Sunday, December 30, 2007

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 1 (2000)

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 1 (2000)

Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is a witty comedy series, the type that is full of 'awkward moment' and 'bizarre circumstance' humour. Ostensibly about the life of Larry David himself (AKA the creator of 'Seinfeld'), it is a fictional show that focuses on the unfortunate encounters between Larry (played by Larry David) and various people, including his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) and his manager Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin). The typical episode features a number of events (many of which are interconnected) in Larry's day to day life that end up going disastrously wrong due to Larry's inflexible nature and difficulty in dealing with people, together with the intractable personalities of the people he meets.

I've seen very little of Seinfeld, but from what I remember I think this is stylistically very similar to that show. There's a deadpan nature to the humour, and much of it is based on strange situations coming to pass through coincidence or through the characters' own actions (typically, their mistakes). A lot of the humour lampoons aspects of human nature and societal norms, with Larry railing against things he sees as foolish. But it works both ways, with Larry being an obstinate ass on many an occasion and deserving what he gets. As the lead Larry David plays himself to perfection, making his bemusement and frustration perfectly understandable while also making himself irritating and detestable when the occasion demands it. His supporting actors and guest stars all essentially play off Larry and most are well cast and in tune with the show's idiosyncratic style.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is a very funny show - on occasion I had to pause to control my fits of laughter - that is insightful in its showcasing of adults behaving childishly. If there's any criticism, the show is kind of one note and feels a bit random at times. It also focuses wholly on the situations that it sets up and doesn't dwell much on anything else, like character or theme; as a result it's hard to really care about any of the characters on the show. The show is what it is however, and it is very good at being what it is (and this sentence is also very good at being what it is, which is mangled). I'm looking forward to catching up with the subsequent seasons and discovering just how many ways Larry David can get himself into a tough spot.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Heat (1995)

Heat (1995)

Michael Mann's 'Heat' is, quite simply, a brilliant film that is spearheaded by two of the best actors of their generation, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It was touted as the first film in which these two acting giants would appear together on screen, and while their scenes together are indeed standout moments, everything else about the film is nearly as terrific, including the work of the tremendous supporting cast.

'Heat' is a crime thriller that tells the story of two groups of people. One is a group of thieves - experts at what they do, consummate professionals - headed by Neil McCauley (De Niro) and including Chris (Val Kilmer) and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd), Michael (Tom Sizermore), Donald (Dennis Haysbert), and Trejo (Danny Trejo). The other is a group of detectives working for the 'Robbery Homicide' police unit headed by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and including Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), Detective Casals (Wes Studi), and Bosko (Ted Levine). McCauley's group arrives in Los Angeles to carry out a few heists, and Hanna's group sets out to stop them - that's pretty much the plot, but it barely scratches the surface of what 'Heat' is about.

The film is essentially a character drama that just happens to also be a thriller about cops and robbers. Not only does it delve into the details of how these people go about their work, it touches upon all of their personal lives and examines the nature of their characters and how they interact with each other. While everyone gets some screentime, it's naturally McCauley and Hanna who are at the fore. McCauley lives by a Spartan code that allows him to be evade capture - "Do not allow anything into your life which you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner". He lives alone and claims not to be lonely, but his lifestyle is put to the test when he meets and falls in love with a woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman). Neil subsequently wrestles between his unwavering commitment to his career criminal ethos and his newfound love. Hanna is a man who is equally committed to his career, only he has chosen to attempt - wholly unsuccessfully - to embrace a family lifestyle as well with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). His zeal for his job overshadows his family and the hunt for McCauley causes a serious rift between him and his wife.

The irony of the film is that under different circumstances the two men could have been friends, so similar are they in character, and this is embodied beautifully in the scene in which they first meet. It is evident throughout that the two develop a respect for each other, though each is aware that if put to the test the other will not hesitate to pull the trigger. The characterization and writing are subtle, and the thematic material manages to avoid being heavy handed. Everything is presented with a believable, matter of fact approach. The different characters and their personal storylines interconnect elegantly with the overall story and weave a tight and cohesive narrative. Despite a stylish visual approach, the film is aesthetically grounded in reality. The heists also come across as believable, and even the spectacular shootout sequence outside of a bank, though unrealistic (automatic weapons don't carry THAT many bullets), has an air of reality to it. Unlike Mann's recent 'Miami Vice', however, 'Heat' doesn't take the realism angle too far; there's still a semblance of the cinematic that allows for thrilling set pieces and exciting shootouts filmed without a 'docu-drama' feel. This is a film that still embraces it's 'movie-ness', for lack of a better word.

Then there are the performances, which are as excellent as one would expect given the pedigree of the cast. Pacino and De Niro are front and centre and dominate the screen. Both of them create nuanced and well rounded characters who are intelligent, obsessive and meticulous. De Niro's McCauley presents a stoic, steely exterior but occasionally lets emotions through the chinks in his armour. Pacino's Hanna is more emotional and occasionally acts like a raving maniac, but it's a mania that appears to be controlled (or restrained) by his intellect. The rest of the cast are in supporting roles - no one really stands out because they are pretty much all equally strong. Apart from the cast members already mentioned, there are appearances made by the likes of William Fichtner, Jon Voight, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven, and Kevin Gage; pretty impressive!

'Heat' is obviously a film that made a strong impression on me. I like Mann's films despite their generally stoic, unemotional style (a style employed by Heat as well), and I think most of them are exceptionally well made. Of all of his films that I've seen, though, Heat is the one that resonates with me the most and I reckon it's his masterpiece. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a crime thriller that's worth watching!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Fargo (1995)

Fargo (1995)

I've only seen a few of the Coen Brothers films, but already I see a clear trend emerging. They make excellent films, but not the kind I find myself wanting to watch over and over. 'Fargo', one of the more celebrated of the Coen Brothers' already illustrious oeuvre, adheres to that trend.

'Fargo' tells the story of a man named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who arranges for two goons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, with the aim being to get his rich father-in-law to pay the ransom money that he will then split with the kidnappers. Of course things go horribly and hilariously wrong, and Jerry's plans begin to unravel spectacularly when the goons leave a trail of bodies behind them, a trail that is picked up on by shrewd (and very pregnant) small town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Most of the events take place in small town locales and revolve around Jerry, Marge, and the kidnappers. Despite the subject matter and the fact that everything is played straight tonally, the film is very, very funny. The humour derives from the situations, the characters, and the milieu, with the small town aesthetic being a constant source of amusement (Yar? Yaaar!). The story if full of twists and turns and is generally quite unpredictable. The writing, directing and performances achieve that fine balance between realistic and absurd and maintain it throughout the film's running time. While there isn't much depth to the characters, the storyline serves as a reflection on the baseness of human nature when people are driven by greed, while at the same time providing a counterpoint in the form of Marge, who is an intelligent and decent person who appreciates the simple things in life (like a good buffet).

The performances are great across the board, but the standout is William H. Macy as the hapless Jerry who is foiled at every turn and whose every move seems to get him deeper and deeper into trouble. Despite the nature of what he's doing, Macy manages to make the character sympathetic and I found him to be the most likable person in the story! Steve Buscemi is, as always, devastatingly funny but in a sinister way. Stormare on the other hand is completely sinister and appears to be on the verge of violence at any given time (which is actually perversely funny in its own way). And then there's McDormand as the tenacious Marge, who somehow manages to merge 'small town goof' with 'genius detective' and sell the character as someone completely believable. The rest of the supporting cast are also terrific and serve the story well.

'Fargo' is a small scale drama that is entertaining, funny, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Though it isn't exactly the type of film that I love, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it - it's deserving of anyone's time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

I usually don't like Julia Roberts in anything - Pretty Woman notwithstanding - but I can safely say that she's pretty darned good in this, and dare I say it, endearing. Oscar worthy? Probably not - I think Ellen Burstyn was still robbed for her turn in Requiem for a Dream - but it is, in my humble opinion, Roberts' best performance to date.

Based on a true story, Roberts plays the eponymous Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three with a foul mouth and no qualifications struggling to find employment. She eventually lands a job as an assistant at a law firm run by a man named Ed Masry (Albert Finney). At the same time she enters into a relationship with her friendly biker neighbour George (Aaron Eckhart). Things get interesting when she begins to investigate a case involving the residents of a small town getting sick, and discovers that an energy company nearby has been polluting the local water supply. She then starts a campaign to get the company to compensate the victims, and Masry's firm initiates legal action. A David vs. Goliath story unfolds, one in which Erin has to rally the townspeople together, keep her company committed to the case, and deal with being away from her kids while an increasingly resentful George takes care of them.

This is, I suppose, feel good filmmaking at its finest - if you're in any doubt as to the outcome, you haven't watched enough movies. It's designed to be moving and inspirational as our heroine defies the odds at every turn, rises above her social status and becomes a respected figurehead for her cause. Yeah, it's fairly by the numbers and apart from Erin the rest of the characters are sketchy at best, but it works despite the prosaic writing. And I think that's partly because of the character and the lengths she goes to (how much of this is real I don't know), but mostly it's because of the way Roberts plays her as a completely irreverent and tenacious woman who simply refuses to back down. She's endearing and ultimately great in the role (Roberts should play foul mouthed more often), and so is Albert Finney; the two play off of each other perfectly. Aaron Eckhart does a fair job, but his appearances and impact on the story are fairly minimal. Also worth mentioning are the minor roles, primarily the townsfolk, that are very well cast and convincing across the board.

