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2009 – Yet Another Year in Decline

It’s been a strange year for the film industry, one of contradictions that saw everyone being deeply depressed at significant increases in box office revenue. During a time of recession cinema attendance tends to increase because going to the movies is a relatively cheap form of entertainment – certainly when compared with a night out on the town with all the trimmings or a holiday to foreign climes – a theory supported by an upwards turn in takings of around 14%, despite a decrease in actual product. This year hasn’t really seen many of the hyper-mega-super-blockbusters we have come to know and loathe love hit the screens – only a few of the standard SF/comic franchises have made an appearance, including a fashionably late Mr Potter. Despite the stellar box office takings the studios don’t have the vaults of Kugarrands to spend on either the movies or marketing because other branches of their multi-media businesses have suffered the effects of the recession. But perhaps this is a good thing as some of the best products we’ve seen this year have been the lower budget productions – more thoughtful, more intelligent or a little bit quirky.

3D is here to stay. Right? We’ve had a slew of ‘em this year, culminating in James Cameron’s over-hyped Avatar, allegedly the reason behind the industry spending billions upgrading cinemas, although matters such as piracy and the ability to charge more at the ticket stall certainly attracted many takers. So was Avatar worth it? Well, yes. A cross between Titanic (1997) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the plot involved humans wanting to obtain the elusive element unobtainium (a timely homage to ‘science faction’ ‘classic’ The Core) on a distant planet so that they can make squillions of dollars back home. However, the indigenous 12 foot blue humanoid aliens, the Na’vi, aren’t really so keen on having their forest planet transformed into a giant mine for corporate profit and empire building. The humans come up with two possible solutions: try to connect with the aliens and convince them to co-operate, using Na’vi avatars controlled remotely by human scientists, or alternatively just have the military blast them out of existence. So not a social, economic, militaristic and environmental deconstruction of the present at all then. It goes without saying that the effects are stunning, but they complement the story and characters rather than simply add a ‘wow factor’. Yes the plot is thin but Cameron knows where to place his camera rather than just wave it about hoping the editing will sort it all out in post-prod (that’s you, Mr Bay). And if you get a chance to see Avatar in IMAX – take it.

Avatar aside, 3D still tends to fall into the realm of the family film or horror movie, but this year’s filmmakers have generally eschewed the format’s gimmicky nature (see Fly Me to the Moon, actually don’t…) in favour of a good story and character development, the 3D enhancing the film rather than becoming its raison d’ĕtre. It’s a shrewd move that adds credibility to the format and, crucially, means the lucrative DVD/Blu-Ray/TV markets won’t leave punters questioning why characters inexplicably wave things at them. Best of this year’s bunch were Pixar’s Up!, Disney’s Bolt and Coraline, all of which were so splendid that they were even capable of wowing provincial audiences who could only see them in dimension-poverished 2D. In Up! 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen ties thousands of helium balloons to his house to defy the property developers who are trying to get him into an old people’s home and flies off to Venezuela to search for a waterfall that captivated both him and his late wife throughout their youth. But he’s not alone because wilderness explorer Russell has unintentionally joined the adventure. Utterly charming, beautifully realised, moving and funny Up! is yet another solid gold winner for Pixar and, while the very young may be restless at first (the opening is an mini-film in itself), the wacky comedy ensures that everyone comes out satisfied.

Bolt is a superdog. His mission, should he accept it (which he always does) is to protect his owner, Penny, from the forces of evil. What he doesn’t realise is that he’s actually an ordinary dog who’s the star of a TV show and that Penny is an actress. When he accidentally ends up on the other side of America he has to team up with an alley cat and a hamster in a ball – who happens to be his biggest big fan – and get back to his beloved Penny. With a solid premise and great animation, Bolt is a whole load of unassuming fun. Its influences are plain to see – Toy Story (indeed Pixar luminary John Lasseter is now giving a guiding hand at Disney’s animation branch) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, among others – but its characters and story hold the piece together.

Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book, was another masterpiece of animation from Henry Selick, who really didn’t get the recognition he deserved for A Nightmare Before Christmas (this year’s 9 was similarly credited to Tim Burton who, along with Timur Bekmambetov, took a producing credit). This is a dark but magical fantasy where lonely Coraline chances upon a door in the wallpaper of her new home that opens into a passage leading to another version of her house. She meets her other mother who, unlike her regular mum, is attentive and charming. She also cooks a better dinner but strangely has buttons where her eyes should be. Coraline is offered the chance to stay in this new and apparently happier world, provided she is willing to undergo a small operation. The perfect horror story for children, Coroline’s PG rating belies the way that the scares really get under your skin. The quirky sets, the exemplary model animation and the delightfully macabre humour mark it out as one of the year’s most successful films.

Monsters vs Aliens was a slice of silly fun. When Susan Murphy is hit by a meteorite on her wedding day she becomes the towering Ginormica and is locked away with a bunch of other monsters in a secret government institution. However when aliens attack earth, the military set the monsters on the invaders with the promise of letting them go free… if they can save the world. With a pile of in-jokes that reference classic sf – Dr Strangelove, Attack of the 50 foot woman, The Thing, Earth vs Flying Saucers, Mars Attacks, Spaceballs, Destroy All Monsters – this is pacey fun all the way, all the more surprising when compared with Dreamworks’ otherwise generally moribund fare.

Fantastic Mr Fox shunned whizzy CG and 3D by reverting to traditional, tactile, stop-motion techniques. Expectations were high for Wes Anderson’s animation debut (American accents notwithstanding) as he retold Roald Dahl’s story about the cunning Mr Fox, who feeds his family by stealing from three crooked farmers. Living in a hill underneath a tree along with Badger, Rabbit, Weasel, and their families, matters come to a head when the irate farmers pool resources and set out to irradiate the villainous vulpes once and for all. The distinctive and deliberately stylised animation combined with Anderson’s off-the-wall sense of quirky humour set out to make Fantastic Mr Fox a satisfying addition to the canon of children’s film that, due to its almost Ladislav Starevich qualities and a typically oddball soundtrack, will stand the test of time. Like Coraline, there are scary bits but it also features an animated Meryl Streep dancing far more assuredly than she did in Mamma Mia!

9 (not to be confused with Nine) was an oddity. Too scary for kids and probably too childish for adults, it was hard to see where this was pitched. 9 is a sackcloth ragdoll (think Little Big Planet’s Sackboy with a frown) who, along with 1 to 8, has awoken to find himself in a post-apocalyptic world where mechanised monsters roam the land, decimating anything in their wake. 9 persuades the others that they must try to learn about the machines and their intentions. The world’s future could depend on them… if the filmmakers can think of an ending. Though visually stunning and baroque in its vision, the scant plot (a series of set pieces that resemble someone playing a particularly good platform game) and po-faced grimness detract from the otherwise enjoyable thrill ride. Still, first time feature director Shane Acker is definitely a figure to watch.

The popularity of franchise films and comic book adaptations has not diminished but once again their numbers appear to be on the decline, with a few studios trying to kick-start new examples or reboot old ones. The much delayed release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince charts Harry’s 6th year at Hogwarts as he finds an old textbook that used to belong to the Half-Blood Prince and becomes spectacularly good at making potions. And of course there are more clues to discovering more about Voldemort. David Yates, who directed the previous film and is completing the final two, manages to produce something cinematic and coherent from another sizeable tome, increasing the imminent threat to breaking point (the film is at times quite violent). The result is the young wizard’s most successful outing yet (bar Year Three) with action set pieces tempered by scenes of character development and interaction. And this time Helena Bonham Carter gets to be truly evil.

What a waste of time X-Men Origins: Wolverine was. Well, that’s not strictly fair, the titles featured a pretty spectacular montage of Wolverine battling through history so we recommend watching that and then not bothering with the rest. In the mid-1800s, Logan and Victor leave home after one of them kills their father. They serve together in a number of wars and eventually join a team of mutant commandos. Logan wants to quit but finds it impossible to leave as his commander has plans for his future. X-men fans might enjoy this but the minimal plot and poor characterisation just don’t cut the mustard. Even the set pieces have reached a ‘seen it all before’ saturation point and the ‘Logan’s wife’ plot is so underdeveloped the audience has little sympathy for him or anyone else for that matter. In a year that tried to push 3D it’s surprising that anyone bothered with this 1-D yawnfest.

And in the Hasbro toys franchise market Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen competed with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Both are chock full of set pieces but the latter eschews Michael Bay’s penchant for unfathomable scattershot shots for Stephen Sommers’ typically gung ho Saturday Morning style action with modern tech. They sort of remember to put a plot in amidst all the action.

Oh dear, oh dear. Salvation is what we needed after Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in the long-running series that really should have been terminated after T2 (1991). The familiar plot (John Connor, Terminators, violence) is given a ‘twist’ by being set in the future world that the other films flashed forward to. Sadly, though, director McG has a hard time coaxing any enthusiasm in a film full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. A big budget and big explosions couldn’t save the film from the biggest crime of all – it was boring. With that in mind the prospects for anything good to come out of the latest attempt to update the aging Star Trek brand were looking slim to say the least – a bunch of TV hopefuls trying to ‘reboot’ the original series from the bottom up under the steady hand of JJ Abrams, the man behind the underwhelming MI3 (2006). But wait. What a revelation! Treading the fine line between updating the franchise and keeping the trekkies happy was not going to be easy, but somehow it all works – breakneck pacing, genuinely exciting set-pieces and great interaction between the characters as we see how young scallywag Kirk grows up and finally accepts responsibility as commander of the USS Enterprise.

Frank Miller, armed with the arsenal of techniques he learned co-directing Sin City (2005), returned in his adaptation of Eisner’s comic character The Spirit. Miller’s version is a visually intense and constantly imaginative assault on the senses as the titular Spirit battles with his old enemy The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and an assorted bevy of freakish thugs and femme fatales. The plot twists are fast and convoluted, the faux noir dialogue is occasionally annoying and much of the iconography jaw-droppingly tasteless but its main problem lies in the fact that however hyperactively imaginative it is, it remains a detached and cold experience. Far more satisfying was Zack Snyder’s long awaited Watchmen, a two-and-a-half hour adaptation of one of the defining comics of the 1980’s. Inevitably Watchmen is held in such high esteem that whatever Snyder did someone was going to get annoyed about it (“they cut the psychic space squid!”) but film is film – it isn’t a comic. Obviously they had to leave some things out but what is surprising is how faithfully the whole thing plays – it’s as though Snyder sacked his storyboard artists and just grabbed another couple of copies of the collected edition at his local Waterstones. Superb effects and mercifully not toned down to appeal to a PG-13 audience Watchmen was spectacular, thoughtful and brutal. The title sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

Hollywood also provided a number of non-franchise/comicbook SF films this year, some of them preposterous, some a little more thoughtful. Surrogates is set in the future where humans interact with each other through surrogate robots (all, naturally, better looking than they are in real life), thus reducing crime to zero and making everybody happy, except for those who choose to reject this life of lethargic hedonism and live outside the sterile cities. Cop Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) has to leave his relatively blissful surrogate life to investigate the death of a real person – the surrogate shot by a shadowy figure wielding a new type of weapon. This is all eminently watchable SF puff with a few good ideas and a couple of well staged action set-pieces; this is after all a Bruce Willis film, not Tarkovsky. The problem is that once the high concept idea has drawn you in your left with a big pool of ‘so what’ – especially when you realise that the trailer does, in fact, show you the entire movie, only quicker.

Knowing’s mildly preposterous premise – Nicolas Cage becomes aware of impending future disasters via a time capsule message at the local primary school – turns into an interesting and engaging film thanks to Alex Proyas’ direction. The denouement doesn’t quite live up to the promising start, but it’s worth a watch, particularly for the elaborate and spectacularly staged disaster scenes, which added an odd combination of thrill and sobriety to the often absurd proceedings.

Now District Nine was a pleasant surprise. ET refugees have been placed in a camp in South Africa and are getting restless due to the appalling conditions. The Multi-National United organisation is given the task of closing the camp down and evicting the unpopular “prawns”. Tension between human and alien is inevitable. Why can’t the aliens just go home? Combining action with social commentary District Nine was one of the more thoughtful action SF films of the year. Not so Outlander, although it did have aliens and action. In fact, it was ludicrous – ‘Vikings meet aliens’ probably best summarises the plot. A human-looking alien crashes to earth several centuries ago and has to ingratiate himself with a bunch of violent Vikings before they make peace with each other and all set off to fight a big alien monster together. With lots of action, not much story and no introspection, it passed the time.

Where would we be without Roland Emmerich and his cinematic Götterdämmerungs (not forgetting to include a new and innovative way of decimating the White House)? In 2012 the world is going to end. The Mayans predicted it, so it must be true. It’s because of those wretched mutating neutrinos that are causing the earth’s core to boil and we’re all doomed. Everyman and failed author (John Cusack) must save his family from a series of increasingly bombastic natural disasters and two-dimensional stereotypes. Cod-science hokum of The Core (2003) variety make this an enjoyable, if overlong, spectacle – you’ll laugh, but not when the film-makers want you to.

You know, you can wait years for a time-travel love story, then two come along at once. Both The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button depicted the difficulties of holding down a long-term relationship while one of the partners can’t function properly in time. In the Time Traveller’s Wife, Henry (Eric Bana) cannot stay still in time and flits in and out of his lover Clare’s (Rachel McAdams) life. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born an old man who progressively grows younger. Both films have merits, but were overlong you can’t help wondering whether the time travel element just spices up an otherwise not particularly fascinating love story. Or is that too cynical and unromantic?

The glorious Inglourious Basterds is included because it all happened in an alternative universe – honest, it’s Tarantino’s re-imagining of WW2. Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France… an elite squad of American soldiers kill and scalp Nazis. Meanwhile cinema owner Shosanna is planning her own revenge on the Nazis who slaughtered her family earlier in the war. Overlong at 153mins, this is a Tarantino talky that’s sporadically violent but its tongue remains firmly in its cheek. And Brad Pitt’s Texan-Italian accent is just hilarious.

Shorts was another SF/fantasy, you know, for kids, from everyone’s favourite hyperactive big kid Robert Rodriguez. This is pure wish fulfilment fun that doesn’t patronise but could alienate adults with its stream of consciousness ‘cool’ stuff like crocodiles, bogey monsters and mini-aliens. The narrative is made of a series of shorts that are not in chronological order but it’s easy to follow but you’re left wondering why they bothered – maybe it’s a primer for watching Pulp Fiction (1992) in later life?

And away from the big hitters there were some smaller or quirkier offerings this year, although this sector is finding funding increasingly difficult as studios hedge their bets on larger ‘tentpole’ flicks in proven genres. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of willingness on the part of many multiplexes to take a risk with smaller movies so that the chances of seeing all but a few of the independents outside London is slight. Terry Gilliam returned to form with The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, a wonderful, if slightly ramshackle (but therein lies much of its charm) flight of imagination. Tony finds himself involved with the magical but rickety travelling theatre of Dr Parnassus – a medieval throwback anachronistically creaking its way through modern London. But the imaginarium is not what it seems – it contains a gateway to surreal and dangerous worlds of the subconscious – and Dr Parnassus has a terrible secret that he is keeping from his daughter Valentina. Interest in the film centred primarily on this being the last performance by Heath Ledger, who died before filming had been completed – the occasional substitution of his character with Johnny Depp /Jude Law/Colin Farrell actually feels right for the film and adds a further level of surrealism to proceedings. There’s more imagination in this modestly priced carnival of the bizarre than in a score of Hollywood fantasies and even a Python-style ‘dancing policemen in drag’ segment. At times shocking, hilarious and just sheer bonkers The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus’s DIY ethic and gung-ho acting do much to ingratiate it with viewers.

In Gerald McMorrow’s Franklyn, a number of apparently unconnected characters find their lives entwined in an unexpected way in contemporary London. Meanwhile in the religion-rife metropolis of Meanwhile City a vigilante called Preest escapes the authorities and seeks answers amongst the oppressive urban landscape. This is an ambitious film that takes in sf, religion, suicide, drug addiction and homelessness amongst its many themes. The mise-en-scene is impressive on a film with such a low budget; the Gilliam-meets-Dark-City (1990) landscapes of Meanwhile City contrasting with the low-key normality of contemporary London. The downside is that the multiple plot strands require a lot of goodwill from the audience as they take a while to unravel and there is a nagging sense the film is too clever by half. That said it is different, imaginative and ambitious in scope – something that not too many British films can claim.

