memory span which plays in reverse, unravelling pieces to the mystery of not only his life but the savage murder of his wife that triggered the condition. With first rate performances all round this was one of those little films that came from apparently nowhere. Feeling like the best of urban based 60’s science fiction this is one of the films of the year, intriguing, disturbing and a “must see several times.”
The premise is the usual space opera one – save the last remnants of the human race that has been scattered sparsely across the galaxy following the obliteration of Earth by an evil alien race. Everything about Titan A.E. is larger than life; huge explosions, hide and seek in a belt of ice, strange creatures, death defying stunts, zero-G and exotic landscapes. The world explodes for your pleasure and there’s enough character interaction (script doctored by Buffy’s workaholic creator Joss Whedon) to pull it all through. This is spectacle at its best and most enjoyable, with the huge possibilities of CGI mixed with more fluid cell animation to produce something far more emotional than last year’s Phantom Menace. Unfortunately the concept of a cartoon that appeals to those other than children (still a blinkered opinion held by many) did not ignite the box office. Link this with the similarly lacklustre response (in the States) to Miyazaki’s long awaited Princess Mononoke and the sorry situation is that large-scale animation still seems limited (in the West) to Disney’s annual outings. C’est la vie.
This mid-budget Australian SF/horror hybrid is an inventive and enjoyable romp with sudden jumps, gory deaths and, while some of the cast wave tell-tale “I’m beasty fodder” placards, the question of who will survive is very much open. Crash landing on an apparently deserted planet the survivors soon realise that the previous inhabitants were met with a less than friendly welcoming party – savage hordes of carnivorous flying beasts that gnaw humans to the bone in seconds. Fortunately they can only survive in the dark. Unfortunately the planet is due for a month long eclipse in, oh, about a couple of hours. To make matters worse one of the party is a convicted felon and very dangerous. With effective use of tension, the result is no masterpiece but a solid rollercoaster ride. The black and white blurred “thing-o-vision” is particularly effective proving that you don’t need to shell out all your cash on big stars and ILM.
The Ring (Ringu)
Without a doubt the finest horror film of the year, The Ring is a subtle Japanese techno-Ghost story almost entirely free of viscera yet disturbingly nasty with plenty of jumps and creepy bits. The tale concerns the distribution of a videotape which, once viewed, means that the spectator has exactly a week to live, or does it? Coming across as a restrained hybrid of Videodrome and The Sixth Sense but far scarier, it is a triumph of imagination over budget. Laid back in pace and high on tension this is the most unsettling but rewarding horror film since George Sluizer’s masterful Spoorloos and cannot be recommended highly enough. The sequel (unambiguously titled The Ring 2) is due for release in art cinemas next year so watch out for the original appearing as part of a repertory programme.
Elsewhere the horror film rode the gamut of enjoyment from A to Z. House On Haunted Hill was a nasty but fun remake of the William Castle classic (sadly devoid of the rubber skeleton), The Haunting was a beautifully designed but excruciatingly poor remake of Robert Wise’s classic. Scream 3 was the weakest of the trilogy, Scary Movie an atrocious so-called comedy, Final Destination an enjoyably preposterous romp and Urban Legends: Final Cut a distinct improvement on its lacklustre prequel with an incredibly gruesome first murder. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows wisely ditched the verité format of its (bizarrely) celebrated forebear but unwisely trod the tediously familiar ground of post-modernism. Polanski’s The Ninth Gate flew the flag for cerebral horror in a film surpassed in length only by Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (his second life-affirming period prison drama adapted from a story by Stephen King) which featured Tom Hanks having painful urinary problems. Stigmata’s MTV visuals and John Woo style doves, together with some sterling performances could not save it from being vacuous tat.
It’s like, you know, for kids…
Despite a number of high profile blockbusters (and unmitigated disasters), 2000 should perhaps be noted as a great year for films aimed primarily at children. Normally a good year yields at most two bona fide classics but this year several magical fantasies vied for the pocket money. Pokemon was not one of them. Neither was Dinosaur – $200 million is a helluva lot of money and somewhere amidst the awesome groundbreaking CGI and the stunning sound, someone forgot to put in a story. Uli (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Christiane F!) Edel’s The Little Vampire is a thoroughly delightful tale of an American newcomer to Scotland befriending the younger (only just past 300 years old) boy in a family of vampires led by a domineering Richard E Grant. There’s little time before a centennial comet passes which will allow the vampires to live in peace as humans once more. Naturally there are obstacles such as the smelly vampire hunter and his arsenal of vamp-snuffing gadgets. Part Moonfleet in feel this is great fun, the vampires aren’t compromised by being in a kids’ film and anyone who doesn’t warm to a shed full of vampire cows hiding from the day clearly needs to lighten up. The Little Vampire’s star Lipnicki also appears in Stuart Little, another film based upon old and established childrens’ books. Again the trick here is that the film doesn’t patronise its audience and just gets on with the show. Stuart is a lively little fellow and while he is viewed by many as ‘different’ no one seems the slightest bit concerned that he is a talking mouse. There are some great action scenes, some dark sequences where Stuart is due to be “whacked” by the local mouse Mafia under the order of the Little’s cat (whose position he threatens) as well as a bonding between the family amidst the slapstick. Anyone who has heard of John Lasseter will know any film bearing his name is the cause for celebration. Toy Story 2 is another triumph, proving that state-of-the-art CGI comes into its own only when married to a decent script and strong characters – it is a means to an end, not the end itself. Constantly engaging, very funny and perfect for all ages there is more than enough subtext to win over adults. Woody, Buzz and the gang tackle the weighty subjects of consumer marketing strategy and the purpose of childhood and friendship in a modern context. Chicken Run was the long awaited first feature from Aardman and proof that Mel Gibson makes a better cock than he does a yawn-inducing reactionary Brit-basher. There was much to enjoy in the deranged live action version of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar although we’d rather have heard Gerard Depardieu as Obelix as well as just admiring his Roman bashing antics and voluminous waistline.