The film gets a little repetitive after a while and probably runs on a bit too long, but it still held my interest all the way through to its somewhat abrupt climax. The only thing that really took me out of the film were the sometimes overblown for comedic effect scenes where Erin outdoes someone or proves herself; it seemed to be trying too hard to show how awesome she was - such as in her little 'duel' with the other lawyer's assistant - which felt completely unnecessary and a little smug.

Overall, a very good film and worth seeing. Not exceptional in any way, but it avoids feeling bland and generic despite its subject matter (see: A Civil Action) and is consistently entertaining. Roberts' detractors like me will probably be surprised to find her delivering a winning performance. I'd rate 'Erin Brockovich' up there with director Steven Sodebergh's other mainstream films like the Ocean's series; they're not brilliant, but they're well made and engaging.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced (1999-2001)

I caught a few episodes of 'Spaced' during its initial run on Channel 4 in the UK many years ago and was quite taken by it but never got around to revisiting it and watching all of the episodes from the start. Until now. 'Spaced' is a geeky sitcom that came out in 1999 that was created by Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Stevenson and also starred Nick Frost. Pegg, Wright, and Frost have gone on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both movies that I loved and that have brought the group much acclaim. So how does their initial creative collaboration hold up? In short, it's great!

The two seasons of seven episodes each focus on the lives of Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Stevenson), both twentysomething layabouts - Tim is a budding comic book artist who works in a comic book store and Daisy is an unemployed writer - who meet randomly and pose as a couple in order to rent an apartment that was advertised as being for professional couples only. The apartment has its share of crazy characters; the landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin) is a chain smoking alcoholic, and the other tenant, Brian (Mark Heap) is a deranged introverted artist. Also in the mix is Tim's gun loving best friend Mike (Nick Frost) and Daisy's ditsy best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael). Together this group of misfits have many bizarre and surreal adventures that usually revolve around various aspects of Tim and Daisy's lives, including their work, love lives, and leisure activities.

That synopsis makes 'Spaced' sound kind of like 'Friends', but it isn't anything like that show. For starters, even though the characters are quite atypical they have a more down to earth, common man vibe which is also reflected in the show's locations and production design. The storylines here are, broadly, quite normal and cover the usual stuff like job hunting, romance, partying, and the usual fooling around between friends. It's the writing and execution that make this show something quite different however. It's very stylized and unlike any sitcom I've ever seen, with lots of unconventional camera-work and quick cut editing that hurls visuals at the viewer without restraint. And it's fantastic! The visual style and scripts also reference loads of things from pop-culture, also at a break neck pace.

The amazing thing is that these stylistic choices never overwhelm the story or the characters, and the way they're integrated feels so organic and so right even when scenes cross over into the surreal. The broad story arcs are also excellent and come together nicely in terms of plotting and characterization. The characters are well rounded and full of personality, and most of them develop and change over the course of the 14 episodes. Oh, and did I mention that the thing is damned funny in terms of visual and written comedy? Well, it is... And then there's the music - there's an eclectic array of music varying from songs to movie and TV themes to video game music, and all of it works with the style of the show and perfectly complements individual scenes.

Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as the central duo come across, strangely enough, as the 'normal' characters when placed next to their oddball supporting characters. They have to give the most rounded performances that incorporate comedy as well as the more serious dramatic stuff, and the two pull it off. As much as I like the two protagonists it's hard not to love the supporting characters more, because they're detached from reality in the most endearing ways possible. It's hard to pick a favourite from the bunch of them, they're all brought to life so memorably, but I'd have to pick Brian for his angry, socially inept and introverted ways. I'll confess, if they made a game of 'which Spaced character are you', I'd be Brian.

There's a story floating around that 'Spaced' is going to be remade for the US; surely a pointless exercise when the original is so good and hasn't aged a bit (with the exception of a handful of references). It's something special and unique, and deserves to be seen in its original and best incarnation. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the show is terrific and a must-see!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle's first (and purportedly last) science fiction film is an interesting and frustrating experience. Set 50 years in the future, 'Sunshine' tells the story of a spaceship, the Icarus II, that is on its way to the sun to detonate a nuclear explosive with the aim of 'reigniting' it. The sun needs reigniting because it is dying, and the human race will die along with it. Icarus II is the second ship (the 'II' is a clue) to be sent on such a mission after the Icarus I mysteriously disappeared. All goes well with the mission initially, but as the multi-ethnic crew go about their routine tasks it is apparent that their nerves are frayed, and the closer they get to the sun the more strained their behaviour becomes. Things take an unexpected turn when they receive a signal from Icarus I, which appears to still be intact; a divisive decision is made to attempt to salvage the nuclear explosive from Icarus I (because two bombs increase the odds of success). This deviation from the mission sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads to tragic consequences and forces the crew to improvise and make sacrifices while trying to maintain a grip on what remains of their sanity.

The first two thirds of 'Sunshine' are pretty great, and despite the presence of some dodgy science and dubious plot contrivances the film attempts to make the journey at least feel realistic. It's one of the few space travel based movies of recent times to really put across the complexity and dangers of such an endeavour. The script also introduces psychological aspects of the journey, with the isolation and danger of the mission coupled with the enormous responsibility the crew bears taking its toll on them. The ramifications of being so close to the sun, a heavenly body that dominates mankind's immediate universe, are also worked into the story. The last third of the film, unfortunately, completely derails as it introduces a ludicrous plot device (that is quite appropriately depicted in a surreal fashion) and turns into something reminiscent of a slasher horror film. Which is a shame, because while said plot device is linked to the psychological themes of the film it is jarringly incongruous; had the story simply stuck to its more restrained and thoughtful approach, the film could have been great.

I've thoroughly enjoyed Boyle's last couple of films and think that this one matches up to them in terms of filmmaking quality (script issues aside). 'Sunshine' is extremely tense throughout, and has its moments of abject terror, horror, and surrealism. It is impeccably put together, with terrific sets and some truly eye popping visuals. And like his previous films this one is thought provoking, and it works as a psychological sci-fi film. The characters don't have any background or depth and are essentially just crewmembers carrying out their duties, but the gravity of their situation feels palpable and their behaviour rings true. The diverse cast - Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, and Benedict Wong - are all fairly good in their respective roles, with Evans in particular being a surprising standout. I also found Sanada to be quite memorable as the quietly dignified captain of the Icarus II.

'Sunshine' is a film that's two-thirds very good and one third 'WTF?', which is a weird combination. The climactic denouement is bizarre but I found it to ultimately be satisfying. The film stayed in my head for quite a while and I think it's one worth re-watching - being prepared for the jarring change of tone and style may put me in a better position to actually appreciate it more on a second go round. It's visually spectacular and has something for your mind to chew on which, despite its egregious flaws, makes it pretty good in my book.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Gift (2000)

The Gift (2000)

I'm a huge fan of Cate Blanchett, who I think is the best actress working today, and I present 'The Gift' as evidence to support this claim. It's a supernatural drama / thriller that was released seven years ago, and it's also the last non-Spider-Man movie directed by Sam Raimi!

Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a single mother of three living in a small Southern US town who lost her husband in a factory fire a year before the story begins. Annie has supernatural psychic powers - the titular 'Gift' - and has been making ends meet as the town fortune teller. In the first act we're introduced to the people she interacts with in town; this includes a battered wife, Valerie Barksdale (Hillary Swank), her redneck husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), her mentally unbalanced friend Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), her close friend Linda (Kim Dickens), school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and his fiancée Jessica (Katie Holmes). Donnie takes offense when Annie tells Valerie to leave him; he begins to harass her and her kids, but this is only the start of her problems. Jessica disappears and Annie is co-opted by the Chief of Police (J. K. Simmons) to try and help them out. Her visions lead them to Jessica's body and the discovery directly implicates Donnie Barksdale in the murder. In the midst of Donnie's trial, however, Annie continues to have visions that indicate something sinister is still going on.

The story being told here is fairly pedestrian, and the writing isn't really all that great either. Some of the revelations are anything but, and the characters as written are more than a little clichéd. What makes this film quite good are the performances from the supremely impressive cast and the infusion of atmosphere and tension by Raimi, together with some good old fashioned scares. It's mostly a small town drama, but there's an overriding sense of dread and menace throughout and the buildup to the handful of 'horror' scenes is very effective. Raimi's casting is immaculate and he really gets the most out of his actors. Blanchett is of course the star and is in virtually every scene, and she is brilliant; humble and reserved but with an air of the mysterious about her, she is at once just another citizen of the town and also someone clearly more intelligent and dignified. She goes through the whole gamut here as a psychic 'consultant', a struggling single mother, a lonely woman with romantic inclinations, a helpless individual being harassed by a dangerous redneck, a witness interrogated and humiliated in public during the trial, and a victim of frightening ghostly visitations; she's completely convincing in portraying all aspects of the character.

And then there's the rest of the cast! Seriously, every single one of these actors does great work (the only exception being, perhaps, Hillary Swank, who I thought was just good), particularly Keanu Reeves who seems perfect as the dim witted and belligerent Donnie Barksdale. Besides the ones I've already named, there are some other minor but strong performances from Rosemary Harris, Gary Cole, and Michael Jeter. Visually the film is quite somber and accentuates the morbid tone, as does the moody musical score.

Ultimately 'The Gift' is a very good film that on paper is just so-so. Worth watching for the excellent work by Raimi and the performances of the cast, particularly Blanchett. It's a bit of a mish-mash of genres, but it works and I enjoyed watching it again for the first time in years and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was as good as I remembered!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dead Zone - Season 5 (2006)

The Dead Zone - Season 5 (2006)

Season 5 has severely dented my liking for this show. I was quite favourable towards Season 4 almost exactly a year ago, but most of the plus points I mentioned have gone and the negatives have exacerbated, with the end result being a truly mediocre season.