Duncan Jones’ Moon was one of the highlights of the year. Energy shortages on Earth are a thing of the past because, on the dark side of the moon family man Sam, aided with chirpy robot GERTY, are responsible for controlling the mining of resources that the earth needs. Sam is coming to the end of his three-year stint on the station and looking forward to seeing his wife and daughter again. But then strange things start happening… A heady mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), Dark Star (1974), Silent Running (1972) and Solaris (1972), Moon may wear its influences on its sleeve, but it makes the final product its own. The effects (though partly CGI) have a tactile quality that recall pre-Star Wars intelligent SF and are better for it.

Similarly low-key in the effects department, Cold Souls shows Paul Giamatti having trouble getting into his role in a Chekov play. He finds an innovative solution for his acting angst: a high-tech company who can extract and store souls. Giamatti has his put into storage with the aim of restoring it post-performance, but he doesn’t realise there’s an international trade in souls and his ends up inside a Russian soap-opera actress who is unwilling to trade it back, even if it does look like a chickpea. Cold Souls sank without a trace on release – a real shame for this low key, quirky and underplayed but very, very funny film. Think Charlie Kaufmann (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich)-lite with a wonderfully self-deprecating performance from Giamatti, who basically plays a version of himself, and you’re there.

Horror films traditionally perform well in a time of recession – if you’re having a bad time horror movies show others having it far worse plus plentiful added gore – the perfect antidote to downturn blues. Vampires too are all the rage but, wouldn’t you know it, the big hitters are aiming squarely at teens this time around. Twilight: New Moon made a killing at the box office. Bella’s still with Edward, but after an accident at a party, it turns out the vampires can’t restrain themselves and so they leave to resist future temptations. Bella becomes an adrenaline junkie and meets a new friend, Jacob. He’s a werewolf. So that’s alright then. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant was an attempt to bring vampires to a slightly different teen demographic than the anodyne ‘Mills and Swoon’ of Twilight. Darren Shan meets an enigmatic-ish vampire at a freak show and after a series of tedious encounters leaves his ordinary life, dies, and joins the Cirque Du Freak as a vampire. While the freak show itself is interesting and mysterious, the film doesn’t have staying power and ends up being anaemic (not good for a vampire film) and annoying. Even the Brits chipped in with the pseudo-exploitation, pseudo-comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, a cynical and frankly embarrassing effort all around. Fortunately it wasn’t all so-called comedy and teen moping, as Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In proved to be one of the year’s highlights. Oskar is a bit of a loner. He’s getting bullied at school and seems to find it hard to make friends. Then a strange girl called Eli moves in next door. She smells a bit odd and can’t stand sunlight but the pair form an unlikely friendship. However it appears that Eli has a craving for human blood. Let the Right One In is understated, intriguing and atmospheric – a real slow burner with sporadic moments of violence and one of the best bully comeuppance sequences in the history of cinema. This is a horror film for the art-house audience but one with enough humanity to broaden its appeal. Unlike, say Twilight, it doesn’t feel the need to explain the vampire conventions, it just gets on with the plot.

Thirst was Park Chan-wook’s latest, a deviation from his ‘vengeance trilogy’ and the candy-floss images of last year’s I’m A Cyborg. A priest has become a vampire following a blood transfusion, comforting patients in hospital and then drinking their blood after hours. He does at least feel bad about it. But after starting an affair with the wife of a friend he embarks upon a new life of hedonism. With lashings of sex and violence, Park takes his time telling his story and laces the content with his usual brand of black humour.

Based on a Japanese anime of the same name, Blood: The Last Vampire was, bizarrely, a Hong Kong, France, Japanese, Argentinian co-production which followed the anime for the first half and then deviated wildly to produce something a bit more conventional in tone but no less ambitious. Saya works for a secret organisation dedicated to the eradication of demons. She looks 16 but is, in fact, several hundred years old and can easily dispatch vampires with her trusty samurai sword. When she is sent to an American military base she realises that this may be her opportunity to finally destroy the evil arch vampire Onigen. OK so the scripting is poor, the acting variable and the computer effects quite ropey, but the action is great, courtesy of Cory Yuen, some of the visuals striking and they never let ambition be dampened by a meagre budget.

There were a couple of horror-thrillers worth your attention: Orphan was a welcome revival of the creepy kid film. Kate and John – married, two children – wish to add another to their brood. A local orphanage reveals Esther, a polite and talented child and the family adopt her. But Esther is not what she seems, not just in her unfashionable clothing or ‘foreign’ accent, but the events that happen around her. What is her dark secret? Orphan is tense, exciting and slow burning. It’s a modern horror so has to have a nasty scene at the start just to make sure you don’t think you are watching Kramer vs Kramer (1979). The denouement is preposterous and although the final act can’t top the build up it’s still a cut above the norm. In Jennifer (daughter of David) Lynch’s Surveillance there’s a very nasty serial killer on the loose and the body count is rising. FBI weirdoes Anderson and Hallaway interrogate the witnesses and suspects at a local desert police station. But the stories from addicts, kids and police, all seem to tell the tale slightly differently. It’s nasty and deliberately weird but Lynch does use her limited budget well. It is an interesting thriller, if too clever for its own good.

Jennifer’s Body was the latest offering written by Diobolo Juno Cody. Jennifer is the most popular girl in school. All of the girls want to be friends with her, and all of the boys want to have sex with her. Her best friend Needy is a nerd. Jennifer ends up as a sacrifice in a rock band’s Satanic ritual and becomes possessed by a demon, causing her to chow down on the local jocks. Jennifer’s Body wants to be Heathers with demons but it doesn’t quite work; there’s plenty of gore but no real tension and the premise doesn’t really follow through to anything.

In Zombieland pretty much the whole world has been taken over by zombies. The few survivors search for the last remaining Twinkies and head out to a theme park because it seems to be the best thing to do. There’s plentiful fun in this po-mo horror comedy with an excellent cameo from Bill Murray adding the icing to a very bloody cake.

And let’s not forget the low budget ‘sensations’. Colin told the sorry tale of a zombie’s miserable existence, unusual in that it followed the plight of the zombie and not the survivors of whatever plague had afflicted the world. It allegedly had a budget of about £45, an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers the world over, was innovative and engaging, if overlong by about 20 minutes. (Why don’t horror directors realise that 80-90 minutes is the perfect running time for a horror flick?) Paranormal Activity currently has the record for the biggest budget:earnings ratio ever. A simple plot involving a couple who’ve just moved into a new pad, there’s definitely some sort of presence ensuring that they won’t get a wink of sleep. A Blair Witch for the end of the Noughties?

Triangle was another small film that managed to pack a decent number of scares into its running time. A yachting trip ends in near disaster when the weather turns nasty and a group of friends have to be rescued by a passing liner. But why is the ship deserted and why does Jess feel as though she’s been here before? You think you know where Triangle is going to take you, but it manages to defy expectations and turn itself into a relentless little number with a few shocks along the way, turning it into an Escher sci-fi horror rather than the standard supernatural/psycho mix we’ve come to expect.

Even Sam Raimi eschewed the megabudgets of Spider-man and returned to his Evil Dead days with Drag Me to Hell, a tale of a yuppie who is cursed by an old gypsy. Energetic and frenetic, with typically gross-out scares and shocks, it wasn’t Raimi at his best, but was enjoyable (and importantly funny) hokum nevertheless.

And then there were the sequels: The Descent 2 was actually pretty decent – it started immediately after the original had finished and, while it’s hard to buy the premise that the sole survivor would immediately return to those dank caves with the monstrous creatures inside, it does deliver the scares and gore, just not the originality. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans didn’t see Kate Beckinsale in her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number™ because this was a prequel but that didn’t stop it from being another waste of a premise. Still, at least the franchise didn’t go the route of many horror vehicles as the latest (and weakest) The Final Destination felt obliged to become 3D as did the re-make of My Bloody Valentine. It wasn’t the only re-make (so help us…) as Friday 13th, Last House on the Left and Halloween 2 wasted valuable screen estate that could have been showing Let the Right One In. Incredibly Halloween 2 was an even worse re-make of a film that was terrible in the first place. And just when you thought it could get no worse there was Saw, where are we now, Saw 6? Its relatively lacklustre box office should have killed the franchise stone dead but oh no, apparently the problem wasn’t the film, it was because it wasn’t in 3D…

Despite the general air of media and economic malaise there were a few reasons to feel upbeat about the year. But with increasing pressure on lower and middle budgeted films, escalating conservatism in multiplexes and a panacea to all ills that involves wearing uncomfortable plastic glasses, the future may well become more myopic, albeit with an extra dimension thrown in (at a surcharge).

So, the winners are:

Best SF: Moon

Best Fantasy: Coraline and Up!

Best Horror: Let the Right One In

Special Remarkable Comicbook Adaptation Award: Watchmen

The Films of 2008

At last a year to rejoice for the box office was topped this year by the most preposterous and overblown science fiction fantasy ever committed to celluloid. No, not The Dark Knight (that topped the US box office but not the UK), but the hilariously inept Mamma Mia! – a film so shockingly amateur it defined a whole new anti-cinema aesthetic. Things, as the irritating song goes, could only get better…

Except for a few exceptions it was more of the same. Hollywood retrenched into safe genre films and PG-13/12A friendly bubblegum pictures despite the seemingly endless quest to become “darker” to reflect our times. Maybe the credit crunch will see the chickens coming home to roost in an industry nervously anticipating tightening budgets and a slew of strikes that had been foreshadowed by the television industry. The currently accepted ‘wisdom’ (if there is such a thing in the gambling world of the blockbuster) is that mid-budget dramas and musicals are the feel good solution to everyone’s ills – not just Mamma Mia! but in the shadow of the sleeper mega-smash of the year Twilight. The roaring financial success of this modest, at times claustrophobically shot in painstaking angst ridden goth-lite close-up, is initially difficult to understand. Huge swathes of ‘repeat what the audience has just seen five times in case they nipped out to get popcorn’ dialogue, much pained pouting and a virtual absence of action until the final showdown pad out the two hour timeline. But somehow the central premise is so audaciously simplistic (girl loves vampire), the passions so bubbling hot yet rendered as chaste as LazyTown that it comes across as quaint. Still the lack of fangs and the sudden need to introduce conflict in case the film really didn’t have any plot do go against it but Twilight does point to a more character led future (indeed some of the sparse effects here arguably aren’t even necessary). Vampire films in general go through phases of popularity, they’ve been in a bit of a slump recently, so expect a revival of more toothsome bloodsuckers in the coming years.

The Dark Knight – Heathe Ledger is The JokerHollywood’s on-going affair with all things comic book saw no signs of abating although some cracks are beginning to show. No cracks in the remarkable, record smashing returns from The Dark Knight – the second highest grossing film of all time in the US. Director Christopher Nolan gives a thinly veiled allegory for our current time and predicament – questioning responses to terrorism, the surveillance society and the disintegration of individual morality in the face of increasingly anarchic brutality. Heady stuff for a 12A superhero film (indeed the rating became an issue with irate parents complaining that their 5 year old kids were freaked out by the menace on show) and for the most part it succeeds. Christian Bale returns as Batman and, like most incarnations post-Adam West, is less important to the film than the villain. Here the villain is played by the late Heath Ledger, a truly frightening performance as the Joker, forever banishing that dreadful Jack Nicholson pantomime. It’s so easy to become enthralled by the performances, the spectacular cinematography and the political/moral subtext that you miss the film’s failings – it’s far too long and edited on autopilot, the final pay-offs happening too late and are way too convenient. A set-up for a sequel seems to mark the further decline into cynicism that the rest of the film is so eager to avoid. A similar set-up can be seen in the similarly overlong but enjoyable Iron Man, a Marvel franchise but where the central character’s wealth and gadgets feel more DC. Robert Downey Jr is in career reviving mould as Tony Stark, a scummy weapons dealer who, following capture in the Middle East gets himself out of a tricky scrape by building a metal suit of awesome destructive capability. Back home he refines it, gives it a maroon lick of metallic paint and is reborn as high flying super-techno-dude Iron Man. Icing on the cake would have been the use of Black Sabbath (like in the trailer) but for the most part the film succeeds on its own rollercoaster terms, getting credible love interest Gwyneth Paltrow once it had done its political fudging in the first half. Far less successful, either commercially or artistically, was The Incredible Hulk. We were promised a whole different film from Ang Lee’s superior but inexplicably derided Hulk (2003) but in many respects this was more of a semi-sequel remake with an increasingly hysterical Tim Roth camping it up as a Hulkier-than-thou opponent to brooding Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). The wildly fluctuating scenes of ‘meaningful’ introspection, lost love and doomed heroics contrasted with hyperbolic action as various CGI hulky things bashed seven bells out of each other and chewed the scenery. It was amiable enough while it lasted but its memory, like its box office returns, swiftly faded away. Taking no prisoners and eschewing the trendy need for comic book introspection and its relations to US foreign policy Hellboy 2: The Golden Army galloped out of the stalls to deliver the most enjoyable of the year’s comic book films. The irony that the word enjoyable be used in the context of a film whose lead character is not only a demon from the pits of Hell but, gasp, smokes tobacco is not lost on anyone. Guillermo del Toro brings the visual imagination of his arthouse work into the blockbuster arena and blows a raspberry in the face of its earnest rivals. An uneasy truth between the magical realm and the human world is about to be broken when evil elf Prince Nuada (Luke “Bros” Goss) seeks the pieces of a broken crown that will give him control over the mighty Golden Army of 70 x 70 robotic human killing machines. Only the red faced, wise cracking Hellboy (Ron Perlman) can stop the plan through outrageous punch-ups and against-the-odds battles. Mayhem ensues. Naturally.

Further portents to 2009 occurred as the first trickle of 3D films started to work their way onto the screen – a trend that will inevitably increase in anticipation of James Cameron’s long awaited return to the big screen with Avatar. Gone are the green and red lenses and in come custom-made glasses. Unfortunately two rival systems and the expense of new equipment has meant many cinema chains have yet to invest in the technology necessary to project 3D (certainly outside of London) resulting in a number of flat prints being released to impoverished outreaches. Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a mildly diverting version of the Jules Verne favourite with Brendan Fraser taking the kind of physical pratfalls he is most famous for. Viewers watching the flat version were perplexed by the unfathomable shots of “stuff” being waved at the screen but the simple quest-arrive-escape story with dinosaurs, a kid and a love triangle was an easy way to pass an hour and a half. All the in-your-face effects work in the world could not rescue the truly lame CGI Fly Me To The Moon where a plucky trio of juvenile flies attempt to sneak onto Apollo 11 and get to the moon. Bad jokes are repeated ad nauseum (“oh my lord… of the flies”) and the kid-friendly bodily emissions scenes (including having a fly covered in snot sneezed directly into your face… in 3D) wear very thin, very quickly. The final live action appearance of Buzz Aldrin insisting that the film you’ve just watched is made up (no shit, Buzz) and that there were, in fact, no flies on him is just bizarre.

RECRegular readers of our annual round up will know our thinly veiled disdain for hastily remade films of normally superior films that just happen to not be made in English. Although the pace is beginning to slacken a touch (the height of the J-Horror boom having long since past) the audacity of one film in particular is jaw dropping. So this year we’ve had One Missed Call, a remake of a Miike Takashi film that is not, in all honesty, his best (we await the big budget remake of Visitor Q with eager trepidation), Jessica Alba in a deeply unnecessary remake of the Pang Brothers’ glossy shocker The Eye and a toned down to the point of tedium rerun of the superior Thai shocker Shutter. If that were not enough Austrian bad boy Michael Haneke remade his own film virtually shot for shot in a photocopier remake of the classic Funny Games. Why Michael, why? But the biggest insult of all was yet to come. In April came the release of [REC], a Spanish horror film that did something very few horror films have done recently – scare. A taut, white knuckle ride that actually used its shaky first person camera to logical and terrifying effect [REC] follows a low budget film-crew filming a television documentary about the lives of workers who work after hours. Following their subjects, a fire crew, into a building where an old lady is apparently trapped in her room they soon find themselves imprisoned in a complex where very bad things start to happen. Now [REC] may not be original, it steals from a huge variety of sources, but makes them its own with ruthless efficiency. Quite clearly the horror film of the year. More horrific though is the unnerving sign of Quarantine – a lazy remake that cropped up with indecent haste in November the same year. Madness. And, we just refused point blank to go see The Day the Earth Stood Still. So there.