And the winners are (drum roll please):
Best Fantasy Film: The Little Vampire
Best Horror Film: The Ring
Best SF Film: Momento
Special ‘Camp’ Award: Charlie’s Angels
1998 will not, in all honesty, go down as a classic year for cinema and, in the high budget world of Hollywood science fiction, will be signposted as “Year of the Bloated Eye Candy” for generations to come. The big three science fiction films this year (‘Lost in Space’ [Stephen Hopkins], ‘Godzilla’ [Roland Emmerich], ‘Armageddon’ [Michael Bay]) were all over-hyped, over-budget, over-long and over here for the best part of three months apiece, three long, long months of celluloid vacuum. But it was not all doom and gloom, little packets of happiness were opened occasionally and their fairy dust contents sprinkled around in some of the more surprising corners of the film world. It was also the year that films got made simultaneously to much the same end – ‘Saving Private Ryan’[Steven Spielberg] was ‘Starship Troopers’[Paul Verhoeven] only crap, ‘End of Violence’[Wim Wenders] was ‘Enemy of the State’[Tony Scott] only quiet, and ‘Deep Impact’ [Mimi Leder] was ‘Armageddon’ only no-one went to see it.
Giant Insects And Monsters
It’s just not PC to have any particular race being portrayed as the bad guys any more. We’re one big happy world and that’s all there is to it. So against whom can we now fight for freedom, justice and liberty?
Saving Starship Troopers – ‘Starship Troopers’ opened the year in grand guignol style, a technical tour de force of effects, every cent flaunted on visuals. However Paul Verhoeven’s aggressive attack on fascist dogma was not to everyone’s liking, the line between criticism of the Baywatch/Hitler Youth main characters and relishing the regalia and trappings they represent, was uncomfortably thin. Whatever the political motivation for the film, it is undeniably fun for those of strong stomach and certainly far better than Spielberg’s virtual remake in the form of ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Both films feature a level of violence unsurpassed in mainstream western cinema, they revel in it, guts, brains and other sticky bits galore. They both, inexplicably, received a “15” rating from the BBFC for cinema exhibition and they both feature minimalist plot structures to allow for maximum carnage. Where they differ is on political and ideological stance, ‘Starship Troopers‘ keeps its politics on an ambiguous level, you can quite happily flit away two hours blissfully unaware of any political subtext, but can derive rich interpretations should you so desire. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ wants to have its cake and eat it, on the one hand it endeavours to be the great ‘War is Hell’ message movie but in reality it’s just a bog standard ‘Dirty Dozen’ [Robert Aldrich – 1967](well eight) clone with viscera and all the more insulting because of it. When ‘Starship Troopers’ ends you know that the victory is a deliberate and cynically portrayed one, in ‘Ryan’ it is gratuitous sentiment intended to mirror ‘Schindler’s List’ [Steven Spielberg – 1993] but which ultimately demeans it.
‘Mimic’ – Guillermo del Torro’s contemporary horror film mixes the standard 1950’s science-gone-wrong scenario with the 1970’s eco-paranoia sub-genre to produce something that is irritatingly close to art/entertainment perfection but blows it all away over minor quibbles. Looking like a cross between ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ [Guiseppe Tornatore – 1989], del Torro’s second feature wears its European look heavily on its shoulders and it works. Shots of the cobbler and his son are so exquisite they look painted and the church interiors reek of gothic malevolence. Scenes of the young boy facing the (largely unseen) foe are amongst the most tense of any this year. Where it all falls apart however, is the conflict between the subtle tension of a well crafted gothic horror film (the pre-credit sequence is worth the price of admission alone) and the glitsy ‘Big Bug’ special effects. Additionally there are a number of intriguing plot strands left dangling, while the ‘Aliens’ [James Cameron – 1986] style running-down-corridors shenanigans are pushed to the fore. Ultimately you have the reverse of the Hollywood problem here, in most Hollywood films you sit through the talk/tension and wait for the action, here you want the action to end so that the real film can be given the space it needs to breathe.
‘Godzilla’ (Roland Emmerich)- What on Earth possessed someone to take one of cinema’s greats and ruin it? From now on Gojira is Gojira and Godzilla sucks. A challenge: Can anyone to come up with a single reason why expensive CGI was used when a rubber suit kicks ass every time?
Just in case the use of insects as arch-enemies could be construed as any less than entirely politically correct, Hollywood seems to have reached the conclusion that only the inanimate should have any chance of destroying the world, so that absolutely no offence can be inferred by anyone, not even entomologists. Mind you, rocks have rights too….
‘Armageddon’ (Michael Bay) – ‘Titanic’ may well have been given all the press for its extreme budget but minute for minute ‘Armageddon’ was the pricey one. A reputed $160 million was spent to bring this ‘vision’ to your local multiplex and the opening few minutes are indeed promising in their brainless wonder. Having watched the dinosaurs being wiped out by a large meteor, we swiftly cut (‘160 million years later’ the subtitle helpfully informs us) to New York, just in time to watch that get impressively wasted too, along with an ‘oh-so-funny’ Godzilla toy mauling gag, just in time to realise that there’s a REALLY big meteor heading right for us. Just as we seem to be set on course, the film veers wildly for the next hour or so for a ‘build up’ (read ‘boring bits’) as we view the unlikely spectacle of podgy Mr Willis and his band of merry oil platform workers limber up for confrontation with a large rock, a task unsuitable for those with engineering or astrophysics qualifications, space travel experience or brains. Stereotype plot strands are introduced including the ever popular ‘I was a bad father but I’ll prove I’m worthy by going into space’ scenario and daughter’s love affair with the virile soundtrack-enhanced oilmeister hothead. After this tedium we can get on with the rock bashing, male work naturally, so the daughter/lover gets to watch at mission control and whimper while the men folk save the world, pausing only to wreck the Mir spacestation and pick up the most embarrassingly overacting Russian crazy in the history of motion pictures. To be fair, ‘Armageddon’ is not meant to be realistic or artistic, as it proudly states. It is patriotic ‘bad’ entertainment for the masses and on that level it works. It is loud, big, brusque and filled with rock ballads and big sfx. It is at times tense, silly, exciting and pathetic, often all at once, and there are more plot holes than craters in the meteor . But who cares? It’s one for the cinema and those who missed it there will be well advised to avoid any video release – the sheer scale of the exercise will be lost and the thought-deafening soundtrack diminished, leaving you with just an embarrassing stain on your television.