The first major problem, and this is something I had issues with before as well, is the low visibility of the Stillson arc - this season is even worse than the last in this regard, with the Stillson story being touched on in only the first and last of the 11 episodes. And this time around, despite there once again being only 11 episodes, there is plenty of stuff that feels like filler. The stories are starting to feel tired and repetitive despite the introduction of a few new ideas, like villains who try to manipulate or subvert Johnny's powers. The writing is stale and goes through the motions and most episodes don't even have enough content to make it to the 40 minute mark! Where character development was lacking before, it has now become virtually non existent. The sense of camaraderie between cast members can't really be commented on because they barely interact together anymore, with many of the cast being absent from a lot of the episodes (this in a show that only has 4 lead actors). The performances also seem weaker, especially Anthony Michael Hall who often appears to be just phoning it in and hitting character beats reflexively. The guy is still funny and isn't bad per se, but just isn't as good as he used to be.

All in all it's a disappointing season. This is the stage when the series should be ramping up and doing new and interesting things, not wallowing in the same old stories. To make matters worse, not only does the show spin its wheels, it also dips in quality with many elements being inferior to what has come before! The season is so insubstantial that most of the major events and characterization could have been condensed into a handful of episodes, and to be honest based on how the season ends I think one could conceivably skip from Season 4 to 6 without missing out on much. And that's assuming Season 6 actually has content worth watching. Since I've been a fan for so long I'm going to give it a chance and see if the creative impetus of the show returns. If not, I will sadly have to part ways with what was once a pretty good, entertaining television series.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

'Talladega Nights' is a sports comedy centred around the world of Nascar Racing. It's one of those outrageous goofball comedies full of absurd moments. Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is an idiot with a gift for driving fast. Inspired by his father's (Gary Cole) words - if you ain't first, you're last - he dedicates himself to the art of Nascar racing and becomes an unbeatable success. He has a dedicated best friend and teammate in Cal (John C. Reilly), all the money he could ever want, a gorgeous wife (Leslie Bibb) and two obnoxious kids, all of whom live together in his mansion - life, is good. Then comes the fall - a gay, sophisticated French Formula 1 driver named Jean (Sacha Baron Cohen) shows up and defeats Ricky, who winds up in a car crash that causes him to become traumatized and unable to drive. Brought down to the lowest level and usurped by his nemesis, Ricky must overcome his fears and climb back to the top, while learning what's really important in life along the way (well, sorta).

Pretty typical as far as story goes. Some of this stuff is very funny, and some of it ain't - it's hit and miss script-wise. This isn't meant to be a 'witty' comedy, it's all fairly sledgehammer-like in its approach, so when I found myself just smiling or chuckling I didn't feel like the jokes had worked all that well. The cast is a mixed bag - Will Ferrell I've never liked and my opinion of him remains unchanged. He is amusing, but not funny. I feel the same way about John C. Reilly as well; his performance is very good (the guy's certainly a pretty terrific actor) but I just didn't find myself liking his character. The really funny guys in this, and the guys I wish there was more of, are Sacha Baron Cohen and Gary Cole. These two are hilarious and own every moment that they're in. It's a shame they never share the screen together, as that would have surely have made for some golden moments. As for the rest, the women in the film are bare bones supporting roles, but Leslie Bibb makes a strong impression with her slutty gold digger character. And then there's Ricky's kids, Walker and Texas Ranger, who are quite amusing in a strangely creepy sort of way throughout the film. And on a final note, the racing scenes are actually quite enjoyable, and though they are clearly exaggerations they almost make Nascar look interesting. Almost.

It's a fun film that has a fair few laughs and some very funny moments. Fans of goofball comedy will probably dig it, and I imagine that everyone else will, like me, find something to enjoy. I wouldn't say it's a film worth going out of one's way for, but if the opportunity presents itself one might as well watch it, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tremors (1990)

Tremors (1990)

Aah, Tremors... it's a classic, and let no one tell you any different! It's a lean, mean, creature horror comedy with zero pretensions about its subject matter. It has all the trappings of the genre - a small bunch of isolated, disparate, and distinctive caricatures fighting off an assault from mysterious giant deadly worms (that have a lot in common with the worms from Dune) in the middle of a small desert town. There's the two wisecracking physically fit manual labourer buddies (who hilariously enough pick this fateful day to try and leave town, only to be thwarted when the shit hits the fan!), the cute scientist / potential love interest, the annoying kid, the gun nut couple, the two ethnic minority guys, and a few other scared 'background noise' people. Kevin Bacon is the only real big name in this surprisingly effective cast; they're all consistent with the horror comedy tone and they all really connect as a group, while each is also memorable in his or her own right. Basically, the winning combination that only the most memorable films of this nature possess.

The story in these sorts of films is hardly ever worth talking about - monsters show up, humans try to survive - but the locale and the situations in 'Tremors' feel quite unique and it is refreshing (an 18 year old film, refreshing!) to not have lame pseudo science thrown in to explain what's going on. In fact, the way the townsfolk rationalize what's going on (and the way the scientist always seems bemused when they look to her for an explanation for the creatures despite her field being seismology) is actually more believable than in most 'serious' horror films! The townsfolk figure out how the creatures behave and try to use their surroundings and the resources at hand to survive and take some of the creatures out in the process. There are some very memorable signature moments in this film, from the car being sucked into the ground to the lads being chased and forced to dive over a culvert, to everyone in town being stuck on their roofs, right through to the little buggy being sent through the middle of the town as a diversion. And then of course there's the hilarious denouement with the tractor and the home made explosives that is just hilarious.

The effects are quite cheap and cheasy and in all honesty there are no genuine scares, but the adventure is engaging and entertaining throughout. The action scenes are well constructed and despite the prevalence of humour still manage to be quite thrilling. And at 96 minutes this thing just flies by with nary a wasted moment. If you're fan of the genre... well, you've probably already seen it. If not, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you're not a fan, I can still heartily recommend this, because I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is!

Monday, December 03, 2007

OLPC Update

The OLPC saga continues, and things are looking a little grim according to this BBC article. The likes of perennial bad guys Microsoft and Intel seem to have taken off the gloves and entered the ring, and have already fired off a few low blows. They've also influenced the referees it seems, since demand for the thing isn't quite what was expected. It's not all doom and gloom however, and there is still optimism for the project.

An interesting related story tells of the pros and cons of the laptop in the wild, as evinced by its use in a 'test school' in Nigeria.

Little Children (2006)

Little Children (2006)

'Little Children' is a drama laced with darkly humourous undertones. Set in a bland and rigid suburban town, it tells the stories of three people. One is Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a just released sex offender forced to deal with hostility from the townsfolk, pressure from his mother to stay out of trouble and be normal, and reigning in his own deviant desires. The second protagonist is Brad (Patrick Wilson), a househusband enduring a stifling existence raising his child and studying for his bar exam while his wife (Jennifer Connelly) enjoys a successful career as a documentary producer. The third is Sarah (Kate Winslet), an intellectual housewife who faces a future filled with the boredom of suburbia and who barely maintains any interest in her daughter. Brad and Sarah meet and find in each other an element of excitement and a release from the mundaneness of their lives, and they begin an affair while maintaining the guise of friends who take their kids out to the park and the pool together. The lives of these three characters cross paths and eventually their stories culminate in a tense and eventful climax.

The film is very sardonic but maintains a serious dramatic tone while still being quite funny and scathing in its portrayals. If features a very dry voice-over that enhances comedic effect. The script draws some very well defined and sympathetic characters whose loneliness and longings are understandable. Still, they are only sympathetic to an extent, and they all certainly have detestable qualities that are laid bare in the course of the story's telling. Even the more minor and supporting characters are fleshed out and come across as three dimensional. It's a testament to the director and his cast that, despite how easily the tonal balance could have derailed and how easily the characters could have become ones we despise, everything holds together right up to the end. The end, by the way, is emotionally powerful but does feel a little too contrived for my taste. Coming back to the performances, the three central players are fantastic and feel completely genuine. Haley is perhaps the most brilliant; he manages to capture the sympathetic and the frightening, creepy aspects of his character incredibly well.

'Little Children' is exceptionally written and put together, and features some sterling performances. As a commentary on aspects of modern society - isolation, infidelity, personal sacrifice, emasculation, conformity, the culture of fear - it is effective and somewhat depressing, though the humour goes some way towards alleviating any dourness. Overall it is a film well worth seeing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

I've never really liked Sharon Stone in anything, and 'The Quick and the Dead' does little to change that. In fact, I'd say she was the weakest link in 'The Quick and the Dead', Sam Raimi's unique and entertaining take on the Western. Stone plays "The Lady", a grim and mysterious woman who enters the town of Redemption to take part in a gunfighting contest held by the town's tyrannical overlord John Herod (Gene Hackman). Her reasons for taking part are initially unclear, but it soon becomes apparent that she has vengeance on her mind, and that she can shoot with the best of them. A wide variety of colourful characters also enter the elimination based contest, many of whom have agendas of their own, including "The Kid" (a young Leonardo DiCaprio), a reluctant preacher named Cort (pre-fame Russel Crowe), and a braggard named Ace Hanlon (Lance Henrikson). That's pretty much the plot - what follows is the interactions between the trigger happy contestants that typically culminate in a series of tense shootouts.