There were a fair number of CG films that hit the big screen last year and they ranged from the sublime to the substandard (Dreamworks, please stop with the Madagascar thing, it was rubbish first time around). Best of the bunch (and a contender for best film of the year) was Pixar’s Wall-E, a delightful tale of the last functioning waste disposal robot on earth, dutifully going about his job of cleaning up the planet which has become basically a giant rubbish tip (the human race has cleared off into deep space to let him get on with it) until he falls in love with super-robot Eve. A charming tale, the first half hour of which is told virtually entirely visually, proving that cinema doesn’t need to rely on dialogue to tell a story. Yes, it had the usual heartwarming message in the end, but it was a good story, supremely told and with great characterisation. To get an audience to empathise with a solitary character who isn’t even alive is a great achievement, to make that character so appealing to all ages is nothing short of a miracle. In future they will teach this film as an introduction to arthouse cinema. Trust us on this one.

Kung Fu Panda was very silly indeed and no bad thing. The laziest creature in the village, Po the panda, suddenly ends up joining an elite fighting squad in order to fulfil a prophecy. Cue lots of training sequences and fat panda jokes. Yes, it has the usual heartwarming message in the end – it’s OK to be yourself – but Dreamworks seem to have realised here that a good story combined with well-executed action and comedy sequences in addition to the voice talent, makes for a superior experience. For martial arts buffs there were even enough references to films from the seventies and eighties to keep them happy (Five Venoms anyone), a departure from the usual one-year old cultural myopia that prevails in Dreamworks post-modern output. Keeping with the Occupation Animal title theme, Space Chimps, however, was best left well alone although better than the aforementioned Fly Me To The Moon.

The surprise treat on the CGI calendar (after all Pixar only surprises when it isn’t good) was Igor, a modest film which told the tale of a hunchbacked assistant who aspires to be a mad scientist and create an evil being. One for all the family, even its heartwarming message was a little bit sick and therefore much funnier than all the other heartwarming messages that are de rigour in this field. Igor cunningly relied on strong visual gags and used its more limited resources to create a more angular and stylised environment that exactly suited its subject. Think Ren and Stimpy make a Tim Burton film. With songs. To top it all it even had gloriously over-the-top supervillains which, frankly, was exactly what Quantum of Solace could have done with instead of relying on corporate non-entities, moping around like an angst ridden teenager and a slew of increasingly irrelevant action sequences. Tips for DC Bond #3: Lighten up, get a proper villain and for griefs sake get a plot.

Horror films have diversified a bit this year and the best of these moved away from the overt gore (yes, we were bored with the Saw franchise after the first one, 5 really didn’t push any buttons… other than the off one) that has typified the genre for the last few years and replaced it with tension. Some did both. Did we mention how good [REC] is? Anyway, Frank Darabont seems to have gained himself a reputation as the director who makes decent versions of Stephen King stories (no mean feat given the track record) and this year saw The Mist hit the big screen. For no readily apparent reason, although it’s bound to be military, a small town in Maine becomes engulfed in a mysterious mist. And nasty things lurk within – deadly creatures capable of tearing a man apart or infecting them with deadly poison. A group of survivors camp out in the local supermarket and attempt to see off the threat but soon they start splitting into rival factions, creating as much tension inside as out. The Mist is basically a monster movie – big splattery effects coupled with lots of tension – which also takes in a serious message about fanaticism and the lengths people will go to in order to survive. The combination of high horror thrills and pessimism is a sure-fire winner. Another cracker of a horror lay in the Spanish Guillermo del Toro produced El Orfanato (The Orphanage) a slow burning, creepy and fascinating film. Laura (Belén Rueda) buys her childhood orphanage in order to re-open it as a facility for disabled children. Once there, her son begins to play games with invisible friends and becomes increasingly disturbed. The orphanage seems to develop a life of its own. Laura seeks parapsychological help but does she really want to uncover the secrets of the past? With only brief moments of gore on screen The Orphanage relies on frisson and melancholy to weave its eerie magic – the number one film of its year in Spain it shows the appalling lack of diversity at the UK box office by being the ONLY non-English language film in the top 100 of 2008. At number 97. You barbarians. Speaking of unexplained events, The Happening, M Night Shyamalan’s ‘creepy movie with a twist’ was unusual in that it didn’t have a twist this time – unless you count Mark Wahlberg interrogating a plastic plant a twist. Although heavily derided there are a number of stand out moments that make the film worthy of your time – notably the serenely unnerving opening sequences. In Black Water a small family group go for a river trip in the Australian outback and get attacked by a giant crocodile. The end. Actually, Black Water is a reasonable film – it’s fairly tense and does a good job of getting across the boredom of waiting to be rescued. Even though the scares are obvious and signposted, the croc is well executed – hidden for much of the time but delivers when it’s required to attack. P2 was very similar to Black Water but it replaced the river with a car park and the crocodile with a serial killer but lacked the tension and replaced it with a solitary scene of extreme gore. But if all this seemed a bit, well, tame, Tim Burton’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had enough gushing blood to satisfy the most hardened of gore-hounds. If they could stomach the music. Sweeney Todd a.k.a Benjamin Barker returns to London to take revenge upon Judge Turpin, the man who stole his wife and daughter from him and banished him to certain death. He opens a barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s shop which sells ‘the worst pies in London.’ With the help of Mrs. Lovett, Todd means to rid London of the corrupt aristocracy, and hopes to be reunited with his daughter, Johanna, who is now Judge Turpin’s ward. As is to be expected from Burton, this is has stunning set design and the performances are terrific. Bonham Carter is fabulous, as is Depp, and even Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t upset the apple cart (Gervais take note) in this tale of bloody revenge, a dish best served, presumably, encased in pastry.

A number of fantasies were aimed squarely at family audiences, although everyone missed out on the 6th part of the Potter franchise in 2007 for reasons known only to Warners (is it rubbish then?) Still, Prince Caspian heralded the second of the Narnia franchise. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are back in Narnia, summoned by Susan’s horn, blown by a desperate Prince Caspian, escaping assassination. Over a thousand years have passed since they were last there and Narnia has become a more barbaric place, with the Telmarine wanting to destroy the magical creatures of Narnia, and Caspian with it. The kings and queens have returned but can they muster an army big enough for the fight ahead and where’s Aslan when you need him? Ultimately this was an epic adventure for all the family but with a less enchanting or engaging plot than the first film with a greater emphasis on impressive battle scenes than on relating to the characters.

The Spiderwick Chronicles starred Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore as good twin/bad twin who, with their mom and sister, begin a new life in their great aunt’s house. But little do they know that when Jared (bad twin) opens a magic book, their world will be turned upside down as they become aware of magical creatures in the garden, including an ogre who will stop at nothing to get hold of the book and destroy the creatures it chronicles within. The Spiderwick Chronicles is one of the better fantasy offerings this year, enhanced by truly excellent performances by Highmore. The protagonists feel more realistic – the parents have just split up and the kids are having a hard time – which lends an air of plausibility to the fantasy world which lurks beyond their front door. Superior effects and a brisk running time made for a genuinely exciting adventure – far more engaging than the books it was based upon. Inkheart was an amiable little number from the books by Cornelia Funke. Meggie Folchart and her father Mo (Brendan Fraser) are both bookworms although Mo doesn’t read stories out loud to his daughter. Why? Well he’s a silvertongue and when he does the characters come to life in the real world. The terrible consequence of this is that someone in the real world has to replace them. That happened to Meggie’s mum when she was just 3 and now Mo is searching desperately for the book – Inkheart – inside which he believes she resides. But the evil characters from the book are all too real, they’re in our world and want to rule it. Inkheart is a kind of lost opportunity – it feels as though it should be good and there’s a wealth of characters to choose from, but somehow it just feels like a who’s who of kidlit with a not particularly convincing evil nemesis. Much better was Penelope, a contemporary fairy tale about an heiress (Christina Ricci) born under a curse, which makes her resemble a pig. The curse can only be broken when she finds true love with “one who will love her faithfully.” It’s sweet and romantic, funny and engaging without being too cloying – the rom-com reimagined as a contemporary fairy tale. Hyperactive, eye-searingly bright and utterly barking was Speed Racer from the Wachowski brothers, based on the Japanese cartoon Mahha Go Go Go. Speed Racer, for that is his name, is born to race but it’s clear that the championship he’s driving in is full of evil cheating corporate sponsors. Realism is not a word in Speed Racers dictionary, a film so bright you need sun factor 40 to prevent burning. Revolutionary use of editing, and sugar-rush visuals make this very much an acquired taste – a taste it seemed many were unwilling to try.

Quirky? Bonkers? Hilariously violent? It’s all good for us. In Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted Wesley’s (James McAvoy) cubicle job and cheating girlfriend life are ended when he finds he has inherited his dead father’s assassination skills and starts working for the Fraternity, a clandestine group of killers whose credo is “kill one save many”. Tough training follows with scary pouting Angelina Jolie at the helm and a deadly game begins to be played out between rival assassins. This, then, is madder than a bottle of stupid pills… but in a good way. It’s so bonkers that it features the Loom of Destiny – a ridiculous plot device that sees orders woven out in some weird de Vinci code telex manner. Bullets curve. Cars apparently fly. Much goes “bang”. Still, the action setpieces are astonishing and the pace breathtaking that the raw stupidity isn’t there to be derided, it’s there to be embraced.

In Be Kind, Rewind, Jack Black becomes magnetized when attacking an electricity substation (don’t try this at home, folks) and unintentionally destroys every tape in his friend’s video store. In order to satisfy the store’s most loyal customer (Mia Farrow), the two men set out to remake the lost films, which include Ghostbusters, The Lion King, Rush Hour, Back to the Future, Driving Miss Daisy, and Robocop. Like much of Michel Gondry’s output (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) Be Kind, Rewind has a great premise that matures on subsequent viewings. The remakes of the movies put you into film geek heaven; they are pure inventiveness and very funny but also quite inspiring – you too feel you could create your own Sweded masterpiece. There’s also an underlying story about the nature of the local community as the video store is under threat from the developers, just in case you need a heartwarming message too, as well as a questioning of hard line corporate tactics against fan homages to copyright material.

In a case of “you-wait-years-for-a-hand-held-horror-to-come-along-then-three-come-along-at-the-same-time” [REC] (horror film of the year TM) was joined by the virally marketed hype machine Cloverfield and Romero’s dead-cam Diary of the Dead. Cloverfield, on the crest of immeasurable buzz, proved an adequate, taunt horror about a (alien?) invasion that causes chaos and death. The “one tape recorded over another” conceit helped iron out the characterisation and it was undoubtedly tense at moments. The short scenes of match-moved monsters were eerily realised even if the actual monster itself was a bit dubious. Even lower on the budgetary scale Diary of the Dead shows how far cheap effects technology has come. Effectively a pumped up student project (it is rough around the edges) Diary squeezes every cent out of its budget and proves once again that Romero is as much interested in politics and criticising society as he is on horror par se. The almost throw away ending (the reason the film received an 18 rating) is so casually chilling its political and humanitarian implications are all too real and all too much to contemplate.

Back out of retirement was monosyllabic killing machine Rambo and wise crackin’ whip weildin’ grave robbin’ Indiana Jones. In Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull we’ve moved on to the cold war era (despite the twenty year hiatus… hmmm) and a pitch-perfect camp performance from Cate Blanchett heralds a new “race to the artifact” mission for Indy – this time involving crystal skulls of an unknown origin that can send a man insane (or at least make a man John Hurt, here as a crazy professor). This sets up the standard run of action set pieces and comedy asides which in the main are refreshingly tactile but lose their charm when the CGI becomes more obvious. While it’s good to see Karen Allen back after over a quarter of a century less welcome is the addition of Indy jnr (although he’s nowhere near as bad as he could’ve been) and a widely fluctuating Ray Winstone. And let’s not talk about the ending. Or the fridge. John Hurt has had a bit of a type-cast year, being a professor of some idiosyncrasy in both Indiana Jones and Hellboy II as well as in Álex de la Iglesia’s barking mad modern giallo The Oxford Murders. A series of bizarre murders (or are they?) are connected by obscure mathematics (or are they?) with reluctant amateur sleuth (or is… well you get the idea) Prof. Seldom begrudgingly teaming up with an idol-worshipping mathematics wunderkind played by Frodo Baggins. Increasingly hysterical and convoluted The Oxford Murders manages to be insane enough to allow its most macabre and offensive elements appear just another normal part of a what is basically Inspector Morse meets Freaks or Dario Argento’s A Beautiful Mind. 10000 BCAnd while we are talking implausible and convoluted what words can describe the lunatic incredulity of 10,000 B.C? They are capturing folk to build the pyramids. With mammoths. D’Leh finds his hottie Evolet is captured by the brutal builders and so he sets about getting her back (there’s some mythical gubbins here but we’ll gloss over that for the moment). This involves following them on foot from artic ice to rain forest heat (in the space of about half an hour walking!) to desert, befriending initially hostile tribes along the way and earning the trust of a sabre-toothed tiger. Yes. Really. The fact that the score and direction point to some epic and worthy statement picture make the event all the more hilarious for their attempt to be worthy. Sort of like Apocalypto. For kids.

In the old days the word “jumper” meant something rocking chair crooner Val Doonican habitually wore but over the years this functional, cozy but fashionably dubious item of clothing has become more acceptable, particularly following its prominence in The Matrix and its sequels. And now we have Jumper – not a comfy piece of knitwear (always feeling better when some lived in holes had materialised) but a science fiction film from director Doug Liman (he of Go, Bourne Identity and the slightly unhinged Mr and Mrs Smith). David Rice (Hayden “youngling killer” Christensen) finds out he is a jumper – that is someone able to teleport anywhere he wants to. Great. Free money from banks and the life of Riley awaits. Except that he’s not the only one and his kind are not welcomed, not least by the paladins, a centuries old organisation who will do anything to eradicate them, and paladin Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) has got him in his sights… It had so much potential but the ideas fizzle out after an intriguing start and Liman’s decision to use Greengrass inspired shaky camerawork drains any sense of excitement from the action, crazy given his previous competence in that area. A missed opportunity that just ends and then has a hasty tacked on “room for a sequel” epilogue. In their dreams.

In Inkheart this years busiest genre lead Brendan Fraser (John Hurt beats him in roles but not for leads) is Mo “Silvertongue” Folchart whose unusual ability is to be able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world. Unfortunately in a sort-of-physics way each action has an equal and opposite reaction so someone from our world ends up wandering the fictional lands – often not very pleasant ones at that. This is a fate that has befallen his own wife, which is why he now reads without moving his lips and why he is searching for a copy of the inexplicably rare book she has fallen into, Inkheart. Now, with his daughter, he searches antique bookshops for the missing tome (think Ninth Gate. For kids) but wouldn’t you know it the nasties from Inkheart (led by a supremely gurning turn from Andrew Serkis, a panchant for excess that suited him well in the muddled but enjoyably tasteless splatter comedy The Cottage) want world domination – something they intend to achieve by taking the reluctant Silvertongue out of retirement. A time passing fantasy of the old school (plenty of prosthetic and in camera work here) with a cast clearly enjoying itself (Jim Broadbent, Paul Bethany in typically top form and even Helen Mirren) Inkheart passes by admirably and enjoyably but without the verve it really needs to raise it that little bit higher. Meanwhile in Bedtime Stories Adam Sandler finds he is able to read aloud fictional characters into the real world…with far less enjoyable results. There’s more alleged comics in fantasy films when a near death experience causes Ricki Gervais to see dead people in the annoying Ghost Town – a sort of Sixth Sense meets Topper without either of those films charm. Still the supreme irony that Mr Gervais (last seen trying to ruin the otherwise excellent Stardust and managing to wrestle any vestiges of enjoyment from Night in the Museum) plays a dentist here at least means that we get to quip that this film was as funny as having teeth pulled.

That man Fraser again in the belated sequel The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor where this time Rachel Weiss has wisely jumped ship to be replaced by Maria Bello, a point made in some excruciatingly poor attempts at comedy earlier in the script. This time round the “mummy” in question is cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li) who will, as legend dictates in these films, be undefeated if XY and Z conditions are met. Once things get going its exciting enough in a seen-it-all-before kind of a way and at least the injection of hostile yetis brings a (probably unintentional) smile to the face and Anthony is typically in form as the ruthless General Yang but the problems remain (sticking to type, John Hannah irritates) compounded by a “is that it?” denouement and a criminal underuse of Jet Li only exacerbated by an even more underused Michelle Yeoh. A waste of opportunity and talent. Jet Li fared better in The Forbidden Kingdom, a far better than expected east-meets-west fantasy in which a bullied American boy called Jason (Michael Angarano) finds himself transported to ancient China when he becomes the owner of the Monkey Kings magic stick. Thing is said stick could revive the Monkey King and hopefully defeat the evil Jade Warrior who has the regal simian trapped, so naturally he wants the stick for himself. Helping (and occasionally hindering) Jason on his journey are Lu Yan (Jackie Chan reprising his drunken master roles) and Silent Monk (Jet Li), occasionally joined by Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu). For younger new-comers to the martial arts film this is an ideal introduction (and a good companion piece to Kung-Fu Panda) although Jason may be a bit young to see the copy of Bride With the White Hair he clearly possess. For older viewers this is the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Chan and Li fight on screen – an enjoyable scene given the limits of the family-friendly rating.