‘Deep Impact’ (Mimi Leder) – like Deep Heat really; costs you a fiver, calms you for a couple of hours and smells bad.
You can wait years and years for a half decent vampire film, then what do you know, two come along at once, although it’s difficult to class these in the same category, far removed as they are in both style, content and execution. Add to this the intriguing, intelligent “Ultraviolet” on the small screen and you have a sucking good selection of undead morsels.
‘Blade’ (Stephen Norrington) was Hollywood’s attempt at updating the Vampire myth, while simultaneously trying to prove that its swordplay scenes can rival those of Hong Kong cinema. It can’t compete with HK (it doesn’t come close), but the film does work rather well in its own right. Blade (Wesley Snipes), half human, half vampire is on a mission to rid the world of the undead, particularly a new ‘lower class’ breed, led by Frost (Stephen Dorff of Space Truckers (1997) fame) who have broken away from their traditional lifestyle and are now intent on excessive partying and the eradication of all the stuffy vampire elders. Oh, and world domination. It’s more of a die fast, live young existence.
The films works perfectly well as a piece of solid Hollywood entertainment and not much more. It’s fast paced, action packed and engaging throughout; not particularly scary however, the main problem being that the vampires seem to have a much better time than our hero, so it’s hardly surprising that you end up siding with them instead.
Where ‘Blade’ attempts to subvert the vampire myth, ‘Razorblade Smile’ (Jake West) embraces it with loving arms and a warm vampire kiss. A British production filmed on a minuscule budget, but with access to decent post production equipment, ‘Razorblade Smile’ is a film made with genuine love and affection for the genre. Lilith Silver (Eileen Daly), a vampire “born” a couple of Centuries ago, is a hit woman by day and fraternises with vampire wannabes in seedy clubs by night, mainly to relieve the boredom of being able to live for eternity. She becomes involved with killing members of an Illuminatus sect, who are naturally rather irritated and thus begins a game of cat and mouse which may lead her into more danger than she realises. This is her story and in the many direct to camera scenes, she is draws the audience into her world to confirm or dispell myths about her vampirism. A tight plot, with a genuine twist at the end, and stunningly designed throughout, it is a great pity that the film is fundamentally flawed. Although Eileen Daly (the model from the Redemption video label) looks quite delicious in full fetish gear, she cannot act and unfortunately the rest of the cast range from wooden to formica (David Warbeck excepted). It’s mean to denigrate the film at such a base level, but it does detract from what should have been a fantastic rollicking romp. B+ for effort.
They’re coming to get you……
‘Truman Show’ [Peter Weir] – Gattaca’s script writer meets Peter Weir & Jim Carey in shockingly good film. Carey’s character, Truman Burbank lives a perfect middle class life in a lovely island-based small American town. Sure, he has a few hang ups, his job isn’t so great, but generally he’s a pretty contented and jovial kind of a guy. What he doesn’t know however, is that he is the star of the longest continually running TV show in America and that millions of people are watching his whole life second by second. The slow realisation that his life is a soap is tense and moving, Carey perfectly cast to portray 1950’s “Hi honey I’m home” wholesomeness with intense paranoia, enhanced by the audience’s privileged position outside of Truman’s world. Lovingly crafted with some superb spy camera angles and subtle escalation of pace, ‘The Truman Show’s’ ace card lies in its adoption of a hopeful existential ending.
‘End of Violence’/’City of Angels’ [Brad Silberling]/’Enemy of the State’ – A filmmaker who used to make good films is Wim Wenders, one time darling of the art circuit and New German Cinema’s main export following the untimely death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He adapted American genres to give them a wholly European outlook before developing into a true master with ‘Das Himmel Uber Berlin’ (1987 aka ‘Wings of Desire’) a film painfully remade this year as ‘City of Angels’ with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. Top tip: rent the Wenders version. Since then it seems that Wenders has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by some poor misguided husk. His only saving grace was the under-rated ‘Until The End of the World’ , a truly epic science fiction film that originally ran close to eight hours but had to be cut down to three. ‘End of Violence’ sees a return to form with its reflective but disjointed style, a gradually unfolding tale of conspiracy and treachery. Taking its cue from spy satellite paranoia, Wender’s piece features a gruesome puzzle concerning adaptive SDI technology and some headless bodies, manipulative highfliers and obsessive film producers. If, as he has stated, this is a call for the end of cinema violence he has failed, but as a thought provoking piece of Euro-paranoia it deserves repeat viewing. Wenders artfest covers similar ground to the deafening ‘Enemy of the State’ (Tony Scott), a mix of every Jerry Bruckenheimer production and Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’[Francis Ford Coppola – 1974] with an hysterical level of computer based surveillance complementing a politically motivated murder revealed at the beginning. Indeed the whole film is revealed in the opening credit sequence, a wonderful montage of pixellated security footage, although the viewer only pieces this together in the next two hours. This is exciting and gripping stuff, the plot never patronises and Will Smith makes a sympathetic and believable lead. Also, surprisingly, it attempts to make a number of political points regarding government control – a case of watching some action without leaving your brain in traction. Also worth a watch is Brian de Palma’s ‘Snake Eyes’ – Nicholas Cage in a “let’s see that again from a different angle” multi-layered assassination piece.