Not only do I think that Stone is miscast, I also think she delivers a weak performance. That and the fairly basic plot and characterization are the major drawbacks of the film, though they aren't all that significant when you consider that this is first and foremost an entertaining action film with larger than life characters; characters that are wonderfully brought to life by a fantastic cast. Hackman, Crowe, DiCaprio, Henrikson, Keith David, Tobin Bell, and Gary Sinise (in a bit part) all deliver, and infuse their sketchy characters with a lot of personality. There are bristled egos aplenty that result in scenes full of posturing, glaring, shouting, and of course shooting. The signature action sequences are the shootouts, and they are realized with great style and energy by Raimi. Restrained this film ain't; there's a surreal, alternate universe like over-the-top feel to it. Visually the film looks great in a "hyper stylized Western" kind of way, and there's a pretty decent and lively score from Alan Silvestri.

As far as distinctively stylized Westerns go, there aren't many to choose from, giving 'The Quick and the Dead' the edge as it's quite good and very entertaining. There are no real surprises, but the fun is in seeing how things play out, and in that regard the film works.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Yet another reason to love Google

The BBC reports that "Search giant Google is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy technologies." You can add that to their exemplary array of online services and applications, their good behaviour (yeah yeah there have been a few supposed blips like the whole China thing), their book digitizing project, their open standards mobile phone platform initiative, their unobtrusive use of ads, their association with other cool projects (like Firefox and OLPC), and their generally fun corporate image.

The Office (US) - Season 1 (2005)

The Office (US) - Season 1 (2005)

The first season of the US version of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's brilliant comedy 'The Office' gets off to a shaky start, initially mirroring the UK show before branching off into its own stories. Stylistically it's the same - a faux documentary following the goings on in a fictional paper company and focusing on its inept manager Michael Scott and the hapless employees who have to put up with him.

Unfortunately, at least in this first season, it doesn't even come close to the hilarity of its British cousin. It is funny, but not quite in that painful, uncomfortable way that makes you squirm in your seat. And Michael Scott just doesn't seem to have the same pathetic humanity that David Brent embodied so well - it's hard to feel any pity for Scott, as he just comes across as a buffoon. I think the same is true of all the characters really, there was something endearing about the originals that this version just doesn't capture in quite the same way, though it does try. It's well made and features good performances, but the subtle differences in writing and interpretation of characters prevent it from being great.

'The Office' is good, and worth watching; I'll be sure to check out the second series as well and see if it gets better and finds its own voice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Flash - The Complete Series (1990-1991)

The Flash - The Complete Series (1990-1991)

I loved this show as a kid, but I can now relegate it to the ranks of crappy shows that prove I was an idiot and had no taste while growing up (a crime all kids are guilty of!). Not that I'm not an idiot now, but it's all a matter of degrees. I digress, let me get back to 'The Flash'. Based on the famous DC Comics character who can move at incredible speeds, the show stars John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen, a forensic scientist who in the pilot episode gets struck by lightening, causing him to be endowed with the power of super speed. The lovely but bland Amanda Pays plays his friend and confidant Tina McGee, a scientist working at the 'Star Labs' research facility. After putting on a costume that can resist the wear and tear of his speed, Barry takes on the persona of "The Flash", fighting crime in the seedy city of... Central City.

'The Flash' clearly tries to evoke Burton's 1989 Batman film, with a similar aesthetic - dark, grimy, stagey looking city - and a terrific Danny Elfman theme. Only this series is way more flawed then that landmark film. First, the good. The acting in general is decent, and the visuals and effects are impressive for their time. The costume looks pretty cool. And the theme, as I said, is pretty darn great. Now for the negative. The stories are, for the most part, rubbish. Formulaic, derivative, predictable, and downright boring at times. The writing is painful, full of exposition, weak characterization and silly gags. The show reeks of the eighties - and it came out in the nineties!

The plotting is terrible and juvenile, and really for the first half of the season many of the storylines could have come out of your average lame cop or 80s sci-fi/action show. Most of the episodes demonstrate one thing - how incompetent the Flash is. If there's one thing you'll learn watching this show, it's that the Flash is a moron who, despite the incredible advantage he has over his adversaries, time and time again gets taken down by someone sneaking up from behind and conking him on the head. Seriously, I began to watch each episode eagerly anticipating the moment when The Flash falls for the same trick that undid him in each of the previous episodes. Or the old 'normal human somehow reacts faster than the Flash' maneuver, which also works whenever it's convenient for the plot and the sneak up from behind trick has already been used in the episode.

Problem is that the villains were too lame for the show, and the only way to create conflict was to have The Flash make an ass of himself. If he applied himself with even a modicum of competence, the villains would be behind bars before the first ad break. So instead of seeing awesome Flash action, we get to see him waste his powers on banal things. A crappy hallmark of the show is were Barry does speed cleaning or speed chores for comedic effect. This seems to be where most of the effects budget went. Things improved in the latter half of the season with stronger super-villain types showing up, most notably Mark Hamill as 'The Trickster', but it still wasn't enough.

'The Flash' is a sometimes entertaining but all too often infuriating show, and one that deserves to be skipped, I'm sorry to say. I looked forward to seeing it since my nostalgia tinged memories informed me that it was a TV classic. I now know better. Curse you, memory, curse you! Hopefully the upcoming movie will help to elevate the live action status of this iconic hero.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Closer - Season 1 (2005)

The Closer - Season 1 (2005)

'The Closer' starring Kyra Sedgwick is one of my favourites from the stuff I've been watching over the last few months. Which is quite odd, given that taken at face value it's just a formulaic police procedural.

The story revolves around Sedgwick's character, Brenda Johnson, who moves from Atlanta to Los Angeles to head the new 'Priority Murder Squad' of the LAPD. She's brought in because of her track record for getting results (she 'closes' cases, hence 'The Closer') through her phenomenal interrogation techniques. The season wide arc of the story involves Brenda acclimatising to her new environment while dealing with the hostility towards her from her colleagues (who don't like the fact that she's an abrasive outsider placed in a senior position within the department), her friendship with the Assistant Chief of Police Will Pope (J. K. Simmons), and her romantic involvement with an FBI Agent, Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney). The typical episode starts with a murder, which leads to an investigation and rounding up of suspects, and a series of interrogations where Brenda manipulates and breaks people down to get at the truth and to get the culprits to admit to their crimes.

While it sounds formulaic, I found pretty much every episode to be gripping from start to finish. It's a very well made show from top to bottom, and the writing - both plotting and characterization - is excellent. The mysteries are varied and interesting, and are well plotted even when they're far fetched; they rarely tax suspension of disbelief. The stories also touch upon various cultural (and racial) aspects of society and raise ethical and moral issues, but never in a heavy handed way. The show appears to adhere to the realities of procedural work and the legal issues involved, which is always a huge plus in my book. The show's hook, the interrogation scenes, really seal the deal; they are terrific and are usually the highlight of every episode. Sometimes it's possible to see what's coming in advance, and sometimes it isn't, but the way Brenda plays people is always fascinating to watch.

All of this is fine but would be for naught without a strong cast. And the one here is uniformly excellent, from top to bottom, but the one I want to talk about is Kyra Sedgwick, who is simply phenomenal in the central role. Superficially she comes across as a quirky, sweet, oddball character with an incongruous Southern accent and strange idiosyncrasies. But she's also a tough and uncompromising firebrand and it's easy to see why she aggravates people, but at the end of the day the viewer (and the other characters on the show) are left with little doubt as to her sense of justice and her genius when it comes to getting results. I guess the fun part is that the character of Brenda Johnson really is these seemingly disparate personalities rolled into one, and Sedgwick does a terrific job making her both believable and likable right from the get go. The interactions between her and the various cast members bring a lot of levity to the show and act as a perfect counterweight to the gruesome crimes.

'The Closer' took me by surprise by being so good - I seriously can't think of one element of the show that I don't like or see as a flaw. It's fantastic and absolutely compelling, and I can't wait to catch up with the next two seasons.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Doctor Who - Season 28 (2006)

Doctor Who - Season 28 (2006)

The second season of the new adventures of Doctor Who (28th season overall!) is about on par with the first one. Which is to say that it is fantastic! Christopher Eccleston departed the show at the end of the first season and was replaced by David Tennant, who I'm thankful to say more than lives up to his predecessor. Tennant's Doctor is different, and yet the same - his performance is quite remarkable. I think I'll still have to give Eccleston the edge, particularly in the dramatic moments; Tennant is a bit more goofy and can't quite match Eccleston's world weary demeanour. But again, it's a minor thing and probably down to personal preference more than anything else. Billie Piper plays off of Tennant just as well, and there are even romantic undertones between her and this new younger model Doctor.

Everything I said about season one applies again here, so I'm going to cheat and say just refer to that review. Once again, Steven Moffat delivers one of the most memorable episodes of the season (The Girl in the Fireplace), there are several two parters, and there are hints scattered throughout the series that lead up to the season finale. Season one reintroduced the Daleks, and season two follows that up by reintroducing another of the Doctor's classic foes, the Cybermen. The finale is big and spectacular, and as with the first season ends on quite a poignant note (though there is some deceptive build up thrown in there, truth be told).

All in all a terrific season, and I understand that the third (and latest) season continues the trend, so that's something to look forward to. In the meantime, I plan on checking out the Torchwood spin off series next.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Coupling - Seasons 1 & 2 (2000-2001)

Coupling - Seasons 1 & 2 (2000-2001)

'Coupling' is sort of like Friends, only with all the sentimentality and friendship stuff taken out and all the sex and relationship stuff taken up to 11. Oh, and it's British, not American. Created and written by Steven Moffat, the half hour show chronicles the escapades of its thirty-something main characters to hilarious effect. They are a diverse bunch of oddballs who are brought together under bizarre circumstances in the first episode.