Out of nowhere comes one of the highlights of the year. Admittedly it’s one of the highlights of the year 1981 but that’s not a bad thing, it was a good year for low budget science fiction. Neil Marshall, he of Dog Soldiers and The Descent fame, returns with the hugely enjoyable if disreputable Doomsday. If last years Tarantino/Rodriguez films were homages to their ill spent youths then Marshall has clearly relished returning to his – in this case the post-apocalyptic joys of Mad Max 2 and John Carpenter’s peerless Escape From New York. Eden Sinclair has a job to do – to go to Scotland on a mission. Problem is Scotland has been cut off to prevent the Reaper virus infecting the rest of the UK. Only thing is that the virus has cropped up in London and the only hope seems to come from a land which everyone thought was inhabited only by corpses. But no Scotland has a violent tribal society of cannibals and freaks that will do anything to stop the outsiders. Non-stop action and excessive violence (the UK fortunately didn’t suffer the indignity of the R-rated print) make Doomsday a high-fun, high-octane thrillride of the highest B-Movie order (that’s a compliment!), also finding time for a soundtrack that includes Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Adam and the Ants as well as a sequence that looks like Duran Duran’s Wild Boys video set in an abattoir.

You’ve got to admire Hollywood’s desperation at trying to tap into the lucrative gaming market but surely by now the constant attempts at bringing interactive entertainment to a distinctly un-interactive big screen have shown that the results are messy. At best. Apparently not because here we find Max Payne (the irony being that the studio’s wanted a PG-13 rating in the US so Moderate Payne might’ve be a better title), played by everyone’s favourite guy with a plastic plant for an analyst Mr Mark Wahlberg, the tale of a cop out to avenge the death of his wife and daughter. Except it’s not that easy because there’s some heavy duty Hell inducing drugs on the street and blah, blah, blah. Some nice visual touches can’t save the garbled plot and sagging narrative.

Normally we have a saying in these reviews “sometimes we watch them so you don’t have to” but in the case of the remake of Robert Wise’s peerless The Day The Earth Stood Still we didn’t watch it. Some sacrifices are too great, even for Vector (I mean what next? Remake West Side Story? Sound of Music? The Haunting? Oh, wait…)

At least some superhero films tried to escape the tried and tested formula and offer a different slant on matters. We’ll ignore the by numbers “comedy” tedium of blink and you’ve forgotten it spoof Superhero Movie and concentrate on two very different films with strikingly similar premises. In Hancock Will Smith plays a hard drinking superhero out of favour with the public, his acts of chivalry inevitably ending in chaos and destruction. Inevitably the cynicism and dark humour give way to a lighter film (there’s a bit of a schism going on here in the film) but its enjoyable while it lasts. Bizarre is the word for Dainipponjin Dainipponjin (Big Japanese Person) debut feature from writer-director-comic Hitoshi Matsumoto, one half of comedy sensations Downtown. Matsumoto is the titular character, a dour, unpopular middle-aged guy interviewed for a documentary. Every once in a while he is juiced up by electric power stations and grows in size to fight an increasingly deranged selection of aliens. A combination of ultra-low-key and ridiculous camp this is clearly a contender for most odd film of the year.

X-Files: I Want To Believe The Franchise Has Finally Sputtered Its Last Breath reunited the star of the excellent but naughty Californication David Duchovny with Gillian Anderson – as Moulder and Scully. This time the duo (Scully now a catholic nurse, Moulder a shabby recluse) are investigating claims by a bleeding eyed defrocked kiddy-fiddler priest played by Billy Connolly that he has visions that could help them on a high profile kidnapping case. Please no more. This is also a plea that can be labelled at the irritatingly titled AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem, a further kick in the egg sacks for the venerable franchises although at least it doesn’t go the PG-13 route of AVP (or whatever it’s called).

Star Wars: The Clone Wars comes in-between episodes 2 and 3, a spin off of the TV series of mini-CGI episodes. Despite the expansive palette offered by the big screen and some clever design touches the film all but disappeared in the swamp of summer tentpoles.

Once great hope Mathieu La Haine Kassovitz saw a further career blooper with garbled nonsense Babylon A.D. – a messianic sci-fi future The Transporter 3 with Vin Diesel an over earnest man-for-hire transporting the potential saviour of the world (nearly two dozen languages off pat by age two credibility fans) along with her guardian, Michelle Yeoh playing a nun. We’re not making this up.

So a mixed bag of a year. What is perhaps encouraging is the signs of an emerging confidence in mid-budget films, providing they get adequate distribution, over the increasingly familiar eye-candy of the blockbusters.

Films of the Year:

Wall-E

[REC]

Threes and 2007’s – SF Films of the Year

2007 was the “Year of the Threequel”, an unwieldy term that referred to the bewildering number of sequels churned out by the major studios, many of which had reached the magic “trilogy” point but also included head starter Harry Potter 5 and catch-me-up wannabe Fantastic Four 2. An optimist could allude to increasing box office revenue producing better films. A pessimist would point out a dearth of imagination within the studios, turning successful products into factory franchises, aware that, providing enough money is hosed at the special effects, the punters will gleefully turn up in droves. It’s easy to moan about vacuous tat, until you remember that film is primarily a forum for entertainment – intellectual themes and solid dialogue are welcome extras in the greater scheme of things. Then you look at the unadulterated tedium of Ocean’s Thirteen and suddenly your critical faculties are reduced to desperate levels as the nicest thing you can say about this criminal waste of time and celluloid is that it wasn’t as bad as Ocean’s Twelve. A similar damnation with faint praise could be levelled at Resident Evil: Extinction, the third in the series of films loosely based upon the popular Capcom franchise. Saying it’s better than part two is not really helpful given that Resident Evil: Apocalypse was the worst zombie film of all time. Extinction, directed by Russell (Razorback) Mulcahy, is at least a passable film as Alice (Milla Jovovich) hooks up with a group of survivors looking for a quiet life in zombie-free Alaska. But dastardly corporate meanies Umbrella Corp want Alice dead so they can experiment on her DNA. Although there’s plenty of zombie action to enjoy, the film lacks tension. Better, but not a patch on the taut original, was 28 Weeks Later, where zombies (who aren’t really zombies but they do a really good impersonation) terrorise what remains of Britain after the US military have declared London to be free from contagion. Which of course it proves not to be. Plenty of gore, although some of it (yes, the helicopter bit) doesn’t sit easy with the serious tone of the film and its themes about loss of love, humanity and self-control. Still, it’s an interesting piece with a British backdrop that manages to hold its own.

Planet TerrorThere was more zombie action in Robert Rodriguez’s jaw-droppingly tasteless Planet Terror where an experimental airborne virus turns a community into flesh hungry maniacs. What sets Planet Terror apart is its impish glee, as it piles on each new atrocity to hysterical levels. Rodriguez simply puts as much mindless fun as he can muster onto the screen, with zombies spraying gallons of blood, chowing down on victims or being pulled into pieces. Hilarious for gross-out fans, the humour is simplistic but hits the mark – “This case is a no-brainer,” declares a mortuary attendant as he turns over a corpse, revealing the back of the victim’s head is missing. The film even goes as far as to degrade the stock, skip frames and, in one audacious move, miss an entire reel! The only fault is that, due to a disastrous turn at the US box office, this was not released as a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof under the title Grindhouse, meaning that we had to pay twice to see what should have been a three-hour programme of irresponsible fun, complete with guest director trailers including Werewolf Women of the SS featuring Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu. Extended by half an hour and overlong by, oh, about half an hour, Death Proof is a far talkier affair, with Kurt Russell playing Stuntman Mike whose death proof car allows him to engage in a peculiar pastime of deliberately causing fatal road accidents.

Back with the threes, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was probably the year’s most anticipated film, coming on the heels of the stupendously successful (some might add “inexplicably” here) Dead Man’s Chest. Our swaggering semi-anti-hero-villain Cap’n Jack Sparrow is having a tough time having been swallowed by the Kraken in part 2 and finding himself in Davy Jones’ Locker. Meanwhile the regular crew, including a reanimated Barbossa, are seeking a way of releasing Jack, against their better judgement. Having written themselves in a corner at the end of part two it seems as though the only way out for the film-makers was to create a whole pantheon of gods and artefacts to give the film a sense of gravitas and mythmaking, something which was almost absent from the refreshing original. It’s all strangely reminiscent of that other “back to back” self-satisfying clunker The Matrix. Admittedly the visual design is impressive but overall the effect is that of a pudding so over-egged it may as well be called an omelette. Coming in early in a packed season of tentpole flicks Spiderman 3 initially appeared a touch disappointing but Raimi’s sure-footed and exhilarating direction coupled with his ability to include, shock, characters with emotions that aren’t limited to love or anger alone makes for superior entertainment. The Spiderman films have always challenged the boundaries between good and evil, fate and design and this time round is no exception. Peter has not only to wrestle with his conscience, he also faces the wrath of former buddy Harry Osborn, now re-inventing himself as the vengeful New Goblin, as well as Uncle Ben’s real murderer – transformed into the Sandman. Compounding his problems is some alien goo that turns his powers up to eleven but makes him a narcissistic idiot. When he finally realises the error of his ways his rejection of his dark sides leads to the birth of his most evil foe yet… Venom. Spiderman 3 suffers from a case of too many crooks spoiling the plot, almost as though they had decided that this was to be the last film in the series and that they might as well roll out their favourite bits from the comic books in one big bundle. The result is a bit muddled – the comic relief sections either helping to balance the dark tone of the film or stop it in its tracks depending on your point of view, but at least it has some coherence and the action is superbly staged throughout. Coherence was sadly lacking in the dreadful Shrek the Third. Dreamworks have finally got their render engine to sing but sadly they seem to have lost any ability to animate their characters resulting in individual shots looking fabulous… until they move. Shrek faces becoming the heir to the land of Far, Far Away but still prefers the quieter life so tries to arrange a replacement. Meanwhile Fiona is belatedly paying homage to McG’s Charlies Angels films by setting up a trio of “not meant to be like Disney Princesses gone hard-ass” kung-fu fighters to prevent the smarmy Prince Charming pulling off a coup d’etat. The end result is a film entirely devoid of humour, bar some lazy post-modernism that was wearing thin last time around. Be warned, a fourth outing and a Puss In Boots spin-off are in the pipeline. Still it’s not as though other animation companies can rest on their laurels. Disney produced Meet the Robinson’s, a bizarre, lifeless cross between The Jetsons and The Time Machine where orphan inventor Lewis is dragged to the future by William Robinson (Will Robinson – how clever!) to see a world of “zany wonder” that is under threat from Bowler Hat Guy – a pantomime villain with ill-fitting trousers, an outrageous cape and handle-bar moustache who appears to have wandered in from a Penelope Pitstop cartoon. Sadly the maudlin orphan scenes sit uneasily with the Futurama-for-kids future world and the “wacky humour” falls as flat as my soufflés. Remember, Disney ditched its 2-D department to make films like this over Lilo and Stitch or Beauty and the Beast. At least temporarily (see Enchanted). Far better for being cell animated was Goro (son of Hayao) Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea which, complete with all the exquisite background paintings and Ghibli animation we’ve come to expect, was surely destined for greatness. Sadly the end result, while sporadically exciting, is unevenly paced and relies too much upon understanding details from the books. Adherence to the text is, of course, not crucial for creating a good film but Goro was a first time director trying to live up to the reputation of the greatest living cell animator and there is a sense that the film is “Greatest Hits of My Dad”. It has the feeling of buying a classic album and finding out it’s been re-recorded by a cover band. Tales from EarthseaTales from Earthsea doesn’t balk at showing fantasy violence, something western animations are still a bit wary of doing, though Beowulf may well make strides in changing that. So it’s nice to see the re-birth of those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a CGI extravaganza which goes to show that fighting in films can be fun again although there’s no way that the gore of the original comics is likely ever to be realised. A more bizarre concept is the aforementioned Beowulf, made with the same motion capture technique used in, of all things, Polar Express, a retelling of the millennium old Anglo-Saxon poem scripted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. It’s hard to imagine how this got green-lit, a state of the art $150million CGI fantasy featuring people being skinned alive, ripped into little pieces and massacred by psychotic deformed monsters. Add to that the sight of a computer generated naked Ray Winstone poking a deranged Crispin Glover in the eye or Angelina Jolie propagating her race through metamorphosed seductions (including fashionable 8th Century high heeled heels) and you wonder not only “what were they thinking?” but “how on earth did they get a 12A rating for this?” The answers are academic, the result is a strange but compelling mixture of ancient and modern – exciting, visceral and raw, steeped in atmosphere and surprisingly refreshing in sticking to the morbid tragedy of the story. The script makes modern sense of the classic poem without overly dumbing down, the salty talk among the soldiers, the foetid air of decay and the ever increasing tales of (unlikely) bravery all follow the testosterone fuelled tradition of heroic epics, as much about bravura as actuality.

Recently animation has been steering away from cell to CGI but there is one branch of the animated film that has been less conspicuous in recent years – the live-animated mix, a hybrid that started as far back as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) with pioneering animator Winsor McCay interacting with the delightful titular dinosaur. This year two films took different approaches to the way this sub-genre could be adapted to a modern family fantasy, one using CGI, one cell animation (oh, and a pile of CGI too, just in case). Arthur and the Invisibles (Arthur et les Minimoys), directed by everyone’s favourite genre maverick Luc Besson and based upon his books, takes Arthur (Freddie Highmore) on a journey deep into the garden of his grandmother to recover treasure buried there by his missing grandfather and save the family home from an evil property tycoon. Arthur must engage in a moonlit ritual ceremony to shrink himself to the size of the Minimoys, tiny environmentalists. While miniaturised, our hero finds time to fall in love with a feisty princess called Selenia and, armed with a magic sword, sets out to set things right. Arthur turns into a CGI version of himself when joining the Minimoys, blurring the lines between real and fantasy in a deliberate way. This is a charming film, a simple and diverting adventure with a good heart and much to enjoy, even if the voice acting (in the UK dub) is a touch variable. Even more unexpectedly enjoyable is Disney’s Enchanted, the Mouse House’s answer to the hip Shrek films, which sees the studio partly return to its cell animated roots. The premise is a plainly generic combination of fish-out-of-water meets pre-teen rom-com with the added twist of being a “Disney Princess” franchise piece – not an inspiring prospect, but somehow it pulls it off by being feelgood, yet cynical enough to be plausible. Having fallen in love at first sight, Princess Giselle is to marry a handsome prince, after much singing and a day of strictly chaste courting. It is not to be, for an evil queen dumps the gullible princess into a well… that leads to modern day live action New York. Where Enchanted Enchanted works is in the total belief in the Disney-verse as separate from our reality and what happens when the two clash together. The opening animation is a pitch perfect distillation of all the woodland clichés from their classic output. When the action moves to New York this ethos is turned on its head with deliberately unlikely live action musical numbers. Admittedly once the resolution is under way everything becomes a little by-numbers but this safe Pleasantville-in-reverse is diverting uplifting fun nevertheless, proving a family film can be engaging and charming to most ages. This is something the makers of the $200million travesty Evan Almighty would have done well to have thought about in this mirthless, charmless, turkey sequel to the tolerable Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty. This time Steve Carrell takes the lead as an congressman who’s given the task of building an ark, old school style. And that’s it. As funny as the plague (every joke is laboured), its anaemic take on religion is pretty much insulting to anyone, and ultimately it is just plain bad film-making. And no, we aren’t even going to say nice things about Morgan Freeman because, frankly, he chose to do it and presumably got paid. Night at the Museum was a more satisfactory affair as Ben Stiller gets a job as a security guard in the Museum of Natural History and discovers that the exhibits come to life each night. Only Ricky Gervais’ irritating performance put a damper on what was a generally amiable fantasy. Similar shenanigans could to be found in the less frenetic Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, where Dustin Hoffman plays the 243-year-old eccentric owner of a magical toyshop.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is not about internet savvy grannies but a return to the day-glo squabbles of our four superhero chums as they take on board another bout of relationship issues while trying to save the world, oh, and maybe Reed and Sue could finally get married? This time the apparently indestructible Silver Surfer, pawn of snack-on-a-planet bad dude Galactus crashes in on the party, partly invited by a mashed up Dr Doom. It’s moderately exciting with bigger effects sequences and at least some attempt at moral dilemma but again Ben is miserable, Reed is boring, Johnny is annoying and Sue is either invisible or looks constipated. There’s even more Marvel in the air as Nicolas Cage finally gets to become Ghost Rider. When Peter Fonda offers to cure his father’s illness in return for his soul, reckless stuntbike performer Johnny Blaze takes the bait and becomes the demonic ghost rider whenever the devil bids him. But there’s an even badder boy in town, Blackheart, who plans to find a contract that will unleash the power of 1,000 souls and give them power over Hell and Earth. Unwittingly Johnny has become the executor for Mephistopheles. Cage is in his element hamming up these kind of roles, adding a touch of Elvis (a la Wild At Heart) and a completely bizarre sweet fetish to his range of quirks but it’s not enough. Rather like the original comics, it feels that the film’s premise of damned souls and flaming skulls is totally at odds with its Comic Code Seal of Approval. Cage also appeared in Next as a Las Vegas magician who has the vaguely useful but marginally silly ability to see a few minutes into the future. There should be loads potential for the film to play with time and create something interesting but it’s completely blown away by an all-too-linear plot and an “is that it?” ending.