Bright, Bold And Brash
‘The Avengers’ (Jeremiah Chechik) – Critical mauling of the year, if not the decade, went to The Avengers, the medium budget update of the cult sixties and seventies favourite. It is hard to believe the amount of vitriol levelled at this amiable, if heavily flawed, fun film. Taking its fashion from the Emma Peel days (Uma Thurman yet again going for the queen of fetishism crown) and its plot from the Tara King episodes, ‘The Avengers’ wisely sticks to the spirit of the series in its gleeful celebration of English eccentricity and pop art surrealism. Indeed the main problem that can be levelled at the film commercially, is that it is all but impenetrable to the American market in which it needs to succeed. Lines like “St. Swithun, he’s the patron saint of weather” do little to explain cultural references to the uninitiated and patronise the rest of the audience. What is left is a double entendre laden funfest of dayglo costumes, mad technology and aristocratic settings, the Britain of a parallel universe still recovering from an acid dazed sixties. Everyone involved is clearly enjoying themselves and this is infectious, the sight of Sean Connery declaring world domination to a room of brightly coloured teddybears (to disguise their true identities, of course) is hysterical in all senses of the term and recalls the very best excesses of top Avengers writer Brian Clemens (who, amongst many others, penned the Hammer sexchanging horror classic ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’ [Roy Ward Barker – 1971] ). The flaws are numerous, and the plot holes gaping, but ‘The Avengers’ is sheer fun from beginning to end. Treat yourself to a self indulgent 90 minute smirk of a movie, you deserve it.
Greg Arraki’s ‘Nowhere’ is the ultimate slacker movie, but with an added sf ingredient that makes it all the more enticing . A portrait (well graffiti) of a community of kooky teens ranging from the streetwise, the more streetwise younger siblings, the shy-sensitive types, the vacuous image obsessives, all with no other purpose in life than to sleep with each other, consume copious quantities of drugs and party all night long. In a society where image is everything, their world is dominated by intense colour, outrageous clothes, designer decor and tv indoctrination, so it’s hardly surprising that a passing alien (in designer rubber suit) wants to get in on the action.
Although their nihilistic world is thoroughly depressing in its lack of values for anything, the film itself is a total scream, thoroughly engaging and a beautifully designed reflection of modern teen society – live for today, who cares what happens tomorrow?
The obvious parallels for this film are Kevin Smith’s seminal slacker masterpieces ‘Clerks’ (1994) and ‘Mallrats’ (1995). However, important differences lie in the respective societies created by each director. In Smith’s works, the characters have dropped out or exist on the periphery of a society we recognise; they may reside within their own fantasy worlds, but they still have to cope with life. Arraki’s world though, is completely self-contained, there is no hint of a context , apparently no need even for money as everything seems to be provided, it is simply outlandish. Also displaying shades of Richard Linklater and John Waters, this is definitely the cult science fiction film of the year, but don’t take your granny.
“Gem of the Year” award without doubt goes to ‘Gattaca’ (Andew Nichol). With the unpromising tag line “There is no gene for the human spirit” and no hype to raise audience awareness, ‘Gattaca’ depicts an Orwellian world, set in the not too distant future, where genetic engineering has advanced to the stage that peoples whole lives are determined by their DNA. The story follows Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), born with a heart defect (his parents didn’t risk a natural conception with his younger brother) whose sole ambition is to travel into space. Clearly unable to be considered for such a job with his genetic record, he has to assume the identity of a genetically perfect man and work his way into the Gattaca corporation. However, the world has changed dramatically with inspections routinely performed on every individual, everywhere; identity has become everything.
The most inspiring aspect of ‘Gattaca’ is that although filmed on a tiny budget, it is rich in resourcefulness and intelligent in execution, at no stage is the audience patronised by cod science or brainwashed with flashy techniques. Beautifully photographed with no special effects (apart from one piece of stock footage), the film owes its ambience to cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Additionally, the production design created by Jan Roelfs, who was responsible for many of Peter Greenaway’s films, gives the film a gentle, subtle tone reminiscent of de Stijl abstractions.
The subject matter too is relevant in so many aspects – the technology isn’t science fiction anymore, and with people aiming to become more beautiful and intelligent, insurance companies already probing into clients’ genetic histories, many firms performing routine checks on their employees, it is quite worrying how close our society has become to that portrayed in the film.
The Idiots – not SF, not out officially until next Summer and unlikely to escape the BBFC unscathed, Lars von Trier’s celluloid equivalent of ‘did you spill my pint?’ is a masterpiece ‘by idiots, about idiots, for idiots’. Find a film festival, take all your friends and relations to see it, you’ll either have plenty to talk about or they won’t be speaking to you. Even if you hate it you’ll find out how to cadge a free meal afterwards so what’s to lose? Ken Loach meets John Waters, in Denmark.
The year got off to a flying start with Mars Attacks! (1996). Tim Burton’s films tend to fall into either of two categories – weird, but solid commercial cinema, or truly bizarre labours of love – both of which bear the markings of his inimitable style. But the personal films, although generally better, never seem to succeed at the Box Office. Mars Attacks! was intended to fall into the former category, but inadvertently leapt into the latter with a gleeful thud. Based on a series of Bubblegum Cards from the 1950s, this is a sick and audacious stormer of a film. The Martians decide to conquer the Earth – ‘Nice Planet – We’ll Take It’- which is just what they do. They have no sense of morality, there is no justification for the attack and certainly no chance of an apology. This sets the agenda for a relentless assault of sick visual skits as pious humans, particularly those in power, attempt to ‘embrace’ and ‘welcome’ a new culture, and the Martians simply torture or destroy everything in their path.
Although there is no real need for a storyline, attention to the human element is focused on a small number of characters, typical Burtonesque misfits, scattered across America, who eventually pull through and stop the invasion by the most bizarre means yet devised in such a film. Burton always challenges what is socially acceptable, and characters portrayed as ‘normal’ are invariably the bad guys of the piece; indeed, in this film their respective demises provide some of the most satisfying comedy sequences. It is the unusual, the unacceptable, the awkward that triumphs; all the heroes are lacking in some way. Many of the top actors were simply dying (Jack Nicholson, twice) to get involved with the project, often appearing in little more than cameo roles.