The show often divides a story between the men and the women, usually recounting events from both their perspectives. It is incredibly funny, full of ludicrous and improbably brilliant situations. Moffat's writing is terrific, deftly balancing the puerile and silly elements with the more mature elements, and the dialogue is very sharp with each character having a distinctive and memorable voice (my favourites are without a doubt Jeff and Jane). The performances are great overall, though I feel the guys come off a bit better than the girls (Jane excluded). Sarah Alexander's performance as Susan in particular is sometimes weak, with her lines often sounding unwieldy. Richard Coyle as Jeff is the complete opposite though, with every line uttered to perfection, and the rest of the cast is almost as good.

In short, 'Coupling' is brilliant and absolutely worth the time, though I must confess that the constrained subject matter doesn't always lend itself to watching episodes at a stretch as it can sometimes feel a tad repetitive. That's just a very minor quibble though. I'm now keenly anticipating watching the remaining two seasons, and hopefully will have the time then to write a more cogent review*!

* I finished watching this over a month ago, and only got around to blogging about it today!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Superman III (1983)

Superman III (1983)

Superman III is a bad movie. It's a shame too, because it has some really standout elements, but the overall impression is one of overwhelming negativity. Director Richard Lester takes over the franchise fully, and shows us where the weaker elements in the original cut of Superman II came from (as opposed to Donner's much better but flawed Director's Cut). Even the first two movie had a goofiness to them, but this Superman is way too comical and the fact that Richard Pryor is the star is testament to that fact.

The story begins with Pryor's character Gus Gorman teaching himself to become an Über-computer programmer and subsequently getting employed by the villainous Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) to manipulate computer systems to wreak havoc and make money. Superman (Christopher Reeve) intervenes, so the villains hatch a plan to get rid of him by 'creating' kryptonite. Their kryptonite isn't quite right and it winds up making Superman evil instead of killing him; he then goes around the world causing trouble and making himself hated in the eyes of the world. A sub-story involves Clark Kent reuniting with his high school crush Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole, who went on to play Martha Kent in the TV series Smallville).

As a comedy it just isn't that funny to be honest, although there are some hilarious moments. Pryor is clearly the focus of the movie instead of Superman, which is unfortunate seeing as how it's a Superman movie. The plot meanders in near random fashion and is about as absurd as it gets (an impressive feat given some of the stuff that happened in the first two films). The Superman stuff in the film, it must be said, isn't half bad, and Reeve's turn as the evil Superman is fantastic and culminates in a pretty terrific fight sequence in a junkyard. He evidently relished doing a new take on the beloved character, and his performance here once again solidifies his status as the perennial Superman. Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is hardly in the film, but Annette O'Toole is a more than satisfactory replacement and her 'poor single mother trying to get by' storyline is fairly tolerable.

The production has a cheap look and continued the gradual degradation in quality of the series that began with Superman II and that culminated in the spectacularly awful Superman IV. The effects work is fairly mediocre overall. And as for the music, the renditions of John William's original themes are downright awful.

Superman III is enjoyable at some levels, both as a comedy and as a superhero adventure, but is never fully satisfying as either. It's one for Superman completists only, and isn't really something I'd recommend to anyone, though if it's on TV and there's nothing better to watch one could do far worse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

I love the original 'Jurassic Park' and regard it as a classic monster / adventure movie. Spielberg's follow up, based on Michael Crichton's sequel to his book, goes for more of the same but isn't a patch on the original. The premise is that there was a second island where the dinosaurs were created, and where they have survived and thrived in their own little ecosystem. Two teams are sent to the island, a large well equipped one sent by the Ingen Corporation to capture dinosaurs for a theme park, and a smaller one sent by ousted honcho John Hammond to document the dinosaurs. Needless to say, the two groups clash but subsequently end up joining forces to survive the island when things go disastrously wrong.

The sense of awe and wonder is gone in the sequel, which honestly feels like a paycheck endeavour. It's just more of the same, and while it is still spectacular and immaculately put together, the script and characters are somewhat lacking, to put it kindly. While it wasn't going to win any awards, the original had a decent cohesive plot and memorable characters. The sequel's plot about corporate intrigue and sending in teams to a dinosaur island where the beasts roam freely is asinine. There's also a really irritating eco-warrior slant that bugs the hell out of me, mainly because one of the 'heroes' engages in acts of vandalism that create most of the problems in the first place, and yet we're meant to be on his side! The stupidity of the characters is beyond belief (wearing headphones in the middle of a Jurassic jungle? huh?) and it's almost comical. Add to that the jokey behaviour of the dinosaurs - the fearsome raptors now toy with their victims and struggle to finish off a group of people whom the raptors of part one would have torn to shreds in a few heartbeats - and the whole thing comes out sub par.

Despite annoying characterization, the cast do a fair job, and it was interesting having the pessimistic Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) as the lead. Julianne Moore is as solid as even in her role as the tenacious Sarah Harding. Vince Vaughan is irritating from start to finish as the eco-photographer Nick Van Owen. One of the standouts is Pete Postlethwaite as the hunter Tembo, one of the select few smart humans in the movie. Supremely annoying is Malcolm's teenage daughter Kelly, played by Vanessa Lee Chester, who manages to defeat a raptor with the power of gymnastics.

The special effects are of course excellent, though the saying less is more seems applicable here, as the dinosaurs lose some of their mystique once they are over-exposed on screen. There are some memorable and exciting sequences, and the T-Rex rampage at the end (events that feel detached from the rest of the film) is very entertaining. On a final note, John Williams' score isn't as memorable this time round.

So overall, an entertaining film that delivers the requisite thrills but doesn't leave the indelible mark the original did. And in fairness, how could it possibly have? Still, one can't help but feel that it ought to have been just a little bit better. Worth watching, but I wouldn't call it a keeper.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Another in a long line of Philip K. Dick adaptations, 'A Scanner Darkly' joins the ranks of "the good ones". Scanner is a bit different in that it's a rotoscoped animated film, which means it uses a type of animation that involves painting over live action performances to create a distinctive stylized look. Richard Linklater employed this technique in his film 'Waking Life', and he uses it again here to good effect.

The film tells the story of a man named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), who works undercover for the police to find the source of a deadly new drug that's out on the street. Arctor's true appearance is unknown to his colleagues because of the use of a 'scramble suit', a type of personal cloaking device that obfuscates a person's features; the 'scramble' effect is rendered quite nicely via the animation. He infiltrates a small group of drug users, comprising his girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), James (Robert Downey Jr.), and Ernie (Woody Harrelson), but things start getting complicated when it appears that Arctor himself is a prime suspect amongst the group (and the cops don't know that 'Arctor' is the undercover cop because of his anonymity). Paranoia, fear, and confusion creep in as the effects of the drug, which he has also been consuming, begin to cause Arctor to lose touch with reality and his own identity.

I guess the question that comes to mind regarding this film is, 'is there a point to it being animated'? The answer to that would be yes - I think the stylization is appropriate for the hallucinogenic subject matter, and it certainly comes into play in big way with the scramble suit. Overall the film is very good; it's a thought provoking mystery, it's funny, and with its frenetic energy it's quite engaging. There's also a lot of dialogue heavy scenes that are a lot of fun, particularly those involving Robert Downey Jr. It's a weird, twisty tale and there are some nice surprises along the way, and the ending is surprisingly poignant. The performances are quite good, with Reeves yet again managing to land a role that suits his particular persona to a T. Robert Downey Jr. is excellent, and is provided a strong foil in the form of Woody Harrelson. Winona Ryder is probably the weakest of the bunch, but even her performance is more than adequate.

Ultimately 'A Scanner Darkly' is a worthwhile film. The interesting visuals and energetic soundtrack together complement a unique story to deliver a very memorable sci-fi experience. Now I just have to read the book to see how it compares!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jarhead (2005)

Jarhead (2005)

Sam Mendes' follow up to American Beauty and Road to Perdition is a war movie focusing on a bunch of marines during the first Gulf War. It's structured somewhat like Full Metal Jacket, starting off with boot camp before shifting to the 'action' in the Middle East. And I put action in quotes because, for the most part, the film is about soldiers waiting around to see some real combat! All of their training goes to waste as they sit around running drills, going on patrol, and preparing indefinitely while missing out on the killing that they're all clamouring for. All the waiting eventually begins to take its toll on their mental well being.

The film doesn't really go out of its way to be anti war per se, but the absurdity of the situation and a few choice lines and scenes make its stance on the subject quite clear. It's a well crafted (as are all of Mendes' films) and darkly humourous film, and features a fine performance from Jake Gyllenhaal (though I still find it hard to like the guy in anything), but like Road to Perdition it didn't connect with me as much as I had expected. It's good, and worth seeing, but don't expect it to blow you away.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997)

Quick review (though I suppose since I'll be sure to watch this again, I can review it properly later! How I love these trapdoors I can use to escape from my self imposed blogging obligations!) - Paul Verhoeven's violent adaptation of Robert Heinlein's book apparently strays from its source material considerably (yeah, another classic on my 'to read' list), but is a remarkable film nonetheless. Part action film, part horror, and part comedy, Starship Troopers is a thrilling and entertaining satire that tells the tale of a future in which the military of a fascistic planet Earth wages war against an alien race of giant insects. It's gory and funny, which makes for an odd mix, and its lampooning of fascism and the militarism come on thick and fast. The bizarre cast is effective in a tongue in cheek way (Casper Van Dien?), and the action sequences are spectacular, helped along by some tremendous special effects that have aged quite well. Basil Poledouris' excellent bombastic score is the icing on the cake. An excellent and strangely underrated film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

30 Rock - Season 1 (2006 - 2007)

30 Rock - Season 1 (2006 - 2007)

Tina Fey's '30 Rock' commenced last year in parallel with a similar show, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60. Many had anticipated Fey's show to be bowled over by the one from the more renowned and acclaimed Sorkin. Seems like David conquered Goliath once again, as '30 Rock' won the little contest by being renewed for a second season (despite having even lower ratings than its competitor) while 'Studio 60' went the way of the dodo.