Never one to blow up one car when you could blow up ten, the hyperactive and much maligned director Michael Bay seemed like a good choice to do Transformers, after all what can possibly go wrong with big robots that change into cool stuff beating the living daylights out of each other while trashing lots of cities and military hardware in the process? a) mecha are cool b) metamorphosing mecha are cooler and c) throwing a & b around is even cooler still. Add a blistering amount of carnage and the results are an 84 minute energetic whoop out loud action romp. Except. Except that it runs at 144 minutes. Sadly in the midst of the action is one of the most cringe-worthy geek bonding stories since ET and a truly horrible teen-fantasy romance. It is achingly bad, like they had spliced that Citroen advert with Weird Science. Cheaper and far better for it is Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch, the sequel to the wonderful Night Watch, which provides more eclectic and eccentric thrills, the innovative effects once again proving that a bit of imagination can often produce something as spectacular as Hollywood’s money-hose. We await Twilight Watch with eager anticipation.

Back to numbers again but not in a threequel way. 1408 sees another in the endless stream of Stephen King adaptations where the titular room number is investigated by a doubter of the paranormal. Genuine creeps give way to a disappointing conclusion but it’s a worthy ride. Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23 has the hilarious premise of a man being persecuted by a recurring number, a paranoia he gets from a small publication strangely prominent at a local bookshop. Is this just a psychotic quirk (he is, after all played by the ever variable Jim Carrey, here in not-at-all-over-the-top mode, well at least compared with the film), or is there some “dark secret”? Well of course it’s the latter as the plot spirals into murder, hallucination and madness culminating in dark revelations. Utter hokum from start to finish but it holds the attention as it tries to grasp the convoluted plotting with both hands and run with it straight faced. Mr Brooks tried a similar feat with Kevin Costner having conversations with his alter-ego trying to curtail his passion for serial killing. This alter-ego (William Hurt) is on screen and refreshingly free of special effects trickery or cheesy voiceover – the effect is startling in its bare-faced simplicity. Brooks’ “one last” job is marred by a voyeur who wants to get in on the action. Like Spiderman 3 a bewildering class of additional villains makes the whole feel more like professional wrestling minus the lycra but there’s enough inventive material to keep you engaged and the performances are nicely balanced. Balanced is not something you could accuse 300 of, a breathtaking, hilarious exercise in overindulgence and bombastic excess. Indeed it is so full of machismo that some cinemas handed out testosterone repellent to worried customers. No-one can talk when shouting will do as Gerard “airbrushed pecs” Butler leads his Spartans to certain doom, leaving piles of corpses in his wake in order to prevent the Persians taking their land. But these are no ordinary corpses, oh no, these are a deranged assortment of masked ninjas, gimps and trolls, armoured elephants and treacherous freaks butchered with super-spraying CGI blood and limbs, all ruled by the campest villain in cinema history (yes, even camper than the one in Bride with the White Hair). Loud, brash and without irony the sheer pace carries this stylistic interpretation of Frank Miller’s comics to its inevitable climax. That said at least it lacked the pretensions of the tedious Gladiator or the nihilistic übermensch trappings of Mel Gibson’s lovingly crafted grimfest Apocalypto – a strange experiment in brutality where the bare-bones plot – man goes from A to B and back again while bad shit happens – makes for an almost fableistic tale of the decline of civilisation through the eyes of a “real man”. Gibson’s insistence on shooting his epic in Mayan keeps an otherworldly distance from the frequently intense scenes of utter carnage on show. Also in the same subgenre was the slightly unhinged Pathfinder, where the rejected son of a Viking grows up in a native American tribe, spearheading escape and rebellion against future Scandinavian oppressors. Brief strokes of visual inventiveness can’t hide the loopy premise and the foreshadowed “guys chained together trying to tiptoe over dangerous mountain passes” scene is just hilarious.

Order of the PhoenixHarry Potter’s status as grim 12a goth-lite again had many younglings turned away from cinemas or desperately seeking adult accompaniment. Order of the Phoenix still suffers from a script that just condenses Rowling’s sprawling novel rather than adapts it, a sort of visual Reader’s Digest. Rather than cut chunks out of the book we gloss over them, removing some repetition but also character and depth. Still this fantasy manages to retain a politically anti-authoritarian edge as the increasingly totalitarian wizarding authorities oust Dumbledore from Hogwarts and instigate a grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (a genuinely unnerving performance from Imelda Staunton) to quell any dissent. Indeed some of the Hogwarts declarations look like they crept in from Ripping Yarn’s Tomkinson’s School Days. Sadly the climax is over too quickly to take in Harry’s loss and Helena Bonham Carter’s truly terrifying Bellatrix Lestrange is underused to make way for the increasingly wide net of regulars they need to squeeze into the running time.

A decade ago the idea that a fantasy film would make any money would be laughable but how times have changed. With Lord of the Rings over and the Potter lad rapidly approaching graduation the search is on for the next fantasy torchbearer. Last year’s Eragon and this year’s The Dark Is Rising proved you couldn’t just throw a popular book at a film studio and hope to make anything from it, whether the quality of the original is debateable or excellent. Although integrity to the spirit of the book is something a film-maker should strive for it is impossible to recreate something in a completely different medium. The big contender for the early Christmas season was undoubtedly The Golden Compass, a stupidly expensive adaptation of a fair chunk of Philip Pullman’s preachy, polemic but sporadically exhilarating The Northern Lights (apparently the budget didn’t stretch to naming the film correctly in the UK). Glossy, impressive visuals and a menacing performance from Nicole Kidman make for a lean and exciting adventure. The break-neck pacing and tight scripting follows our insolent and feisty heroine Lyra as she journeys North to free kidnapped children, aided by the last remaining Alethiometer and her ever changing daemon. Her adventures take on magical flying machines, ageless witches and, best of all, hard-rucking polar bears. By ignoring the wearisome sections of the book and getting on with the adventure The Golden Compass manages to make a stab at restoring faith in the tentpole flick with its sheer pace and bravura. There was more from Neil Gaiman this year with Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Stardust. Despite a (relatively) modest budget this turned out to be a real treat as lovelorn Tristan ventures beyond the wall that mysteriously separates his village from a dangerous fantasy world in order to retrieve a shooting star for the undeserving focus of his amorous intentions. Stardust maintains its own internal logic that makes it an eminently satisfying romp in the spirit of The Princess Bride. After an unspectacular start the film throws a bewildering array of witches (Michelle Pfeiffer in a career topping role), camp pirates of the air (Robert de Niro, would you believe) and assorted ghosts, curses and magic into a feelgood pot of celluloid fun.

Similarly there was a time when the horror film was dead and buried but recent years have seen a huge resurgence of interest in the genre. The result? Well we’re beginning to see the cracks once more – horror films follow trends more quickly, aggressively and cheaply than virtually any other mainstream genre so it doesn’t take much for the marketplace to become saturated with apparently indistinguishable product. This year the litany included Hostel 2 (Hostel, with chicks!), Paradise Lost (Hostel in South America!), The Hills Have Eyes 2 (a sequel to a re-make), The Hitcher (Sean Bean plays Rutger Hauer) Saw IV (the Saw trilogy is over… let’s start another one) and, of course, Halloween. Or should we say “visionary director Rob Zombie’s re-imagining of Halloween”? HalloweenAnother woeful attempt to re-make a John Carpenter film (we await Escape From New York with utter dread) Zombie replaces 100% of the tension with boring violence and completely destroys Michael Myers’ unexplained bogeyman persona by giving him a massive backstory about childhood hardship. Like we care. Others had a stab at originality – Black Sheep saw two rival brothers at their family homestead battling over more than inheritance as a new breed of genetically altered sheep prove not to be the money spinner anticipated when it turns out they have a taste for flesh. The sheep that is. This New Zealand film has more than a nod to early Peter Jackson in its range of genre caricatures, slapstick and OTT gore and while it’s always entertaining it’s never quite as funny as a film about killer sheep really should be (although using mint sauce as an acid substitute is pure genius). Also notching up points for trying something a bit out of the ordinary 30 Days of Night places its roaming nosferatu in an Alaskan outpost where, cut off from the outside world and a month in arctic darkness, the inhabitants stand little chance against the undead. Surprisingly effective direction, including a superbly detached overhead massacre that recalls, of all things, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, 30 Days of Night uses its comic book origins as a striking jump-board for the on-screen bloodletting. Scary stuff made enjoyable with an air of the fantastic and some John Carpenter style sieges. I Am Legend replaces the pompous self-righteousness of The Omega Man as Military scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) seeks a cure to a virus that has decimated humanity and turned pretty much everyone into light-sensitive beings with an insatiable appetite for blood. Neville is immune and his only companion lies with his dog Sam and a collection of shop dummies at the local DVD emporium. Although the film spares graphic blood-letting its deliberate build up and nihilistic tone make for a refreshingly solemn blockbuster which, despite its upbeat conclusion, really does offer its hero a desolate fate.

Perhaps the most surprising sf film came in the shape of Sunshine – British made, with a half-decent budget and a cast you actually have heard of. What’s more it generally treated its audience with a modicum of intelligence. When the sun shows signs of sputtering out a team of scientists are sent to jump start it but mysteriously disappear. Seven years later a new team aims to repeat the mission – with less catastrophic results – and save the planet from eternal night. Okay, so Sunshine is basically Alien meets 2001 (with, dare we suggest, a hint of The Core?) but frankly it’s been so long since we’ve had a big screen existential sf blockbuster that we’ll forgive it. Yes the film is left wanting a prologue and some of the action is incongruous but generally the tension is palpable, the acting believable and the cinematography is simply ravishing.

Also a big screen must see is Curse of the Golden Flower, Zhang Yimou’s latest martial arthouse film, which is very different film from the Rashmon-inspired Hero and the convoluted melodrama House of Flying Daggers. Sumptuous sets and lavish visuals add sheen to this tale of lust, hatred and betrayal. Rot beneath the surface threatens to plunge the country into ruin and bloodshed as the Empress plans a coup d’etat over her husband, who is in turn arranging to have her slowly and painfully poisoned. Each is aware of the other’s plans (in part) but neither can lose face by admitting it. Some truly spectacular martial arts sequences pepper this almost Shakespearean tragedy and there’s no denying the audacity at merging two such apparently disparate genres to such ravishing effect.

More threes in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, the director’s third film, in which we follow the attempts of Hugh Jackman’s Tom to save his dying love across the ages. Set in (you’ve guessed it!) three separate time strands – 16th century, present day and 26th century – the film linked through the ages by its protagonist, rendered immortal by an ancient tree. This dense, exquisitely designed romance is a visual treat, the by-product, paradoxically, of a tortuous pre-production history. The result is a glowing, sumptuous feast for the eyes that is astonishingly free from CGI (save in compositing), relying on old-school micro-photography effects to realises its psychedelic extremes. Maybe it is not as profound as it would like to think but it is undeniably an intense, surreal and thought-provoking cinematic experience. A similar charge could be levelled at Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko. SF is only one element of this comedy, musical, drama set so near in the future it’s probably the past by the time you read this. Is it a work of genius or madness? Only you can decide.

Overall 2007 has been a disappointing year for genre with only a few lights desperately twinkling out of the darkness. Even the likes of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a perfectly solid, decent film, or the sporadic raw genius of David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE felt just a little lacklustre. It’s difficult to see where the market is heading – clearly there is still a huge interest in the blockbuster film but the ubiquity of CGI is increasingly looking like the Emperor’s Not-So-New Clothes, a way of justifying budgets for films that really need a better scripts. Ironically there is hope in two of this year’s major, if heavily flawed, releases – Beowulf shows that new technology can be used to create something bizarre and yet still turn a profit while Enchanted shows that there is still merit in solid film-making and old school techniques. Maybe these will sow the seeds of a refreshed industry, striving to provide something new but in a way that acknowledges what worked in the past. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck with Shrek 17 and the next 5-hour Pirates movie. Now that is scary.

The Science Fiction Films of 2006

It is fairly pointless lamenting the lack of hard SF on the big screen as frankly it is unlikely to give the box office returns necessary to sustain more than the occasional oddity in these less artistically inclined times (exceptions like Primer, good as it is, slip well below the big studio radar). But there is some intelligent SF out there that shows the genre can escape from the gee-whiz techno-fetishism of the blockbuster showcase spectacle that (come on, admit it) we all love. Amidst the mediocrity that has defined this year’s big names there have been some surprisingly intelligent entries that also, shock, provide entertainment value. That this year provided as many examples of good sf as it did can only be applauded, even as we lament the more vacuous or self-worthy of offerings plied by the major studios.

Superman ReturnsDonning the costumes and looking serious for the third time comes those mutinous mutants mired in a miasma of moral ambiguity – The X-Men. Will it be curtains for mutant kind as a “cure” for their afflictions is about to be issued? Will two top thesps out-camp each other with serious prognostications of victory and Armageddon? Will the disenfranchised angel-winged son of the anti-mutant executive turn to good(ish) mutantdom or bad(ish) mutantdom? Will Wolverine ever stop being such a pathetic macho bore? Surprisingly Brett Ratner’s “if it doesn’t move, make it move” ethic resulted in a perfectly serviceable piece of film-making. The battles are big, the stakes are high and any deficiencies with the rushed effects are glossed over with the sheer scale and exuberance of the spectacle. There’s time for introspection and a bit of political ambiguity – just not as much had Bryan Singer been at the helm. But Mr Singer had a superhero project of his own – the stupendously expensive Superman Returns. Having dumped Earth to “find himself in the stars” dippy hippy Superman returns just in time for megalomaniac Lex Luthor to cackle his way through another insane plan involving world domination. Lois Lane has given up the thought of having Superman’s kids (insert Mallrats quotes here as necessary) and shacked up with Mr Sort-Of-Alright-But-A-Bit-Boring and had a kid. Singer clearly reveres both the character (bizarrely – Superman is the most rubbish superhero ever) and the original Christopher Reeves outings. This proves to be both the film’s success and its undoing. With all the seriousness going on, the mythmaking, the post-modern adding of angst, you are eternally grateful for Kevin Spacey’s barnstorming performance as Luthor. The film is a truly spectacular event picture of the old (i.e. Superman 1978) variety which doesn’t just bombard its audience with eye-candy but makes them wait a bit between the glorious set-pieces. The downside is that after an hour and a half it seems as though the ideas have dried up. Inevitably as a genre gains mainstream attention the spoofs start rolling in. With effects technology becoming more affordable the opportunity to parody is becoming easier, especially when anyone in spandex automatically opens themselves to a certain degree of ridicule. Previous attempts include the sublimely idiotic Mystery Men and last year’s limp Sky High. With Jack Black donning the stretchy pants in Nacho Libre the superhero has been brought down to earth with a shuddering bump as he tries to work his way through the lower ranks of the Mexican wrestling circuit to fund an orphanage. Less low-key is Ivan Reitman’s hit-and-miss My Super Ex-girlfriend. Luke Wilson is the hapless fellow who makes the error of dumping Uma Thurman – hell hath no fury like a superwoman scorned. Her vengeance is relentless, but only sporadically amusing.