The most important element of this film, however, lies in its manic pace, sheer nerve and downright silliness. This is reflected in the Martians themselves. They have enormous heads, pathetically puny bodies (with rather fetching red underpants), manic eyes, inane grins and, although computer generated, move as though they have been animated in a stop motion style (a tribute to Ray Harryhausen) which somehow makes them appear less virtual and their interaction with the human characters more convincing and sinister. They stole the show and, in an age where society is becoming increasingly moral, it was absolutely great to see a film which displayed total disregard for nineties sensibilities in favour of the bizarre, the irreverent and the manic.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) was possibly one of the most influential science-fiction films ever made. Years in the planning with dozens of rewrites of the script, Star Wars was always destined to be great because it had a powerful story, sympathetic but not necessarily virtuous heroes, terrifyingly evil villains, revolutionary special effects and a certain, indefinable sense of wonder. Which is why it didn’t need to be tarted up with CGI. Sure, the restoration was a joy; the print gleamed and the sound was spectacular, but the addition of extra scenes and a formerly prohibitively expensive Jabba the Hut, created in no time by the miracles of modern technology, detracted from the work’s force (if you will), which was that it was a Ripping Yarn of the very best sort.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), however, did benefit from its restoration. It was the transitional film, where the ‘action’ climax occurred at the beginning and the ending contained one of the most exciting revelations in cinema history, yet left everything so painfully and unsatisfactorily unresolved. It is rare to see this in any film, particularly one that was guaranteed commercial success, but it is because of this that it remains the most powerful of the trilogy. [Director Kevin Smith presumably agrees: ‘Empire had the better ending. Luke loses his hand and finds out Vader is his father. Han is frozen and captured by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. Just like in real life. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.’ Clerks (1994) — Eds].
Return of the Jedi (1981) never had the impact of its predecessors. It was the film where everything was resolved for good and, although well made, it never captured the dark hopelessness of the former two at any time. This was not helped by the Ewoks who were just too damned cute for the film’s good. Adding extra minutes of ‘family entertainment’ into the restoration was the final insult.
Still, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to see the films on the big screen once more, and they were introduced to a new generation, which can’t be a bad thing. It also conveniently sets the publicity machine moving for the three long-awaited prequels which are currently in production…
Stuart Gordon’s Space Truckers (1997) slipped in and out of the multiplexes so quickly last Summer that you could be forgiven for missing its presence, which is great pity as it was one of the highlights of the year. Ditching any attempt to be treated as serious, Space Truckers hurls you from one ludicrous set piece to the next without pausing for tea. Dennis Hopper plays the good guy for a change and for once does not overshadow all in his wake; as John Canyon his job is about as unglamorous as it gets – transporting genetically enhanced pork products for InterPork around the galaxy stopping only to lunch out in greasy intergalactic highway service stations. Life, as we suspect, does not rest in this cosy existence, oh no. Mr Canyon has to leave behind the high gloss world of piggy snacks and get on with saving the galaxy aided only by hitch hikers Mike (Stephen Dorff) and Cindy (Debi Mazar). With his space truck at the ready, our illustrious heroes do battle with high finance, nasty BMWs (Bio-Mechanical Warriors) and the Regalia, a massive jet black (light just falls off it…) pirate ship.
What sets Space Truckers apart from the normal sf spoof is that it treats its subject seriously, but not the action. Zero gravity is just that (achieved here with subtle wire work courtesy of Koichi Sakamoto of A Chinese Ghost Story fame), vacuum quite literally sucks and things look, well, grimy. All of this makes for a believable and coherent setting, which makes the appearance of arch villain Captain Macanudo (Charles Dance in a Ming the Merciless beating performance) all the more amusing. Captain Macanudo’s outrageous double entendres and pneumatic penis make for one of the screens most bizarre baddies, a sort of RoboCodpiece. It is this gung ho pace that creates a real Saturday Morning Serial appeal. This is not to say that the effects have in any way been compromised, far from it. Attention to detail is high throughout, the screen crammed with lurid advertising, groups of vicious ‘keep left’ signs and intergalactic highway beacons.
Highly recommended for good, solid fun. Rent a copy today or, better still, hope it comes around at a rep cinema near you.
Words cannot accurately reflect the travesty that was The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The film had only its special effects to recommend it, and this is a very poor substitute for quality film making. Spielberg has shown in the past how adept he is at controlling composition, suspense and sympathetic characterisation, but all these skills have been sharply curtailed to give us a rambling, overblown, incoherent mess of a film. There is little sense of the wonder that enthused in ET – the Extraterrestrial (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), none of the adrenaline of the Indiana Jones films and none of the suspense of Duel (1971) or Jaws (1975). The script is atrocious, its laughable attempts at political correctness are cringeworthy and the foreshadowing juvenile, the characterisation is defined by stereotypes and the action, for want of a better term, is formulaic and unconvincing. And then there is the acting. Dear old Dicky Attenborough should stick to directing crowd scenes. Jeff Goldblum alternates between Brandoesque mumblings and ‘gee whiz’ hyper scientist. The only redeeming performance comes from Vanessa Lee Chester as the child interest; a wonderful career ahead of her, she is shot by the starting pistol. The camerawork too, is lacklustre and ineffectual; it is currently trendy to use handheld camerawork to emphasise dynamism and audience point of view participation, but even this is sloppy and confusing and appears to have been sprinkled randomly throughout the proceedings without due attention to necessity.
Individual lowlights included the sadistic and extended pursuit/torture of an unsympathetic character ending in an off-screen ‘money shot’ with what looks suspiciously like CGI blood in the water; a ludicrous van over the cliff with tyrannosaurus sketch that obliterates credibility; a pointless King Kong rampage scene, much touted but ultimately very dull; and finally a totally inadequate ‘bad guy come upance’ scene.
To be fair, the effects were spectacular and Stan Winston’s latex dinosaurs superb, far more organic than their (admittedly impressive) CGI counterparts. Even the music lacked the avant garde primal dominance of its predecessor. In conclusion The Lost World: Jurassic Park is like censored pornography: it satisfies no-one.
Men In Black (1997) was the surprise hit of the year, mainly due to the fact that all the ‘Summer Blockbusters’ were either too chicken to compete with other releases or too crap even for the studio’s generated hype to drum up business (Batman and Robin, for example, an classic example of a budget blown on actors [Schwarzenegger, Clooney and even O’Donnell, Silverstone and Thurman] and effects, and nobody thought to buy a plot). A short, snappy little number, Men In Black pairs up (Will) Smith and (Tommy Lee) Jones as the secret government agents that oversee the activities of real illegal aliens, that is, tourists from other worlds.