'30 Rock' is a half hour sitcom about a sketch show produced by NBC and created and run by a geeky woman, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). At the start of the season, a managerial type named Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) takes over the show and introduces some changes, including the hiring of nutty actor Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to be the show's new star. This doesn't sit well with current star Jenna (Jane Krawkoski) and the rest of the show's staff, but they all have to try and get along to keep the show going.

That's the setup. '30 Rock' is basically about the wacky escapades of its crazy characters, both in terms of dealing with producing their show and in terms of their personal lives. And it is brilliant, often approaching Arrested Development levels of greatness. Like that landmark series, it features surreal storylines, bizarre unhinged characters, and smart jokes that come thick and fast (including flashbacks and digressions); all these elements gel together perfectly. The show revolves around the central trio of Lemon, Donaghy, and Jordan but also gives plenty of juicy stuff for its equally memorable supporting characters. The cast is uniformly great, particularly the central trio, with the real scene stealer being Alec Baldwin as Donaghy - every scene with him is golden. Add some lively music and colourful visuals to the mix and the end result is a future classic comedy series.

I'd love to write a more in depth review, but I've fallen way behind (I finished watching this ages ago) and don't have time to do so. Fortunately there's a second season (after which the show will probably be cancelled given its anemic ratings) that will give me the opportunity to review it properly at a future date*!

*Assuming the writers' strike doesn't impact it too heavily.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Climate scepticism: The top 10

The BBC website has published a pretty good article on the claims made by global warming sceptics, and presents counter arguments to those claims made by scientists in agreement with the IPCC (i.e. virtually all of them). An interesting read.

Monday, October 29, 2007

King Kong (2005) - Extended Edition

King Kong (2005) - Extended Edition

Peter Jackson's King Kong was generally well received by critics and made a fair bit of money, but the consensus was that it was too long. It was therefore quite bizarre to find Jackson releasing an extended version of the film, one that's around 15 minutes longer, on DVD. He pulled this trick off magnificently with the 'Lord of the Rings' extended editions, which in my opinion are definitive and superior to the original theatrical cuts. LOTR, however, is a story that actually warrants the extra running time and their original lengthy theatrical run-times weren't widely criticized to begin with. So did Jackson pull off the impossible by improving King Kong through additional scenes? Unsurprisingly the answer is 'no', but I love the film unreservedly nonetheless. I wrote briefly about the theatrical version here, but this is going to be a more in-depth review.

The plot is straightforward. Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, it begins with a vaudeville performer named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) losing her job. A chance encounter leads to her getting hired by unscrupulous film producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks), who needed a leading lady on the spot for their upcoming film. The very night that she's hired Ann is rushed on board the S. S. Venture, which immediately sets sail for what everyone believes to be Singapore. In actuality Denham has discovered the location of a 'secret' and mysterious island where he plans to shoot his film, a location that he believes will elevate it to a masterpiece. Writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is unwittingly made a passenger by Denham so that he can write a script for the film en route to their destination. Tension builds between the filmmakers and the ship's crew, which is captained by a man named Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann), when they learn that their true destination is a place called Skull Island, a place that some of the crew believe to harbour supernatural dangers.

And of course, the crew is right. When they get there, they discover the island to be populated by a primitive and savage tribe who hide away in a walled off corner of the island. The natives kidnap Ann and offer her up to the island's mightiest inhabitant, a giant ape - KONG! The middle act of the movie follows the relationship that develops between Ann and Kong (yes, between a woman and a giant ape, and no it's not as ludicrous as it sounds) as he protects her from the other dangerous creatures that inhabit the island. At the same time the crew of the Venture set out to rescue Ann and in the process of doing so are forced to face off against the many dinosaurs and other giant, deadly creatures of the island. What the last third of the film is about I shall not say, mainly because virtually everyone knows how the film ends, and for those few who don't it should make for an interesting surprise.

Woah, that took way more words than I anticipated. Much like Jackson's film takes way more time than many anticipated. Part of the reason the film runs for so long is that the script has, strangely enough, given too much depth to some aspects of the story, resulting in a film that is overlong. The opening montage is fantastic, but the scenes that follow leading up to the departure of the ship are clunky and run on for too long. Denham's dealings with his investors and his assistant are excessive, for instance. Once on board the ship, again, too much time is spent with members of the crew and activities on board that are essentially superfluous. Let me be clear that the quality of film making is great in these scenes, and they're not really slow moving either; it's just that they don't add much to the film and aren't really needed. We don't need this much characterisation for people who don't amount to much in the final analysis. Redundant and overlong scenes should have been trimmed at the script stage to be more appropriate for this type of story. This is also true for subsequent events on the island, where once again the accumulation of redundant and overlong sequences all add up to bloat the running time.

Having said all that, I personally enjoy most of the excess in the film, because it is just so well made and appealing to me! Truth be told, apart from the failings of the script that I've mentioned, everything else about 'King Kong' is great. Sure the plot has some gaping holes, but so did the original and given the genre it's easy enough to suspend disbelief. The presentation of scenes and the overall story structure are effective and were it not for the length this would be a very well constructed adventure film. The characters are fun, though some have too much of a presence. The relationship that develops between Ann and Driscoll is sketchy but sufficient to explain his commitment to finding her. The relationship between Denham and his ego, which drives them to the island and into danger, is much more fully developed and darkly humourous. The best of them all though is the relationship between Ann and Kong, but that I think comes down largely to the performances and Jackson's work as director.

If there's one thing Jackson doesn't do all that well in this film, it's the action sequences, particularly the ones involving the rescue party. They drag on for too long and are often bereft of any genuine sense of danger and are thus unexciting. The stuff involving Kong is much better, especially the T-Rex battle and the confrontation with the biplanes, though even these go on a bit too long. In every other department though, Jackson fires on all cylinders once again! The drama is fantastic, and the relationship between Kong and Ann is stellar, believable and touching. He successfully presents them as kindred spirits who are connected together through a sense of loneliness and melancholy. The way Kong is presented is fantastic - both vicious and monstrous but also sympathetic and gentle. Kong is anthropomorphized but never to such an extent that you forget he's a beast, a fine balance that Jackson pulls off perfectly. While the film has a slightly goofy comedic tone, there is still plenty of tension and the horror and 'creepy' aspects of the film are superb. The humour is skillfully and unobtrusively integrated and the net result is the ideal tone for an adventure film.

Jackson's casting for Kong is almost as good as with 'Rings'. Watts is simply wonderful in the role of Darrow, transforming from delicate and haunted to sweet and charming and, ultimately, to tough as nails in order to survive the island, and she's absolutely convincing throughout. Then there's Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, who once again creates a simply incredible character out of a CGI skin. He doesn't get to speak this time, but actions speak louder than words and his combination of movements and expression make Kong a bona fide living, breathing character. Brody is pretty good as Driscoll, and the film plays up the fact that he's a nerdy sort of hero, which is a characterization that fits the actor to a T. Though he seemed to divide audiences, I found Jack Black to be great in his role as the scheming, manipulative, and insensitive producer, and his comic timing was restrained and entertaining. Kretschmann and Kyle Chandler also have memorable turns as Captain Englehorn and vane movie star Bruce Baxter. As for the remaining supporting players, they are effective in their occasionally overwritten roles.

The production values are, for the most part, exemplary. The authentic and atmospheric re-creation of a bygone era and creation of a fantastical island through a combination of sets, props, costumes, and special effects is nigh on flawless. It's a lavish production. The special effects, though, vary wildly - they are at times brilliant, at others embarrassingly awful. The Kong effects are incredible and after a while you just accept that you're looking at a giant ape; the re-creation of New York is tremendous; much of the island's creatures are flawlessly disgusting. Some of the dinos though - like the brontosaurs and raptors - are weak, and the integration of humans into scenes with them (such as the stampede) is appalling. The overall impression of the effects one is left with when the credits roll is a good one, but the failings really are an egregious blemish on the generally brilliant FX work seen throughout. The whole film is wrapped up in the excellent score by James Newton Howard, who delivers some rousing adventure music coupled with some more delicate emotional themes.

Ultimately Jackson's 'King Kong' is ambitious, spectacular, and flawed. It's like nothing else out there, that much is for sure. I've watched it several times now, and the extended version mostly serves to add in a few weak action scenes that don't help the film but don't really detract much from the original experience either. It's a delightful mix of action, adventure, horror, disaster, and drama all existing in an aura of fantastical heightened reality. He hasn't hit the highs of the Rings trilogy, but it's more often closer than not, which is saying something. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a film I'll be revisiting many many times in the future.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Mummy Returns (2001)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Another Stephen Sommers film, this time the sequel to one I reviewed just a few weeks ago. I stated then how I thought the sequel was poor - I guess I was wrong! I'm not sure why I disliked this movie so much the first time I saw it, but I had a blast the second time around and think it's a worthy follow up.

'The Mummy Returns' picks up nearly a decade later (though everyone still looks the same age), with Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evie (Rachel Weisz) married and with a son, Alex (Freddie Boath), and seemingly rich from the spoils of their first escapade. Evie's recently been having strange dreams about ancient Egypt, dreams which lead them to an ancient wristband that belonged to the near mythical 'Scorpion King' (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). The wristband can guide its wearer to the secret Oasis of the Scorpion King, where he can be awakened and fought every 5000 years; if one can defeat him, they obtain the right to command the army of the God Anubis. Unfortunately, the reincarnation of the Mummy's (Arnold Vosloo) lover (Patricia Velasquez) awakens him so that he can defeat the Scorpion King and use Anubis' army to take over the world! When Alex puts on the bracelet and it gets locked onto his arm, the Mummy and crew are forced to kidnap him and use him as their guide. Rick, Evie, her brother Johnathan (John Hannah), and Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) get on their trail to get Alex back and prevent the Scorpion King from gaining control of Anubis' army.