The last decade has seen a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of the horror film but history repeats itself and we are seeing the fruits of success in the inevitable line-up of sequels and remakes (we won’t trouble you with the tedium of The Fog or demean ourselves wittering on about the PG-13 rated travesty The Wicker Man). So we have Grudge 2, a sequel to a re-make and a re-make of a sequel where Sarah Michelle Gellar (soon to be seen in The Return whose poster isn’t exactly the same as The Grudge at all, honest) passes the spooky reigns to another group of creeped-out strangers in a strange land. Hey, at least it’s not dubbed. More haunted houses in An American Haunting which is, well, like The Haunting (1963) but set in America. And not as good. Amiable enough, with a good turn from Donald Sutherland the film-makers were clearly unsure how to market their film so added in a needless bookending device. Final Destination 3, another entry in the guilty pleasure fairground ride of a franchise (this time they even set it in a fairground) where teenagers who escape their pre-destined death face gruesome and elaborately over-the-top demises. Although exceptionally graphic, the sheer loopiness of the set-pieces and the sense of ghost train joie de vivre makes this a great popcorn-muncher. Kate Beckinsale returns wearing her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number (TM) in Underworld: Evolution, an improvement on the first part but still a complete mess. It’s vampires vs werewolves again with our foxy vamp in the thick of the trouble. And then there’s that sick bunny of a film Saw III (so successful that you can guess what we’ll be writing in twelve months time…) – so revolting that they had to call ambulances to cinemas to aid distraught patrons. Well it is exceptionally sadistic, relentlessly nihilistic and misogynist (let’s see, she’s naked and tortured, he’s clothed and tortured…) but ultimately you never get to know any of the characters except by their means of death. The twisty revelations are fun but by the time you get there you’re hoping everyone’s put out of their misery quickly so that you can rush home and make a cup of tea. Eli Roth doesn’t make this mistake in the similarly brutal, borderline xenophobic Hostel. Roth’s ghastly frat boys stomp around Europe in search of cheap sex and drugs, their Animal House (1978) antics resulting in some very messy business in the heart of ex-Soviet Europe. It engages precisely because Roth has invested time (arguably too much) establishing the characters. Sean Bean fans will surely have rejoiced at the thought of not one but two horror films starring the actor. The Dark, set in Wales, shot on the Isle of Man for tax reasons, has the actor living in a remote cliff-top house. His ex-wife and daughter arrive and the daughter begins to see a ghostly girl who wishes to return to the land of the living. Unfortunately her return means that someone else must take her place in the world beyond. The Dark comes into its own because of its menacing monsters – a bunch of surly killer sheep. It almost manages to pull off this most unlikely of threats. Mr Bean also has wife and daughter issues in Silent Hill, a stylish adaptation of everyone’s second favourite Konami video game franchise (the chances of a Dance Dance Revolution film seem surprisingly slim…). Ultimately this is too reverent to its source material (at one point she searches a desk, finds a key and later has to open a door with it – they may as well stick an energy bar in the corner of the screen) and as such comes across as a series of surreal zombie set pieces intercut with Mr Bean looking anguished and helpless. It does, however, look fabulous and is, surprisingly, centred almost entirely on the female characters. But it is very stony-faced in its dedication to being “serious” horror, an accusation that could not be aimed at Snakes on a Plane. The title is the film and as prime a concept as they get with tough guy Samuel L Jackson getting irate about those “oedipal” snakes on this “oedipal” plane. His job is to protect a valuable witness from assassination by a powerful crime syndicate. The syndicate’s way around the problem is breathtakingly stupid and impractical – get the passengers impregnated with pheromones and let loose hundreds of poisonous, randy snakes on a jumbo jet mid-flight. Snakes On A Plane mostly lives up to its B-Movie premise with dumb jumps, scares and crass humour. There’s more fun in the British horror comedy Severance, a sort of Carry On Hostel, as a group of itinerant office workers on a team building exercise in Eastern Europe find themselves lost and under the watchful eye of some very nasty psychopathic killers. Featuring the cringeworthy motivational boss and the usual range of office caricatures (the toady, the stoner, the geek) the twist lies in the bloody demise of these fishes out of water. Slither tried desperately to take the gross horror comedy back to the heights of Peter Jackson’s most famous film Braindead (1992). Unfortunately it missed its mark, but it tried hard. Written and directed by James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet, Dawn of the Dead remake and, er, Scooby Doo) it stars Firefly’s Nathan Fillion as a hapless police officer in a small town investigating some very strange and sticky goings on. It’s fun while it lasts, with an amiable cast, but the gags are only for chuckles and the gore’s too gross for a non-horror crowd, but not gross enough to put it on par with Braindead. Still, it hit the spot better than Scary Movie 4 or the big screen debut of Ant and Dec in the overlong Alien Autopsy.

The immediacy of the horror film, its very disreputability and links with grunge culture, has given it a distinct advantage when it comes to putting the finger on the pulse of audience expectations, at least at a basic level. Horror has consistently proved to be a highly profitable niche genre and the returns on often modest budgets are solid. The small budgets and high turnaround give horror much of its relevance – note how quickly the trend for creepy 12A horror gave way to the sadistic excesses of Saw III and Hostel post Iraq (an almost identical reaction to that of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s) as horror films mirror society’s fears. Cinematically SF has, by nature of its development time and general reliance on special effects technology, always had to catch up. Last year’s responses started trickling in with Lucas’s declared anti-Bush Episode Three and Spielberg’s twin responses of War of the Worlds and the non-genre but extremely good Munich. Fortunately this year’s offerings are less bombastic, more considered and offer some hope of revitalising the science fiction genre, which has recently been consisting of guys in spandex and big spaceships. This is the dystopian science fiction film where the future isn’t all good guys and bad guys, there’s little in the way of extra-terrestrial interference and the metaphors relating to the current political climate are as clear as a freshly Mr Sheened window.

V For VendettaThree very different films all offered a bleak vision of our near future, but what is surprising given their diversity in tone and style – one is slick, one grimy, one animated – is how good they all were. V for Vendetta naturally attracted the ire of many – any Alan Moore adaptation gets a grilling regardless of quality (LXG was fair bait, From Hell was seriously underrated). But V for Vendetta told its story well, intelligently and packed in some action too, even if Matrix fans wanted more kung-fu and literary sorts couldn’t take the noise. Add the politically radical message favouring a sort of anarcho-communist future for Britain with terrorist acts aimed at the government and the net result is one of the more thought-provoking pieces of popcorn fodder in years. More strife for Blighty in Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P. D. James’s Children of Men offering a world of anarchy and violence as the population descends into nihilist self-interest following the failure of anyone to conceive for nearly twenty years. If there is no future generation why bother protecting anything? Clive Owen stumbles unwittingly on a potential saviour for the future, putting his life in jeopardy and forcing him on the run in a police state on the brink of collapse. Cuaron films his dystopian future with a grimy realistic look that is at times astonishing – the immediacy of events reinforced by some of recent cinema’s most memorable long takes. A bleak future also awaits an animated Keanu Reeves (no sniggering at the back there) in A Scanner Darkly, surely cinema’s finest attempt at adapting Philip K Dick. Undercover cop Bob Arctor must break a drug ring, a ring in which he finds himself the main suspect. A user of the highly addictive Substance D, his hold on reality becomes increasingly weak as the investigation progresses. Richard Linklater uses a rotoscoping technique to disorientate the viewer and place them in a world of hopelessness and paranoia – the drug talk moving from slacker stoner humour (a Linklater speciality) to outright hostility in a few hazy sentences. Any hopes that the ending would be less bleak than the novel are shattered.

Fortunately, as the dystopian films show, there is more to cinematic science fiction than wacky aliens and super-powers. More contemporary forays into the speculative or fantastical fiction have been attempted this year, with varying success. Unfortunately this year’s The Lake House, featuring Keanu again, managed to [re-make a perfectly acceptable modern Asian film in American for no readily apparent purpose and] throw any plausibility out of the window. The principle is loopily charming – two people in the same house, separated by two years, form a slow romance by writing each other, a feat achieved by an apparent time rift in their postbox. Sadly the Euro-art-film pretensions and the way that the characters can interrupt each other mid-letter – how does that work then? – drain any suspension of disbelief. Tony Scott, the film-maker for whom the term intellidumb was invented, returned with another Jerry Bruckheimer produced piece of slickness. Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Bridging the gap between the dystopian science fiction film and the superhero film was much derided Aeon Flux. Moving along at a pace that shows its roots as MTV’s successful anime homage the film never flags in its inventive visual style and parade of futurist surrealism. Although ostensibly a live action interpretation of Japanese science fiction staples it nonetheless has the feel and design of a European science fiction comic, one where the ideas and vision supersede cohesion. Ultimately it fails because it tries too hard to make everything coherent, but this is a minor point for what is, for the most part, originally executed genre entertainment.

The Great Yokai WarWith the big three franchises off the radar for this year (Mr Potter returns for what we hope is a better outing than the pompous Goblet of Fire in 2007 as do the Narnia crew, while hopes of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit fade into “what if…” territory) there seemed to be little for fantasy film fans to sink their teeth into. Even Tim Burton took a backseat after the mighty one-two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the sublime Corpse Bride. There was Gore Verbinski’s cash cow (more on that later) and some smaller contenders. Eragon told the tale of a farm boy who found a dragon’s egg and fulfilled his destiny defending his homeland from an evil king, played with lashings of ham by John Malkovich. The small British film Mirrormask looked gorgeous, but somehow didn’t live up to its promising beginning. A ravishing triumph of film-making, but where the heart was superseded by the design, this Gilliam-esque fairy tale is still well worth a watch. Speaking of whom, Gilliam himself managed to return closer to his old form and familiar themes with Tideland where a young orphaned girl is left alone in her house on the prairie. Described by Gilliam as “Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho”, Tideland is funny, moving and strange. Pulling a stunning rabbit out of the hat following last year’s insane superhero film Zebraman, Osaka’s most notorious and prolific filmmaker, Miike Takashi, came up with an epic fantasy unlike any other – The Great Yokai War. Filmed for a ridiculously low budget this is free-form imaginative fantasy at its finest. Bullied schoolboy Tadashi becomes the Kirin Rider at a local festival and is set the task of recovering the Great Goblin Sword. This is a required item because there is evil stirring. Tadashi is accompanied by a variety of yokai, spirits that inhabit all things, on a dangerous journey to confront the evil lord and save Japan from destruction. What sets The Great Yokai War apart is the sheer range and diversity of the creatures in its bulging bestiary; rubber necked women that snake around, umbrellas with tongues, walking walls, cuddly rodents, scaly fishmen, bubbling pollutant monsters, there’s probably even a kitchen sink there. Over a hundred unique creatures populate the frames of the film, all of them with distinct personalities. Less suitable for the kiddies is Tsui Hark’s glorious return to form Seven Swords – a fantasy epic re-working of (surprise, surprise) Seven Samurai (1954) where a disparate band of heroes armed each with one of the titular swords do their darndest to stop the dastardly overlord from pillaging the land. This is exhilarating film-making, visceral and energetic, packed with scenes of superhuman endeavour, deep tragedy, betrayal and loyalty. More big blades abound in the (tragically straight to video here) CGI feature Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a chaotic mismatch of alternate realities, fantasy and science fiction. It’s a bit of a mess but who cares when it looks this good? There are motorbike chases, demons, giant robots, packs of savage dogs and hardly a moment goes by without some universe-threatening punch-up. Obviously those seeking realistic physics need to steer clear but for sheer entertainment this is in a class of its own.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest proved to be the year’s most profitable film, indeed one of the most profitable films ever. The original was the sleeper hit of its year but the sequel went, inexplicably, through the roof. You’d have to be pretty po-faced not to have enjoyed every goofy minute of Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest offers more of the same, only bigger, louder and with larger coffers of doubloons to splash out on the production. But somehow the end results seem a little less enthralling – like coming off the best rollercoaster ride ever and going on again. It’s still enjoyable but a little of the magic is gone. Kiera Knightly goes all bodicey-feisty, Johnny Depp is superbly outrageous and Orlando Bloom still can’t act for toffee. The basic premise seems to be to split everyone up in a convoluted way so that they can get back together in an even more convoluted way. There are some great set pieces, cannibals, kraken and all manner of cod proclamations. A similar tale of all-out set pieces could be levelled at Mission Impossible III, the feature debut for J. J. Abrams, the man behind Alias and Lost. There are more rounds fired than a John Woo film, more big explosions than Bond and lots of gadgetry and techno stuff. The film is worth mentioning for the trailer alone – a brilliant piece of work that totally wrong foots the audience. Sadly, though the towering performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman is all that there is to recommend it, it’s overblown, overlong and frankly just plain dull. The immediacy of hand-held camerawork that made Children of Men so immersive appears lazy here. If you’ve got a budget, buy a dolly. Far better in the gadgets and hi-jinks genre (Bond’s back to basics approach excludes it from this round up) was the affable Stormbreaker, based on the popular books by Anthony Horowitz. This really is teenage wish fulfilment as schoolboy Alex Rider finds himself capable of avenging the death of his adopted parent because he has inadvertently learnt the skills necessary to be a top British super-agent. Yes it’s preposterous but find a film listed here that isn’t – Stormbreaker is fun, exciting and, more to the point, (Pirates – that’s you) coherent. Meanwhile Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Far more low-key was The Thief Lord, a nicely understated children’s fantasy shot though an apparently muddy lens around the streets of Venice. It’s an escape fantasy that takes two brothers into an underground world of homeless children under the protection of the self-styled Thief Lord. The way that the existence of magic is kept in doubt places the film ostensibly in the real world but the melting plot of literary homage (Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Something Wicked This Way Comes) indicates a more fantastical outcome. An ideal Sunday afternoon watch with the kids.

Two lady in the water films vied for our attention. One, the teen-chick-flick Aquamarine, offered Splash (1984) with hunks, the other, Lady in the Water, purported to be a fairy tale. M Night Shyamalan’s latest was not greeted well by the critics or the public. Caretaker Cleveland Heep finds a naked Narf in an apartment complex’s swimming pool. She needs to return to the Blue World in the claws of an eagle but is being hunted down by vicious creatures that dwell in the grass. Shyamalan always manages to make the extraordinary appear ordinary, it is one of the things that makes his work so appealing. The Lady in the Water continues the themes that are present in his other works and has the potential for being a great little film. Unfortunately it never realises this potential – the plot regularly grinds to a halt only to be kick-started by another revelation squeezed out of the knowledgeable but irritatingly tight-lipped Mrs Choi and some of the self-reverence is a touch tiresome

Pan’s Labyrinth Probably the most difficult films to categorise this year were Pan’s Labyrinth and The Prestige. The former, by director Guillermo del Toro, was moving and imaginative in a way quite unlike any other. Set in 1944 during the Fascist overtaking of Spain a young girl, Ofelia, is forced to live with her new step-father; an evil captain who treats human life as nothing more than an inconvenience. However her new home has an old labyrinth where she meets a domineering faun who tells her she must complete three tasks to claim her rightful place as princess of a grand kingdom. The contrasts between the magical realm and the hell of war make Pan’s Labyrinth a fairy tale for adults – at times brutal, at times beautiful. Throughout the film you doubt everyone’s motives bar Ofelia’s, so the tension is mounted high. This is magical film-making at its very best – Gilliam, Burton and Svankmajer rolled into one. More magic in The Prestige, from Christopher Priest’s novel, as two magicians form a deadly rivalry. Assured and perfectly crafted, The Prestige benefits from tight scripting and a superb cast to make another (really, this is too much in one year) intelligent film for adults. Unfortunately the teaser trailers promised Batman vs Wolverine, causing cinemas around the country to be invaded by fidgeting brats to the 12A rating. Add some swearing please, Mr Nolan, and make the next one a 15…

Perhaps the dearth of franchise excess helped things along but, almost in spite of itself, 2007 turned out to be a solid year for genre cinema.

The Winners (and there were many, many contenders):

Best SF: A Scanner Darkly

Best Fantasy: Pan’s Labyrinth

Most Gruesome Horror: Hostel

Films of the Year 2004

Another year has whooshed by, like a probe on its way to Titan. Genre-wise we’ve had more of the same: blockbusters, lots of CGI, and remake upon remake. However a few gems have slipped in under the mainstream carpet. So, was 2004 any good?