Its attempt at plausibility works well, most aliens can cunningly disguise themselves in human form, and any unsuspecting soul who inadvertently comes across such a being in its ‘natural state’ can receive a memory wipe, thus dealing with any associated trauma. Earth seems to be a popular place to visit and in general the aliens are well behaved. However, there are always some irritating tourists that give the rest a bad name and one has decided to run riot in someone else’s body. Add the mystery of a missing galaxy and things start to get strange…
So, the day has to be saved and there are only two men qualified to do it. Cue the visual gags (particularly where aliens are concerned), hi-tech gadgets and military hardware, with time for some (but not a vast amount) of love interest. Narrative is not an issue here, there’s no need for any deep meaning philosophy; it’s simply a licence for the film-makers to go mad with their imagination and humour. Which is basically what they did.
The concept was good and the film was enjoyable to watch, but bearing in mind the material available, could have been quite a bit more manic. It suffered from a very fast paced trailer, which gave away all the best jokes and indeed the ending.
David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) falls into familiar love or loathe territory. On board for a second outing is writer Barry Gifford, who scripted Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990), and it is clear that the two of them work exceptionally well together. Gifford’s books explore the minutia of every character’s existence, they are all given equal weight and suitably bizarre idiosyncrasies, nothing is extraneous. Similarly Lynch’s films enjoy exploring the surreal details of everyday life and extending them to absurdity. They also share a similar love of macabre humour and the satisfaction of coincidence.
In Lost Highway the main protagonist, Fred Madison, is accused of the brutal murder of his wife following the appearance of voyeuristic videotapes that have brought him to the brink of paranoia. But this is no Hitchcockian ‘innocent man on the run’ film. Fred is confused, persecuted and watched, he is placed in prison, and there he becomes his younger self, or someone else, or mad. Lynch brings on his supporting cast like a ringmaster – Mr Eddy the rich pornographer with a novel way of reinforcing the Highway Code, the Mystery Man with his schizophrenic mobile phone and Mr Eddy’s girlfriend, complete with slow-mo diffusion and hug-me-tight fetishistic sweater. All the characters have a comfortingly familiar air; Lynch relaxes with them and eases their situations out deliberately and thoughtfully. Where this differs from his previous works is the total denial of structural realism and its replacement with mental realism – in this case the mental realism of a man beyond the edge. Changing a main character half way through a film is an audacious step; not even to be aware how much this new character is even new, stretches audience acceptance. As usual, Lynch does not compromise to win over new friends.
We are only allowed to see one world and it is incredibly strange – the (relatively few) deaths become more surreal and, perversely, more believable. The final truths are hard to cope with, obtuse and repellent.
In terms of cinematography the film excels – hyperfast blurry roads, effortless cranes, gorgeous close-up focusing and macabre lighting, the very essence of a cinematic experience. The contrast at times is very low with dark reds dripping against blacks on a wide screen.
Also of note is the astonishing soundtrack, Badalamenti (Lynch’s regular composer) delivers some of his sleaziest, laid back jazz/easy yet, which perfectly counterpoints the more driving industrial/metal on offer, here mixed by Trent Raznor of Nine Inch Nails fame.
Certainly not to everyone’s taste and in many respects an enormously difficult film to watch, but a fascinating, surreal and disturbing experience.
After a couple of false starts, John Woo finally has a Hollywood film under his belt that can stand alongside his astonishing Hong Kong films without shame and that film is Face/Off. Nicholas Cage is Castor Troy, evil, charismatic and treacherous. John Travolta is clean living Sean Archer, a police officer dedicated to hunting down Troy, who killed his son. The stage is set, and it’s operatic.
As is usual for a Woo film everything is larger: coats billow in loving slow motion, bodies fly through the air with choreographed grace, there’s beautiful imagery (The Killer’s doves and church resurface ) and most importantly the deep, deep emotion dominates. Face/Off (1997) takes the Prince and the Pauper principle, perverts it and mixes in Franju’s Yeux Sans Les Visage (1959) (which being obscure and French clearly has no place on these hallowed pages [see David Lewis’s letter in Vector 197 and responses in this issue — Eds) to see Travolta’s good guy physically becoming Cage’s bad guy, and visa versa. All of this would seem a little far fetched were it not for the skill of both the actors and director, Travolta as Cage playing Travolta is remarkable and chilling, he wins his way into his new ‘family’ by charm and subversion, Cage does not have it so easy, stuck in prison as a man he is not, he is subjected to magnetic boots, unruly prisoners/guards and threats of lobotomy.
The world created is clearly defined, futuristic in every sense and yet contemporary enough to be recognisable, this is pure science fiction combined with Woo’s masterful action packed direction.
Science Fiction is an incredibly popular genre at the moment. So many films were produced last year that it was virtually impossible to select which to write about and there just has to be an ‘Honourable Mentions Section’.
Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996) was strange and satisfying, a combination of fun and gore. It was certainly the most commercial of Jackson’s films to date, but hugely enjoyable.
The biggest spectacle produced was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997). Visually stunning, it created a bizarre world, beautifully designed but the film was ultimately flawed by casting.
Abel Ferrera created a small, but thoughtful black and white vampire film called The Addiction (1995).
Cronenberg’s and Ballard’s respective talents finally come together with Crash (1996), a simultaneously beautiful and repellent study of sex and the automobile.
Event Horizon (1997) was a nasty horror film set in space. Slick, sick and nauseous.
Alien: Resurrection (1997) suffered from having to carry the baggage of the previous films despite a worthy directing attempt from Jean Pierre Jeunet. Close, but no cigar.
So, a good year for sf films? Certainly from a Hollywood perspective – science fiction is definitely in fashion, the genre being a perfect medium for big budgets, fast action and special effects. It was interesting to see some of the well-respected directors, such as David Lynch, John Woo and Abel Ferrera making sf films and they have proved that it is possible to produce genre films that are intelligent and challenging, not simply packed with effects. Science-fiction comedy/spoof was also a big feature of 1997 and produced some truly enjoyable films.