As with many adventure sequels, this one is bigger in scope. The story structure is quite different as it dispenses with introductions and gets right into the thick of things straight away. This one spans more locations, going from an Egyptian tomb to London to various locales in Egypt before winding up at the mythical Oasis; the adventuring has a globe trotting feel to it. The story is also more complex, with more characters, locations, and incident. For instance, the Mummy achieves his full human form in less than thirty minutes of screentime after he is awakened, a feat that took him most of the running time of the first film to accomplish. Basically it doesn't feel like a replay of the first film. There's plenty of action and adventure throughout, but this time it's more epic and features bigger battles. In fact the climax of this film is massive compared to the fisticuffs finale of the first, and intercuts between multiple concurrent action scenes. The action is great on the whole, and while there's nothing mind blowing it is always spectacular and exciting.

On the downside, the film loses focus on its main characters and feels far too fractured at times. While this allows for a lot of fun supporting characters to shine - particularly Ardeth Bay who finally gets to be the badass that was only hinted at before - it results in the whole thing being just a tad less satisfying. The main trio were a fun group, but the dynamic isn't used to such good effect this time. John Hannah and Rachel Weisz barely register, and Weisz's character has gone from being an adorable bookish nerd to a more tenacious hottie, losing some of her charm along the way. You could call that character development, only it happened offscreen and there's little trace of the original character left! Also not so great is the hokey attempt at mythologizing the story, with reincarnation and 'chosen one' style story elements that are inelegantly slapped on (gasp! this tattoo means you're a warrior of God!). And while the nods to the first film are nice, 'Returns' is occasionally a little TOO self aware and self referential for its own good. There are also some less than effective 'dramatic' moments that seem to be beyond Sommers' ability to sell.

The performances are great all round. Fraser slips right back into the dusty, dirty outfit of the rascally O'Connell, and even though marriage has turned him into a bit of a softie, he's still the same guy at heart. Weisz doesn't have much to do and doesn't seem as into the role, although she has some fun action scenes involving Patricia Velasquez. Velasquez meanwhile has a much bigger role here but besides making for some great eye candy doesn't leave much of an impression (unless you count the part where she sticks her tongue into a CGI Mummy). Vosloo picks up where he left off with a similarly evil performance but now has more to do, and he has a couple of standout moments near the end. John Hannah, like Weisz, registers little. Freddie Boath as the kid does a fairly decent job and manages to not be annoying despite being an impudent little tyke. Oded Fehr is excellent as Ardeth Bay, and he finally gets to kick ass in addition to simply sounding tough and portentous. Oh, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is great as the lead henchman of the Mummy, very funny especially when compared to his role as Mr. Eko on Lost. Many of the other minor players do a good job, particularly the trio of oddball henchmen from early on who I wish had stuck around till the end.

As for the Rock, he barely makes an impact, and most of his screentime is in the guise of a badly rendered CGI cartoon character. The special effects are, barring the Scorpion King effect, generally on par and get the job done without ever coming close to blowing you away. The production values are pretty good overall, though environments tend to feel a little stagy at times, particularly the Oasis. The music, this time from composer Alan Silvestri, is alright but not quite up to Jerry Goldsmith's work.

Even though it doesn't quite match the original, it's a great follow up that is supremely entertaining from start to finish. It's not smart or thought provoking or moving, but it is exciting and fun and is a great two hours of spectacular adventure. I admit it, I was wrong! Fans of the first one ought to find much to like in 'The Mummy Returns'.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Illustrated Man (1951) by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated Man (1951) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man' is a collection of 18 unrelated short stories (though the version I read didn't have all the stories that are listed in the Wikipedia entry, which is weird) wrapped together in a narrative framework about a man with animated tattoos all over his body, each of which depicts one of the stories contained in the book. The stories themselves vary wildly in terms of their subject matter and characters, but all are sci-fi and relate to mankind's future, technology, and often space travel. Each of them revolves around an intriguing concept, and while they are on the whole entertaining and often thought provoking I didn't really find any of them to brilliant. The writing and characters ultimately failed to engage me in any meaningful way. There also seems to be a willful disregard for scientific plausibility, even for something written in the 1950s, with talk of space travel being done in very simplistic terms. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh as the stories are told in broad strokes, but it's one element of the book that irked me. Overall it's a fairly speedy and fun read that features some memorable ideas that are incorporated into decent stories.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Deep Rising (1998)

Deep Rising (1998)

Before he struck gold with The Mummy in 1999, writer-director Stephen Sommers had a trial run at making a blockbuster with 'Deep Rising', an action horror comedy that came out in 1998 and flopped at the box office. Its failure probably had to do with the fact that it was hugely derivative of other films and doesn't look all that appealing. I've seen it a few times now and have to say that despite being cheesy and unoriginal as hell, it's still a load of fun!

John Finnegan (Treat Williams) runs a dodgy boat service together with his partners Joey (Kevin J. O'Connor) and Leila (Una Damon) that at the start of the film has been hired by a man named Hanover (Wes Studi) and his team of tough mercenaries. Unbeknownst to Finnegan, the mercenary team's mission is to intercept and destroy a new cruise ship that is sailing on its maiden voyage, the Argonautica. When they arrive at the ship, however, they find it dead in the water with the passengers missing, save for a thief named Trillian (Famke Janssen), the ship's captain (Derrick O'Connor), and the ship's owner (Anthony Heald). They soon discover why - the ship has been attacked by some sort of prehistoric tentacled sea monsters and all the passengers have been killed! It becomes a desperate race for survival as the mercenaries, Finnegan's crew, and the handful of survivors attempt to fix Finnegan's damaged boat (it sprung a massive leak after a collision) and get away from the ship before they become monster chow.

Squaring off against the still improbable success of Titanic, it's easy to see how this disaster at sea film failed to make much money. Epic it ain't. Setting aside the elements it shares in passing with James Cameron's film, it borrows liberally from the Alien series, Jaws, and even (it seemed to me) Jurassic Park. It's shamelessly derivative, that much is certain. Which isn't always a bad thing when it's well executed, as it is here. Unlike Sommers' later films this one fully embraced its horror aspects and features some reasonable scares and quite a bit of gore. The claustrophobic setting, the incorporation of a trained fighting unit stocked with tons of cutting edge weaponry, and the presence of tenacious and resourceful outsiders together with a duplicitous 'suit' are all elements that adhere to formula, but they are still effective.

The ship, which is meant to be massive and cutting edge, is a pretty cool setting with plenty of places for the creatures to hide and pop out of, and offers plenty of variety in terms of locations. The mercenaries aren't exactly as well written as the marines in Aliens, but they do make enough of an impression for it to be possible to tell them apart. There are no real characters of substance in this film, just personalities, but those personalities are strong enough to hold your attention and actually give a damn about their fates. I don't think I need to reveal how the story is structured - lets just say that a lot of people die along the way and it ain't filled with surprises - but I do want to mention the ending, which is darkly humourous and memorable.

The action in 'Deep Rising' is a mixed bag. The set up is usually good, with a fair amount of tension, but once the bullets start flying it feels a bit random and incoherent. The worst part is the monsters that, while being nicely designed, are poorly animated and look completely fake. They are also poorly defined, with their limits and capabilities never being made clear, allowing the story to do anything with them and have them randomly pop up whenever it's convenient. Fortunately there are enough thrills and excitement in the form of people running, screaming, and generally being terrified, which they tend to do whenever they stop squabbling and arguing amongst themselves!

As with his subsequent films, Sommers employs a lot of humour in the story, enough to label it a bona fide action comedy. Most of the writing is perfunctory, but the comedy one liners tend to work, helped along by the game cast. Treat Williams is surprisingly effective as the wisecracking action hero, and he is ably supported by the delectable Famke Janssen, who I don't think has ever played a character quite as playful as Trillian. Kevin J. O'Connor is as annoying as always, but he gets bullied around enough on screen to make his presence tolerable. Wes Studi is great as the comically stoic mercenary leader who is in over his head. The actors playing the team of mercenaries (a group that includes Djimon Hounsou) are fairly effective as the tough talking gun toting types.

'Deep Rising' does not at any point look like a film of pedigree, and thankfully it doesn't try to be too big for its britches. It knows that it's a cheap and cheesy horror film and plays to its strengths by mixing in outrageous action and thrills together with some laughs. It has some decent production values (nice sets!), a pretty good soundtrack, and enough excitement and humour to keep a relatively undemanding viewer engaged for the duration of its runtime. A good but not great film for fan's of the genre, and a decent one for everyone else as long as they don't expect too much from it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Road to Guantanamo (2006)

The Road to Guantanamo (2006)

The versatile Michael Winterbottom delivered this unflinching and shocking documentary / drama as a UK Channel 4 production that was simultaneously released on DVD and in cinemas. It is the true account of the 'Tipton Three', three young British men of Pakistani origin who travelled to Pakistan shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to arrange for one of them to get married. From Pakistan they rather naively entered Afghanistan to 'help out', and wound up getting captured by Afghan forces and held as terrorists. After a harrowing ordeal they were handed over to US forces, who imprisoned and interrogated them before shipping them off to the notorious prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held for several years before being released without charge. During their imprisonment they were repeatedly interrogated and tortured.