Amazing Animation

The Incredibles

The IncrediblesBrad Bird, veteran of The Simpsons and the man behind the criminally under-rated beatnik Miyazaki homage The Iron Giant (1999) joins the Pixar stable for his second feature. Superheroes have protected society from crime with their incredible abilities… that is until a series of lawsuits (including one from a suicidal man who didn’t want to be saved) have forced them into retirement. Now Mr Incredible and his wife Elastigirl have to live ordinary lives under a government protection scheme, their superchildren forced to suppress their powers. But when Mr Incredible is sent on a secret mission it becomes clear there’s a new supervillain at large and the time for anonymity has passed. Brimming with excellent visual gags and witty dialogue there really is something for everybody. Again Pixar have created an exemplary rendered universe that is internally consistent in design and execution. Technically the film is astonishing but this proficiency is used as a tool rather than a means to an end – it is the design (at times perfectly reflecting Fleischer Superman cartoons) and execution that make this exciting, witty and intelligent. It is also proof that animation can work beyond the 80 minute barrier if the material is strong enough.

A Shark’s Tale

Scorsese, Will Smith and de Niro in the same film. And it’s a gangster film. In CGI! With fish! What’s more it earned a pile of cash at the box-office. Must be pretty good right? Well, no. It has poorly structured direction, mumbly dialogue and tedious film references that give post-modernism a bad rap. The time when anything CGI is automatically “good” is long gone – something Pixar realised right from the start by concentrating on scripting and coherent cinematic language over look-at-me visuals and a billboard-friendly named cast.

Shrek 2

The happy couple are back in da swamp and ready to enjoy a life of domestic bliss. However there is the slight problem in that hot-headed Shrek has yet to meet the in-laws, so he and Fiona set off, accompanied by hyperactive Donkey, to the land of Far Far Away. Naturally father in-law disapproves of Shrek and wishes to return the princess back to her former, more conventionally beautiful, self. Shrek 2 provides a steady stream of gags, doing its job well because its scattershot (rather than focussed) approach to jokes means that while some fall flat others work well, and are pitched at many different age groups. Antonio Banderas steals the show as Puss in Boots, purrrrrfectly sending up his Mask of Zorro (1998) persona with a wicked streak of amoral, typically feline humour.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain – Angelina JolieLike the strange offspring of George Lucas and Guy Madden, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow revels in its retro Fantastic Stories look, impressive but deliberately over-stylised machinery and film technique that harks back to earlier eras. Lovers of Saturday morning serials will be right at home as Skycaptain (Jude Law) must save the world from a terrible fate. Quite simply stunning to look at, the design is amongst the finest of this year’s films. The insanity of the decision to make this virtually all CGI works in its favour because the whole film is internally coherent but basically preposterous, the combination of old fashioned and distinctly cutting edge making for ideal bedfellows. Our science fiction yarn was truly ripped.

Looney Tunes: Back In Action

It looked so good on paper. Joe Dante is, after all, the world’s most vocal Chuck Jones aficionado and long time purveyor of irresponsible anarchic entertainment. And modern cinema’s favourite whipping boy Brendan Fraser has taken almost as many knocks as Jackie Chan in the cause of making people laugh. This pairing in a re-run of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) (let’s forget, please, Space Jam(1996)) but with more violence seemed a sure winner to succeed. Sadly the plot to re-instate Daffy as a bona fide star and Fraser’s search for his dad feels tacked together. Although there are gags aplenty (including a great sequence in the Louvre) Steve Martin exterminates any pleasure from the proceedings. Looney Tunes work best as short cartoons (see the excellent Wizard of Ow! which precedes the film) – stretching them to feature length makes it all seem increasingly tiresome.

If it’s Worth Doing Once…

…it’s worth overdoing. This year has seen huge numbers of sequels and re-makes, particularly horror films, shocking people too ignorant to rent the original. In some ways this is a hypocritical view – Frankenstein and Dracula films are perennial after all – but something about direct remakes seems somehow… well, pointless. Sometimes the originals are bad films (as in Tobe Hooper’s recent remake of the notorious, and still heavily censored, The Toolbox Murders), but re-making a classic seems tantamount to asking for trouble. We await the proposed remake of Argento’s Suspiria with utter dread…

The Grudge

Here’s a remake conundrum – director Takashi Shimizu has virtually remade his own film (Ju-On) in Japan a few times, but here he is doing it again for a Hollywood audience. What is surprising is how much of the low-key, constantly creepy, motiveless shocks and almost total absence of humour has made it into the westernised version. Even more surprising is the sheer amount of money it made in the box office despite no expensive pyrotechnics and half the dialogue subtitled. This is a great scary movie of the kind we have rarely seen since Halloween – not overtly gory but plenty of jumps. When bad things happen at a place, the spirits live on to be nasty to people for no discernible reason. Classic scary camp-fire nonsense. But… what was the point of remaking?

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (re-make)

What, precisely, was wrong with the original? Well, apparently a creepy policeman was needed and, er, there just wasn’t enough gore first time round. Tobe Hooper’s ‘less is more’ approach (hoping the film would get a PG rating – it was banned for 25 years here in Blighty) created one of the most tense black comedies around, but this time prosthetics and shock tactics go straight for the so-called “hard-R”. It’s not all bad, the book-ended grainy footage is a nice touch and there are a few unexpected twists. The decision to keep it firmly in the 70’s manages jumps on the retro bandwagon but frees it from post-Scream (1996) knowingness. Mildly diverting.

Dawn of the Dead (re-make)

Dawn of the Dead RemkeRomero’s classic 1978 sequel (to Night of the Living Dead (1969) which was re-made by Tom Savini before re-makes became fashionable, allegedly as a way of maintaining copyright) relocated the haunted house to a shopping mall in order to criticise consumerism while providing plenty of splattery entertainment. In this version the mall setting is retained… until script-writer James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet (1996) and Scooby Doo (2002) [dog]) gets bored and runs riot with the characters’ predicaments. The result is less a re-run or re-imagining (uugh.. please let the phrase die…) than a springboard and it’s all the better for it, especially having zombies that can move at pace rather than just shambling about. Realising that today’s popcorn junkies don’t give a stuff for messages we just get a cracking horror-action yarn packed with clichés and imaginative grue. Add a real early 80’s ending and the package is complete – not art but an ideal ‘Friday night with beers’ film. Interestingly the proposed sequel will be Dawn of the Dead 2 and not Day of the Dead.

Van Helsing

Perhaps fearing that milking Universal’s back catalogue of monsters one at a time was going to take a while, Stephen (The Mummy) Sommers has just thrown loads of ’em together in one film. Van Helsing is now an ass-kicker more akin to pantomime gothic pro-wrestler rather than man of medicine. His side-kick for this mission is Kate Beckinsale wearing her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number (TM). The bad guy is none other than Count Dracula who is after Frankenstein’s creative spark in order to give birth to thousands of kids, spawned by his three brides in a huge cave beneath his interdimensionally cloaked castle. And then things get silly. Sommers throws everything at this one, homages to Whale and Polanski, the less obvious Hammer films (Kiss of the Vampire, Vampire Circus etc) as well as James Bond-style gadgets and hair-raising chase sequences. However, there is a problem. Many films can sustain slightly shabby effects, but Sommers’ brand of downright entertaining nonsense requires a certain verisimilitude that is lacking here, with some of the CGI lacking that difficult-to-depict quality – weight. But it doesn’t stop the film being a good laugh.

Alien vs Predator

Alien (1979) – gruesome star of a series of splatterific s-f films splashing the walls with giblets and mutilated acid-scarred bodies.

Predator (1987) – gruesome star of a series of nasty splatterfilms so unpleasant that they remain heavily censored in some countries for their disturbing content.

Alien vs Predator – rated PG-13 (in the US) to get the kids in. Whoever wins, we lose. Ne’er a more apt tag-line.

Resident Evil 2: Nemesis

Paul Anderson’s Resident Evil was a dumb but fun action flick. But he was too busy making Alien vs Predator (hahaha) to make the sequel, so we have this is a dreary affair instead. Stupendously violent but virtually bloodless, this is the antithesis of the Capcom games where stealth and a dwindling supply of ammo make every bullet count and the deaths all have a visceral impact. Carrying on from part one Alice (Milla Jovovich) faces the normal array of zombies with a new group of dumb-talking misfits for company. Those naughty blighters at Umbrella Corp have an über-zombie/hybrid/thing that, it turns out, is actually… no that would be telling (like you care). Waves upon waves of faceless hordes get mown down, our heroes get trapped, they escape, waves upon waves of faceless hordes get mown down, our heroes get trapped, they escape, waves upon… you get the idea. There are no jumps, no scares (the games are genuinely scary) just plodding, senseless, sanitised violence. More second rate schmup than survival horror. Dreadful.

The Chronicles of Riddick

Chronicles of Riddick-ulousWhen, in polite company, say at a little party somewhere, you mention that you like science fiction films a common response implies that you have rabies and a taste for human flesh. Science fiction, you see, is a genre (apparently) that consists of people with stupid names, wearing stupid costumes, travelling to stupid “high concept” planets, talking pish and pontificating cod-Nietzsche while pointing a laser super destroyer ray at you that looks like a tinsel covered twig. If you can be bothered you normally protest, spraying a mouthful of half-chewed twiglets in their direction crying “no, no, it’s not like that”. Then they mention The Chronicles of Riddick and you know you are on to a loser. Pitch Black’s (2000) unpretentious combination of insectoid splatter and low-budget thrills has somehow spawned this high-budget abomination of a sequel – all portentous semi-transparent Judi Dench and clench-jawed macho gibberish from quite possibly the least charismatic screen antihero of the last decade.

Thunderbirds

“Thunderbirds are Noooooooo!!!” Normally the expression ‘no strings attached’ is a positive thing, sadly this is not the case here. Insert additional witty comments as necessary (“Thunderbirds are C.R.A.P.”, “No M’lady”, wooden acting analogies etc), something anyone who reviews Thunderbirds is compelled to do. Jonathan Frakes continues his long and unimpressive run of films devoid of any directorial interest and in the process has created a virtual vacuum of cinematic technique. Good job Commander Riker…

Blade: Trinity

Parker Posey, in full panto Josie and the Pussycats (2001) mode, and her vampire buddies raise the original vampire from his sandy tomb somewhere in the Syrian desert. The purpose? To kill off stony-faced funmeister Blade (scourge of vamps the world over and, of course, part-vamp himself) and turn the humans into living bloodbags. To make matters worse Blade is filmed bumping off a human (wearing fake fangs) so now has the police on his tail. Then Whistler is killed for, oh, about the thirtieth time in the series, and Blade’s forced to team up with a bunch of green-under-the-collar vampire hunters to defeat the new super daywalking shapshifting uber-vamp and develop a vampire-killing virus. Phew! Utter nonsense of course, but who cares? Blade: Trinity marries one action scene after another and a lot of amusing mumbo jumbo. Scenes of carnage follow like clockwork but each set-piece is at least recognisable from the previous one. As vacuous as outer space but entertaining nonetheless.

Spider-Man 2

Superheroes all go through the ‘disillusionment phase’, especially in the acne-spattered angst-ridden world of Marvel. Forget the litigious futurist world of Mr Incredible, Peter Parker has real problems – he can’t hold down his pizza delivery job, is less than attentive at his studies and he’s broke. Why? Because he goes around saving dumb people from horrible people and gets diddly-squat in return. He even lost his girl to some astronaut. But before you can say ‘hang up your fetish wear’, along come a couple of miffed super-villains; the son of Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn and the recently mutated Dr Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius. The joy of Spider-Man 2 lies in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary – of holding a lousy minimum wage job and yet fighting a madman with giant metal tentacles, or visiting your aunt but also fitting in time to face a misguided nemesis. It’s these human elements that make the fantastical ones so exciting. Again Raimi has pulled out all the stops visually. While this may not seem so groundbreaking in the light of many recent blockbusters, it’s worth noting that Raimi has been perfecting his camera techniques for over twenty years.

Haunted Mansion

Workaholic estate agent Jim Evers’ (Eddie Murphy) wife Sara receives an offer to view a highly desirable property providing she attends alone. But Jim tags along with the kids anyway. Just as well, sinister butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) plans to use Sara to revive his dead master. Disney plunder another theme park ride in an attempt to swell the coffers (we await the film version of the one with the spinning tea-cups with some trepidation) but the result as more a series of gentle undulations than a rollercoaster. There are some nice set pieces and the design is suitably overblown. Ultimately though, it is as transparent and wispy as its many spirits.

It’s Like, You Know, For Kids

Around the World in 80 Days

That Phileas Fogg bloke (you know, the guy who invented unusual snacks in the 1980’s) is played by Alan Partridge and his sidekick, Passepartout (or Biyometrik Eyedeecard as he will be known in the 2008 remake) by gurny-faced kung-fu buffoon Jackie Chan. Together they follow in the footsteps of Michael Palin, only a century earlier. Or something. Fogg’s crackpot ideas have led to a potentially career mauling wager in which he must, as the title so succinctly suggests, traverse the globe in less than three months. Chan’s aboard, off for a free trip back to China (save the village, stolen ancient Chinese artefacts – usual JC Macguffins) – so the recipe is set for an episodic travelogue peppered with star cameos, sweeping international vistas and slapstick. The design is suitably unrealistic, the brief fight-scene in a Paris gallery a slight return to form for Chan and, overall, proceedings tick by on auto-pilot… just no more.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Chris Columbus retains producing credit but hands the directorial reins to Alfonso (Y Tu Mama!) Cuarón, who gave us an excellent version of The Little Princess (1995). The Prisoner of Azkaban is a far more morbid affair than its predecessors – not only with the first appearance of the Dementors (a great scene aboard the Hogwarts Express) but even in the more overtly humorous sequences such as Harry’s breakneck journey on the Night Bus. Given that The Prisoner of Azkaban started the climb into phonebook page counts that turned (particularly) the fourth book into a cumbersome bore, it’s amazing how much they’ve crammed into the running time. Primarily the Harry Potter films are aware of their target audience and play to it – they look great, are exciting, occasionally scary and show the tribulations of school friendships and rivalries in an fantastical context. The Prisoner of Azkaban manages to succeed its predecessors as superior diverting children’s entertainment. We do, however, wait with dread at the prospect of Mike “Four Weddings” Newell’s The Goblet of Fire, a task that would appear nigh on impossible to do with any conviction. Unless, of course, Harry wakes up exclaiming “fuckity fuck I’m still at the Dursley’s”…

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snickets – Jim CareyWe were very concerned that this would turn into a saccharine franchise. Based on the first three books, A Series of Unfortunate Events tells the awful trials of the Baudelaire children, sorry, Baudelaire orphans – owing to the fact that their parents perish in a mysterious fire. Seeking custody of the siblings is the iniquitous Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), a word here meaning “liable to bump off orphans in order to get his hands on their inheritance”, who will try any disguise to grasp the three plucky, intelligent and moderately good-looking children and pinch their cash. Making the books into a feature was always going to be problematic – children like gross things, but parents don’t like them seeing them – so while horrible and unfortunate events occur with alarming regularity, they are occasionally a touch less macabre than the books allow. Carrey is alternately brilliant and irritating as the malevolent Olaf, a word here meaning “evil and gurning simultaneously”, and his impossibly lanky stature matches the books’ illustrations perfectly. The design looks fabulous thanks to Rick Heinrich’s impeccable art direction. The script cleverly places the second and third books in the middle of the first one and includes many Snicket eccentricities (he is an omnipresent narrator) but the result is that the final act is a touch rushed. By no means perfect, but better than we could reasonably expect. Oh, and the end credits (which should be at the start) are fabulous.

13 Going On 30

This year’s “child in an adult mind” comedy (see the Freaky Friday re-make for last year’s) sees schoolgirl Jenna Rink wishing she was no longer 13. Bingo, a sprinkle of magic dust later and she awakes to find herself head magazine design guru, with a very buff bloke in the buff in her bedroom. Yikes! Unfortunately it also conspires that not only have the 17 years made her rich and famous they’ve also made her a total bitch. Naturally her good-natured self tries to rectify all this. Jennifer Garner ditches the tough kicking sf of Daredevil and TV’s Alias and proves more than up to the job of feel-good fantasy comedy. What could easily have strayed into murky waters proves an easy to watch (but consequently easy to forget and wafer thin) comedy of manners and situation.

What, Some Real Science Fiction? Naaaaahhh!