Suzy McKee Charnas
Tor/Forge – Trade paperback – August 2008 – ISBN: 0-7653-2082-7
Discovery. Capture. Psychoanalysis. Opera. Demise.
Suzy McKee Charnas’ The Vampire Tapestry weaves five segments of her main character’s life, or at least one of their lives, into a compelling study of the vampire in contemporary (1980) society. Attempts at legitimising the vampire or removing them from their traditional gothic or romantic personas are not, of course, new ideas – the vampire is after all one of the more malleable of literary supernatural creatures – but Charnas takes a logical approach to the practicalities of being a vampire and creates a far more plausible figure than the penny dreadful creatures or immortal lovers that have had a tendency to blight the genre. The vampire in question is Dr. Edward Weyland, a respected anthropologist who happens to need blood, preferably human, to survive. He uses his position and a cover-up of research into sleep to suck the blood of his victims, all of whom forget the experience. He is generally careful to ensure that he covers his track and certainly doesn’t want to leave a trail of bodies – that would provoke too much suspicion. But provoke suspicion he does when Katje, an inquisitive woman with masterful gun skills, chances upon what she believes is the good doctor feeding his hunger. Rather than dismiss her feelings as irrational she seeks out the truth behind the distant, some would say aloof, lecturer.
What makes The Vampire Tapestry work so well is the way that it treats its subject with the kind of anthropological fascination that Dr Weyland is meant to give to his own work. You learn about the vampire’s character through the people he comes into contact with. Devoid of any romanticism Charnas gets on with the process of deconstructing the vampire as a credible being in a modern society rather than a caped pursuer of buxom beauties. In this respect the book has survived nearly three decades of technological advances extremely well – bar the absence of mobile phones and the internet, it still feels contemporary in the way that its characters are rounded and developed. Weyland is a vampire in the traditional sense in that he drinks blood but, as with any novel on the subject, there are is a list of traditionally accepted vampiric traits that need to be confirmed or dispelled. Charnas does this in a very elegant way, by having Weyland give a hypothetical lecture on the subject at his university early on in proceedings. For example, Weyland does not have fangs, retractable or otherwise, but a spike underneath his tongue – which enables far more efficient feeding. He can wander in the daylight but does, occasionally, go into a form of hibernation. During these periods Weyland loses his memory (and, one presumes, identity) to emerge once more, stalker of men. His general lack of human emotion – he looks like us but is not one of us – makes him a dispassionate central character and all the more chilling as a result. There is no rationale behind his actions beyond the instinctive need to feed. In this way Weyland becomes a mirror into which society must gaze – a reflection of the mores of the humans who come into contact with him, although he himself lacks extremities of emotional behaviour. In the second section the relationship between the vampire and humans creating myths for their own purposes are examined when Weyland is captured and turned into a freakshow for a dangerous Satanist who intends to profit from him. This section examines the preconceptions that people have about vampires and their powers without actually coming to a conclusion based upon empirical evidence. Even more compelling is the next section, where Weyland finds a therapist in order to recover from his ordeal, and their relationship begins to blur the boundaries between patient and doctor. The fourth section is possibly the weakest. It is a brave attempt to juxtapose the emotion of an opera, Tosca, with the thrill of a kill, but the intricate description of the opera without the benefit of the music renders the reader swamped in detail. The final chapter winds the pace down to the conclusion of this story’s arc…
The Vampire Tapestry is an intelligent dissection of the vampire myth that is as compelling to read as it is chilling. By removing the vampire from the fairy tale and treating the violence inherent in any such narrative as a matter of record rather than a titillating excuse for grand guignol excess, Charnas has created a truly terrifying monster, one that doesn’t elicit sympathy but, because of its nature, doesn’t garner hatred either. If there is a quibble (and it is a very minor one) the fact of Weyland’s perceived position as a unique creature is something that seems too arbitrary to fit in with the rest of the book’s methodical approach to its subject. Overall, though, an essential read and a welcome re-issue for a classic text.
Paperback: 312 pages – Immanion Press; New Ed edition (30 Jan 2008)
In the far, far future the end of the world is nigh. Most humans left many centuries before. The plague is abroad and no-one is immune from its putrefied touch. Technology is gone; sorcery and divination are the only guides for hapless souls who remain, hungry but anxious to foretell their destiny. In this tumultuous landscape a young diver, Lysariel, becomes obsessed with a strange luminous red coral that he discovered in a cave beneath the sea. His plans to prove its existence to his sceptical uncle are somewhat scuppered when he is suddenly crowned king of Scleracina and his brother Manazzoryn becomes next in line to the throne. The pair are delighted to be introduced to two charming girls, daughters of pirate princes, who they hastily betroth. But such frivolity and joy are fleeting glimmers of happiness, for there are wider political and spiritual forces at work that threaten to destroy the kingdom. Infatuated by his young bride Calia, King Lysariel determines that a statue should be sculpted from the magical coral as a tribute to her beauty. From the moment the mystical material is dragged from the ocean’s depths things start to go very, very wrong. Parts of this grim future have been predicted by Giraiazal, practitioner of astrology and cartomancy, a morpheomorphist (who can shape the dreams of others) and wily devil who has found himself in the position of Grand Vizier of Scleracina, more by luck than judgement. However, it’s really not at all in Giraiazal’s interests to foretell a future of doom and gloom.
Curse of the Coral Bride is a gothic novel of tragedy and betrayal with a smattering of horror set against the backdrop of a dying world. These are dark times and Stableford describes his characters in such a way as to keep their motivations slightly masked from view, save for his protagonist Giraiazal whose chief goal is survival, which is not easy to achieve in a world that is no longer enlightened, but threatened with anarchy and despair. But one thing that remains, despite the denizens knowing of their imminent doom, the will to power still binds those with the authority to see through their treacherous intent. This, then, is a tale about the lust for power set against a backdrop of fear and superstition.