Winterbottom cuts back and forth between interviews with the actual men involved as they recount their tale together with a dramatised recreation of their ordeal. It is, frankly, shocking stuff, and while the story is told purely from one point of view the details provided have a ring of truth to them, and this coupled with corroborative knowledge and reports from the real world leave one with little doubt as to the veracity of what is shown. 'The Road to Guantanamo' is an even handed presentation that doesn't try to manipulate the audience's emotions; it merely depicts with a cool detachment because what is on screen speaks for itself and is affecting enough on its own. The foolishness and inhumaneness of what was done (and is still being done) is horrifying, and while much of these raw facts can be gathered without watching 'The Road to Guantanamo', seeing it recreated in this manner really does have a visceral and indelible impact.

Not only does the film drive home the point that this sort of treatment is unconscionable, it highlights how ineffective and unjustifiable it is from a pragmatic point of view - the fact that these people (amongst many others) were released without charge proves that the imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay is inherently unjust and ineffective. What happened to innocent until proven guilty, what happened to due process? Also, just how incompetent are these people to ignore the available facts and evidence for years before determining the innocence of their prisoners?

The subject matter and story should be compelling no matter how they are presented, but Winterbottom tells the story well. The editing and pacing of the film is superb from start to finish, with salient facts and perspectives being doled out through the interviews and inter-cut with the dramatisation. It moves at a brisk pace, never lingering for too long in one place (or one scenario, when it comes to the Guantanamo imprisonment), and yet provides plenty of details while remaining lucid and comprehensible throughout. The dramatised segments have a genuine documentary feel to them and never ring false or draw you out of proceedings. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen such a bleak and utterly hopeless and terrifying depiction of imprisonment in a film; I guess reality really is more horrific than fiction. The interrogations and torture are light compared to some of the overblown stuff we're used to in TV and movies these days, and yet are more frightening due to the mechanical and undramatic simplicity with which they are carried out. It's atmospheric and believable stuff, helped along by the fact that many scenes were shot in actual locations or use accurate recreations.

Watching 'The Road to Guantanamo' is an eye opening and educational experience, and while it won't bring new facts to light for those who have been keeping track, it'll certainly stir the emotions of those who are less well informed and apathetic to the whole Guantanamo situation (and indeed, similar such situations throughout the world where human rights are violated without compunction). And even for those in the know, it makes for a compelling and gut wrenching experience that makes the story of the 'Tipton Three' unforgettable. A must see for everybody and a stern reminder that, as one of the men says, "the world's not a nice place".

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Babylon 5 - The River of Souls (1998)

Babylon 5 - The River of Souls (1998)

And yet another Babylon 5 TV Movie. The quality level seems to be headed on a downward spiral, and I hear that the 'Legend of the Rangers' is the worst of them all, so I have that to look forward to as well! 'The River of Souls' concerns one of the hokier elements (right up there with technomages) of B5, the 'Soul Hunters', a seemingly ancient super powered group of arrogant aliens who collect the souls of important people just before their deaths, in order to preserve them for eternity. Some fundamental aspects of this concept irk me, like how come the Soul Hunters are considered mythical if they actually show up once in a while to collect people - surely there would be more recorded incidents? And just how powerful are they, given their ability to raid just about anyone in order to grab souls? And why is it that they don't have answers to even the most basic questions regarding what the point of their mission is? And why don't they ask people for permission before backing them up? In this movie itself, one of the major plot points hinges on a situation that could have easily been avoided if these ignoramuses actually spoke to the 'souls' that they imprisoned. It's all just poorly thought out.

Anyway, the plot concerns an obsessed scientist named Bryson (Ian McShane) who unknowingly breaks in to a Soul Hunter soul storage area and steals a soul 'bauble' that contains the souls of an entire race of people. He then brings it to B5 where he is meeting Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), now the head of Edgars Industries, in order to secure future funding for his work. Unfortunately things go pear shaped and the souls escape from their confinement and start wreaking havoc on the station. Captain Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) has to contend with this and another major problem involving an illegal holo-brothel. A representative of the Soul Hunters (Martin Sheen) soon arrives to reclaim the stolen Soul container.

It's reasonably entertaining stuff, but if feels like a b-grade episode and not something befitting a full blown movie. One gets the feeling Straczynski wanted to explore the concept of Soul Hunters and the idea of eternal life and preservation of individuals, but it all feels sketchy and ultimately makes me wish for a more thoughtful take. I like the execution of the idea even less now than I did before I saw the movie, when I only had that one episode from the first season to think about. There are no real surprises within the plot, everything happens as predictably as clockwork, including the inevitable merger of the two seemingly independent story threads. There's little suspense, action, or excitement to be found, and nothing much in terms of character drama either.

It doesn't help that the strongest players are not featured in this episode, with the only reliable regular being Jerry Doyle, who usually works best as a supporting actor. Scoggins simply isn't appealing as the commander of the station and doesn't really succeed in carrying the show on her own. Celebrity guest star Martin Sheen is absolutely woeful as the Soul Hunter, it could just as easily have been any generic third rate actor in the role. Throw in an unnecessary appearance by Richard Biggs sporting a hilarious accent, and the overall impact that the cast has is, to put it mildly, a tad mixed. The only saving grace is Ian McShane (he of Deadwood fame) as the scientist Bryson, who is by no means great but gives a decent performance that stands above almost everyone else's.

Overall, decent and entertaining, and perhaps necessary viewing for the completist, but a poor representation of everything that is good about Babylon 5. The production values are marginally above par, so at the end of the day it's an overblown TV episode storyline at best. Disappointing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trek Casting Finished!

Following on from this post, the cast for Star Trek 11 - The Reimagining has been finalized. Everyone I mentioned in the previous post has been confirmed, including the previously rumoured Chris Pine as Jim Kirk! And the final crewmember to be confirmed is... Russell Crowe as Leonard 'Bones' McCoy! Just kidding, it's actually Karl Urban, the manly man who played Eomer in Lord of the Rings, fought imps in Doom, and took on Jason Bourne in 'The Bourne Supremacy'. In a weird cast, Urban's choice seems weirder still. This is going to be one strange movie! I'm anticipating and dreading it in equal measure. Next up, I'm sure, will be some shots of the crew in costume and probably in action, before we get a trailer to see them in motion, which will probably be months down the line but potentially sooner than with most movies given the rabid fanboy curiosity (and potential for negative publicity if they don't show something).

American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman

American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a well known and respected writer beloved in sci-fi / fantasy circles, and American Gods is probably his most notable and acclaimed work, having claimed the major genre awards. I therefore expected something special, so it's with some disappointment that I confess to being a little underwhelmed by it.

The story revolves around a man known simply as Shadow, who at the outset is about to be released from prison after having served his time. On the eve of his release he learns that his wife Laura has died in a car crash. Numbed, he heads home but ends up meeting a mysterious man named Wednesday on the flight, a man who knows a lot about him and who offers him a job - to be his assistant and bodyguard. After spending a strange night in a bar with Wednesday and one of his 'friends', Shadow agrees. And then, things get weird. His dead wife comes back from the grave and visits him as a rotting corpse. He meets Wednesday's strange friends and enemies, all of whom appear to have supernatural powers. And he discovers that he has become embroiled in a conflict between, quite literally, gods. To be more precise, a conflict between the old gods and the modern gods of technology.

American Gods is a relatively long book that is ironically quite slim on narrative. It is best described as an atmosphere piece that revels in examining places and people; it's a portrait of modern American culture and its relationship to its origins as a destination for migrants from all over the world who brought their cultures and their deities along with them. Gaiman presents this subject matter within the narrative device of a road journey, having Shadow travel across various towns and cities in the US and experience the unique places and encounter the idiosyncratic people that define them. He also intersperses every chapter with short side stories that show how some gods arrived in America, and where some of them have ended up. Gods in the book acquire strength from the belief and devotion of their followers, but since coming to America their followers have slowly abandoned their gods and embraced the life afforded to them by the New World. This has resulted in a new generation of gods - gods of modern technology and infrastructure - coming to power and threatening the existence of the ever weakening old order. Hence, the oncoming 'storm' of divine conflict.

Gaiman's an engaging writer and the book never feels slow or boring, but after some time the lack of incident begins to become all too apparent. He seems to be in love with the various gods he brings into the mix (all of whom, it seems, are based on deities from the real world), and obviously enjoys establishing an atmospheric milieu for his characters to inhabit, and this all comes across nicely in the book. It's clearly meticulously researched in terms of the gods, their mythologies, and the various pieces of 'Americana' that it touches upon. Trouble is, the feeling of nothing much happening, or of major things happening 'off screen', becomes a little irritating after a while. It also doesn't help that the protagonist, Shadow, while sympathetic and likable is also mostly reactive and lacks much character of his own (ironically, at one point in the book someone states that Shadow doesn't seem 'alive', though it wasn't intended in the dramatic sense); he comes across too much as a device for the book to explore the things it's really interested in.

My complaints are only minor mind you, and the book is very entertaining and its subject matter is fascinating from start to finish (my ignorance of global deities is now clear!). The exploration of culture through fantasy and religious figures is definitely an interesting approach, and the book is not lacking in imagination. It's very atypical in structure and style, skimming on plot and characterization as it does, and perhaps my disappointment is based mostly on an expectation of narrative convention and thus incommensurate to what I perceive as the book's flaws. Whatever the case may be, reflecting on it I enjoyed the book and it was worth my while, regardless of it not meeting my expectations. It's one I feel I'll revisit again in future, and one whose follow up I look forward to getting my hands on.