I, Robot

Bzzzzzchhhhttt. Not the sound of servos kickin’ into action on a super-advanced android, but the sound of spinning from six feet under. Onomatopoeia is so difficult. So here we have a high concept title and a marquee star battling with famed “Laws of Robotics”. Oooooooo. Anyone expecting a faithful Asimov adaptation was clearly delusional so just forget about it, alright? Instead we get trainer wearing Luddite Will Smith who’s deeply suspicious about the androids created to serve us. But as there has never been a single case of robots harming humans surely the guy is nuts and not suitable for a police career? And you’d be right, everything’s fine and there’s lots of hugs and feel-good man-android interaction in this beautiful utopian future. Oh alright then, no-one would pay to see robots being nice so of course there’s murder, conspiracy and shed-loads of well choreographed action. Jolly fun it is too and there’s surprising depth in the arguments about humanity and the nature of self that means we have this year’s ‘not as dumb as the sticker suggests’ award for surprisingly decent sf. Not thesis material but at least it attempts to pitch at a level above Janet and John.

Paycheck

PaycheckIf you want to see a Philip K Dick film you’re better off catching up on anything written by Charlie Kaufman (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) than something supposedly based on the man’s actual work. Sure Total Recall is a great film, but it’s only tangentially related to Dick. Along comes Paycheck and initially it looks hopeful – Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) reverse engineers products for sneaky companies, earns shed-loads of cash but has all his work memories wiped-out to prevent him spilling the beans. Inevitably the ‘last big job’ comes up, it’s dodgy, he wakes up with a year missing from his mind and a set of clues left to him by himself. And everyone wants him dead. And he’s in love with Uma Thurman. Twice. There’s a lot of easy on the eye action (a ridiculous, pointless but energetic motorcycle chase being a highlight) and blah-blah technobabble but ultimately, like its hero, once the job’s over you’ve forgotten all about it. John Woo is slowly crawling back from the travesty that was MI:2, but it’s a far cry from the majesty of Bullet in the Head, A Better Tomorrow or Hard Boiled.

The Village

In the village they keep things to themselves. That’s no going outside the borders (or the bogeymen will savage you) and, naturally, the colour red is strictly forbidden. It’s all very puritanical in a founding fathers kind of a way but for the most part it seems to work. Except some people want to know what lies outside the borders. What is the secret of the village? M Night Shyamalan returns with another creepy-twisty spook tale and this time, to keep you on your toes, he has a number of (un)expected events take you by surprise. Didn’t see the Joaquin Phoenix bit coming! It is, of course, utter hokum but when has that ever prevented a film from being enjoyable?

The Day After Tomorrow

A-ha. Remember that dreadful term they used for The Core? Well it’s back! Science faction or, using technobabble to give an air of respectability to your ludicrous premise. Sincerity in the face of the absurd has always been Roland Emmerich’s modus operandi and here is no exception – The Day After Tomorrow comes with doomsayer prophecies of imminent environmental despair and a plea for liberal (well, alright, democratic) politics in the crucial US election year. Anyway, the environment’s gone to pot and our scientist hero tries to warn everyone. Who, of course, don’t listen. It’s very cold. And he has to go find his son because he feels guilty. Basically this is just a wafer-thin premise for seventies-style disaster movie pyrotechnics. Except there’s never any doubt who is going to live and who is going ‘the way of the extra’, the characters have the emotional thickness of a Rizla and the foreshadowing is signposted in letters a mile high. “Hey! The wolves have escaped from the zoo! I SAID THE WOLVES HAVE ESCAPED FROM THE ZOO!” Wonder if they’ll be turning up later then?

Stepford Wives

Bryan Forbes’ fairly misogynist version of Ira Levin’s very misogynist book gets the ironic modernisation touch from Muppet man Frank Oz. Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is the family breadwinner and the face behind a hugely successful TV station but she is having a nervous breakdown. Hubby Walter finds the perfect place away from the hustle and bustle – a house in the high security, multi-amenity, big buck town of Stepford. There’s something strange though – all the men are geeky and devote their lives to leisure while their wives are pretty, docile and domesticated. Wisely Oz ditches the shock twist of the original, figuring that the audience will already be aware of it and concentrates on the revelations as seen by our heroine. Things are certainly played for ironic chuckles this time round and, while the film keeps its subversion tuned to mild, there’s much to enjoy.

Offbeat

Azumi

azumiKept away from the world, ten kids have been trained from birth to become hardened warriors by an elder samurai. Their mission: to stop a devious plan to usurp the current shogun. Their samurai master trains them so hard that half of them fail the entrance test. One who does pass is destined for greatness: Azumi. Kitamura’s films, despite their reliance on stock Japanese stories/manga/history are more easily defined by western pop influences than on traditional Japanese film-making which has its own style of editing and composition. Instead MTV and advertising inform the restless camerawork, Raimi and Romero the visual style. Azumi unashamedly plays to the stalls – its lead is kawaii idoru Aya Ueto who spends much of the film chopping hundreds of people into little pieces while the camera blurs in a free-wheeling burn of motion-tracking and CGI-gore excess.

House of Flying Daggers

To expect one wu xia ‘martial arthouse’ film from a respected film-maker may seem presumptuous (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time(1994)), to expect two seems downright greedy. But following on from his multiple viewpoint, breathtakingly colourful Hero, Zhang Yimou has come up with another slice of exemplary swordplay: The House of Flying Daggers. The House in question are an underground bunch of Robin Hood types – a group the authorities want dead. Both sides fight dirty. The police plant their best man as a mole in the Daggers’ camp by trying to get him to earn the trust of blind swordswoman and dancer Mei and lead them to the Daggers’ secret lair. With plenty of twists and turns House of Flying Daggers has it all – intrigue, betrayal, plot twists and doomed, inevitable, love. Quite simply stunning to look at with some of Ching Siu-Tung’s finest wirework yet (and that is saying something!) you’ll gasp in amazement and weep with sadness. Magical.

Bubba Ho-tep

With the exception of an odd handful of films, genre tends to favour the young and able-bodied for its heroes. Bubba Ho-tep not only challenges this narrow-minded view but also answers one of the two most nagging questions of last century – did Elvis really die and is Bruce Lee travelling incognito on a philosophical journey of enlightenment? Well, we’re not sure about the Dragon but the King is definitely alive, infirm and incontinent in a rest home. Where he resides with a guy who swears he’s JFK. There they end up battling an evil Egyptian undead spirit who also wants a bit of TLC in his twilight years. OK it’s a bit of a one gag premise and the budget limitations are quite apparent, but the sight of a Vegas-era suited old Elvis (a role Bruce Campbell was born to play) shuffling down corridors with a Zimmer-frame trying to defeat the undead menace is a hard image to shake. Disreputable fun from Don (Phantasm) Coscarelli

Finding Neverland

Johnny Depp’s mighty CV notches up another winner (for such a popular star he has a frighteningly good batting average) as he tackles the role of JM Barrie, specifically his relationship with widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her children, and the writing of Peter Pan. The strains of the budget show occasionally and there’s a valiant attempt to reign in the sentimentality, but the delightful blurring of fantasy and reality, the genuine warmth of character and the desire to if not break with convention, but at least bruise it, is all in its favour.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Like David O Russell’s existential detective comedy I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes in decidedly left-field of the usual Hollywood fare. Once again screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has created a distorted, hallucinatory world of paranoia and the bizarre in which his perpetually confused characters must somehow pick their way towards some semblance of sanity… usually unsuccessfully. Joel (Jim Carrey in not-irritating mode) is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact his kooky girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had all memory of their relationship whipped from her mind. Depressed, he seeks to erase his own recollections of their vibrant but unconventional relationship. But matters don’t quite go to plan and past, present, reality and fantasy become increasingly difficult to distinguish in Joel’s anguished and addled brain. This is as near to Philip K Dick as you are likely to see at present and at the same time a melancholy romance for our times. Great stuff.

Zatoichi

ZatoichiNarrowly clipping De-Lovely at the post for the Year’s Best Tap-dancing Routine award comes Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s Zatoichi – an updating of the popular Japanese film series. The premise is breathtakingly simple – Zatoichi, a blind wandering masseur arrives in town. People ignore him because he’s blind. Some bad guys appear and rough people up. Zatoichi then unleashes a blur of deadly skill with his mighty katana. Heads roll. Blood spurts. People get miffed. A final confrontation beckons. Kitano is wise enough not to deviate too wildly from genre conventions but at the same time makes the film his own with painstakingly composed shots, his renowned use of periods of introspection followed by bursts of extreme violence and an expert knowledge of the way sound and vision harmonise. The use of music is at once relational, breathtaking and witty as percussive tracks are mirrored in intricate agricultural work or a construction site becomes the Edo equivalent of an avant garde orchestra. A marvellous blend of intelligent art film and pulp entertainment, this is, remarkably, the only Kitano directed film to have had any impact on its national box office!

Kill Bill vol 2

Not the all out fantasy bloodbath of Vol 1, Vol 2 is included here more for completeness, although the training sections with Gordon Lau add a sense of Shaolin surrealism to proceedings. The Bride is back with only three names left on the list. And that’s it – two and a half hours of the kind of dialogue missing from Vol 1 fly past. For Tarantino aficionados this makes up for Vol 1 – for the rest of us it is an equally good but different approach. Still, it could do with another Crazy Fists massacre…

Gozu

It’s a yakuza flick. With a big killer monster born out of some kinky sex. It’s Miike Takashi. It MUST be good.

ZebramanZebraman

Spiderman? Batman? The Hulk? Nah. Zebraman. Schoolteacher by day, crimebustin’ Zebraman by night. It’s got giant intergalactic crayfish in it! It’s Miike Takashi. But for kids. It MUST be good.

Hints of Horror and Finally, Fantasy

Phantom of the Opera

Dramatic Chromatic! DAAAAAA. Da da da da DAAAAAAAAAA. Da da da da DAAAAAAAAAAA. He’s the phantom, a kind of Elephant Man-lite driven into the opera house catacombs, who falls in love with a chorus girl and demands the staging of his own pompous music… or else. Joel Schumacher brings plenty of visual flair and necessarily ostentatious showmanship to Gaston Leroux’s classic tale of dark romance, putting its moderate budget right where it counts – on the screen. However no amount of inventiveness and flair can compensate for a dire score that consists three songs and a load of random notes (and no, the “DAAAAAA. Da Da Da Da DAAAAAAAAAA. Da Da Da Da DAAAAAAAAAAA!” riff repeated as a “Look out! He’s behind you!” pantomime leitmotif does not count). Add to that a phantom who: a) isn’t very frightening and b) can’t sing and you have a pile of drivel.

Gothika

Mathieu (La Haine) Kassovitz gets a stab at the US market with a supernatural-horror-thriller starring Halle Berri. Berri is slammed up in an asylum for a brutal murder, the irony being that she used to be one of the psychiatric nurses dealing with patients’ recollections (or are they?) of satanic rape. Thing is with all the hallucinations, the communal showers and the appalling catering she can’t be sure she didn’t commit the crime. Gothika has a sense of preposterous logic that only a horror flick can get away with and has the pre-requisite pointless jumps and strobe punctuated nightmares. This got panned by everyone but is actually a reasonably shot piece of campfire drivel.

Catwoman

Taking on Garfield at the feline end of the box office we have Oscar-winning thesp Halle Berri in what could be the most staggeringly, “Halle-riously” inept superhero film of all time (and that’s saying something). Our frumpy fashion designer heroine is almost bumped off but revived by cat dribble and driven to licking her own butt in front of houseguests (or something…) before facing the real nasty cat Sharon Stone in a tedious showdown atop a glassy building. The resulting film is, frankly, an embarrassment with some of the most atrocious CGI ever committed to film. Treats its audience with an unprecedented degree of contempt.

Shaun of the Dead

Here we have a very British take on the zombie film – ‘Spaced with the living dead’ is perhaps the easiest pitch. Taking the premise that if the country were overtaken by shambling, incoherent braindeads we’d probably not notice until they bit us (quite literally), Simon Pegg’s constantly hung-over antihero gathers together his acquaintances and family in the only place they can feel truly safe… the pub. Full of in-gags for the zombie connoisseur (Dylan Moran’s evisceration is straight from Day of the Dead for example) but with plenty of humour directed at the British way of life, at last we have a national film that’s entertaining and doesn’t involve Victorian/Regency toffs, navel gazing gloom or Hugh Grant.

Hellboy

Cigar chewing red guy with sawn-off horns battles against tenticular demi-gods and clockwork Nazis. What’s not to like in Guillermo del Toro’s gleefully irreverent comic book horror? So maybe things can’t quite live up to the prologue – Nazi occultists raising demons from another universe in the Hebrides – but it’s still two hours of damned fine entertainment with wise-cracking Perlman at his best (outside the Jeunet films). Great action, a budget that’s all on screen and some genuinely disturbing bits amidst the carnage. Like Cthulu. For kids.

Open Water

Couple go out scuba diving. The boat that drops them off goes back to shore. They bob about and shout a lot. Cheap and tense, Open Water has a lot to offer – postage stamp plot, sudden scary bits, high concept.

Big Fish

Burton springs back to form after the mediocrity that was the ‘re-imagining’ of The Planet of the Apes but doesn’t quite hit the highs of, say, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Billy Crudup plays William Bloom who’s fed up with his dying dad Ed’s preposterous tales of rescuing conjoined singers in the Far East, being a human cannonball for love, detachable-eyed witches and a huge BFG called Karl. Perhaps most absurd is that Pop claims he met someone who looks like Steve Buscemi. Perpetually grinning Ewan McGregor plays the younger Ed Bloom in a story of a man who outlives his little town and goes out in search of love and adventure. Burton’s film is filled with the visual warmth and storybook logic that permeates his best work, the relative limitations of the budget (funded from Europe, fact fans) work the kind of tactile magic that total CGI can currently only dream of. So what if it’s basically a thinly related series of absurd vignettes – it still has more imagination than most other films this year.

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid

How could anyone top king turkey Anaconda (1997)? Jon Voight in a career-defining role. Eric Stoltz in a coma. J-Lo. Ice Cube. Breathtakingly stupid and a lesson in how not to continuity edit, Anaconda has achieved cult status due to tacky gore, a hilarious script and a staggering degree of laugh out loud ineptness. No film could possibly follow that. Certainly not one PG-13’d to get the kids in.

The Polar Express

Tom Hanks controls the Polar Express where he takes Tom Hanks on a magical journey. On the way Hanks meets with Tom Hanks and, among others, Tom Hanks. And some dancing waiters. Or something. A “storybook come to life”. Or something.

The Punisher

As judge, juror and executioner, Frank seeks to rid America of crime after the tragic loss of his family. A comic-book film with an 18 rating? Can’t remember seeing one of those since Raimi’s Darkman (1990).

The Forgotten

Almost forgot about this one. Julianne Moore can’t mourn the loss of her son because, according to everyone, he never existed. Interesting concept, but quite forgettable.

And the winners are:

Best Fantasy: The Incredibles

Best Fantasy: Zatoichi

Best Fantasy: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Fantasy: House of Flying Daggers

Films of 2003

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.

Underworld

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.

The Returner

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.

Equilibrium

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

Daredevil

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.

Bruce Almighty

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.

Hulk

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…

X-Men 2

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

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.

Adaptation

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.

Solaris

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.

Wrong Turn

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.

Cabin Fever

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.

Dark Water

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.

Fantastic Fantasy

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…

Holes

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…

Finding Nemo

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.

Peter Pan

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.

Freaky Friday

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.

Kill Bill

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.

Timeline

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!

Treasure Planet

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

Science Fiction Films of the Year – 2002

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.

Avalon

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

Blade II

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.

Clockstoppers

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.

Dog Soldiers

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 Darko

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.

The Eye

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…

From Hell

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.

Jason X

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.

Jeepers Creepers

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.

Minority Report

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.

The One

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.

Resident Evil

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?

Rollerball

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.

Scooby Doo

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.

Signs

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…

Spiderman

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.

Spirited Away

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.

Thir13en Ghosts

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.

Vanilla Sky

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

The Sci-Fi Films of 2001

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.

A.I.

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.

Battle Royale

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.

The Dish

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.

Evolution

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.

Final Fantasy

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.

Shrek

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?

Spy Kids

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

Science Fiction Films of 2000

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?

Battlefield Earth

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.

Sleepy Hollow

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?

Charlie’s Angels

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.

Galaxy Quest

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.

Unbreakable

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.

The X-Men

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.

Momento

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.”

Titan AE

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.

Pitch Black

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.

How Horrific

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 – Cinemartyr – Films of the Year

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?

Mineralism

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.

Vampires

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.

Conspiracy

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’ [1991], 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.

Simply Classic

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.