The book’s structure is linear, and each chapter preceded with an extract from The Revelations of Suomynona, the Last Prophet, which ranges from the informative to the whimsical, explaining the various divination practices or philosophising about the end of the world. This has the effect of bringing a more rounded vision of the world to the reader without impinging on the central narrative, but can break the flow of the story, in some cases jarringly so. But this is a minor quibble, Curse of the Coral Bride is an exciting and intriguing read, drawing the reader into its strange world through its deliberately archaic use of language and turn of phrase. A gothic fantasy that feels at home aside The Castle of Otranto in tone and brooding, doomed romance.
Orbit Hardback 384 pages – ISBN-10: 1841496952 – £12.99
Personal Demon is the 8th book in Kelley Armstrong’s continually expanding “Women of the Otherworld” series of Fantastical Ferocious Faux-Feminist Female Fighting Fictions. The first book, Bitten, concerned the exploits of a female werewolf coming to terms with her identity but Armstrong soon broadened the remit to include other supernatural creatures, creating a parallel world of the fantastical who walk among the ordinary. You don’t have to have read all of the previous books, but it probably helps to have encountered some, as recurring characters do tend to pop up at some point in the narrative. This allows familiarity for the regular reader, but the standalone nature of proceedings makes it fine for the casual “dipper in”. In Armstrong’s world the supernaturals generally stick together and try not to let humans know anything about their existence. There are werewolves, who live in packs, witches who lead a supernatural council and sorcerer cabals which are run like corporations, except most corporations don’t kill their employees for minor misdemeanours. Allegedly.
Our first protagonist is Hope Adams, an Expisco half-demon, which basically means she thrives on the chaotic thoughts of others. Our second protagonist, Lucas Cortez, is the lawyer son of cabal leader Benicio Cortez but, wouldn’t you know it, he’s a nice lawyer and doesn’t like cabals at all. Ironic then, that his father has named Lucas as his heir – he’ll inherit the whole caboodle when Benicio shuffles off his mortal coil. Now, Hope owes Benicio a favour and this involves partying with a bunch of young supernaturals who rob rich non-supernaturals of some of their wealth. The gang are just having kicks and are signposted to become prime corporate material when they eventually grow up and get proper jobs and Benicio wants Hope to keep tabs on them. When some of these kids get kidnapped Hope suspects cabal foul play, but when a serious attack is launched on Benicio and two of his sons, the lines of loyalty become very blurred indeed.
Armstrong’s formula has been clearly established in the way that she sets up both character and situation, leaving plenty of room for flirtation and foreshadowing of her readers’ expectations. This time the story is necessarily told from both Hope’s and Lucas’s perspectives and always first person, allowing the tale to ping-pong between the pair. Armstrong is content to get on with the adventure at hand, removing the unnecessary detail to fashion that instantly dates many examples of this increasingly popular sub-sub-genre. There are, naturally, a number of sex scenes that range from the teasing to the ridiculous – as in the flashback where she and a lover have sex as she cooks a morning fry-up!
Personal Demon is pretty much what you’d expect it to be – an adventure mystery which ain’t great literature, but is an undemanding and entertaining read.
by Lian Hearn
Hardcover: 560 pages – Publisher: Macmillan 2007- ISBN-13: 978-0230013971
There are a number of things that can, for no obvious reason, strike feelings of dread in a reader. This can vary from one person to another but a personal list would include books that feel the need for a map, a dramatis personae when it isn’t a play and genealogy charts. Heaven’s Net Is Wide contains all three and adds a subtle twist that would have made this list of ominous warnings even longer had we’d considered such a concept – yes, the book contains a genealogy of the horses. And then there’s its availability in adult and junior editions which also sets alarm bells ringing, coupled with a seemingly heavily indulgent page count. However, one should never judge a book by it girth or apparently gratuitous embellishments and Heaven’s Net Is Wide turns out to be one very good reason why. Although written after Hearn’s Tales of the Otori books, Heaven’s Net Is Wide is a prequel to these and acts as a standalone, an introduction to the trilogy and/or a closer examination of legends that are referred to in the previous books.
Shigeru Otori is heir to the Otori Clan in a feudal Japan made volatile and fragile by war and treachery. Although the clan is well regarded, with an ancient lineage, it is perceived as weak in the minds of the clan’s uncles who seek to manipulate or even plan the overthrow of Lord Otori’s capital in Hagi, whilst on the surface pledging their allegiance. Their reasons involve not only personal greed but fear, for the savage Tohan are seeking to expand their territory through slaughter and subjugation. Shigeru evokes the wrath of the Tohan when he kills a prominent clansman in swordfight and rescues another, Iida, Tohan heir, from death – something the impetuous youth despises, as he does all signs of weakness. Shigeru’s also has a headstrong younger brother to protect and must consider producing an heir of his own, although not with his mistress, the beautiful Akane. As civil war becomes increasingly likely the balance of power lies in the hands of a few clans who could tip the political situation either way. But what of The Hidden, a ragged bunch of pious pacifists who worship an alien deity, or The Tribe, mysterious unaligned warriors with apparently supernatural powers?
Despite its junior tag Heaven’s Net Is Wide is not a book that relies on simplistic cause and effect plotting or two-dimensional characterisation – it is truly an epic tale told, at times, from very intimate viewpoints. Although never gratuitous this is a blood soaked tale of honourable combat, treacherous slaughter and the massacre of innocents set against a backdrop of possible imminent famine. Neither does Hearn balk on the harsh sexual expectations and demands of the time, mixing passion with violence, tenderness with violation in a frank but never salacious manner – the matter of fact-ness of the tone emphasising the brutal realities of this time past. The attention to period Japan’s culture, food and religion shows a clear love of the country and its history, even in a fictional context. With all books that are ostensibly based in the real world, the little details – the food, the plants, the daily ritual – give as much flavour of the society as the more obvious trappings of samurai and geisha, castles and battles. To this end a small number of indigenous Japanese terms that may be unfamiliar to people crop up in the text, but add richness regardless. Similarly Hearn’s style of writing is very formalised, almost lyrical, giving the book the feel of something that has been passed down over the centuries and suitably reflecting the subject matter.
A page turner of an epic, Heaven’s Net Is Wide is an eloquent and fascinating novel full of passion and betrayal, spirituality and culture, war and lust.