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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Everything is Illuminated (2005)

Everything is Illuminated (2005)

In 'Everything is Illuminated' Elijah Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer, a quiet young Jewish man who is a collector of items related to his family. When his dying grandmother gives him a picture of his late grandfather from the war era (WW2) standing together with a young woman who apparently saved his life during the war, he sets out on a quest to track the woman down. He arrives in Ukraine where he enlists the services of a company specializing in helping people like him find out about their progenitors. His guides wind up being a talkative young man named Alex (Eugene Hutz) whose English is quite funny and who has odd notions about the USA, and Alex's grandfather (Boris Leskin), a cranky anti-Semite who drives the car despite believing himself to be blind. The group is accompanied by Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., the grandfather's crazy "seeing eye" dog. They set out on a road journey in search of an obscure unheard of village, and on the way learn things about themselves, each other, and their family histories.

Firstly, visually this is a beautiful film, full of stunning vibrant imagery throughout. It's also delightful musically, featuring music and songs that you'll never have heard before that complement the visuals perfectly. The story sounds straightforward enough and is for the first two-thirds of the film; it's basic structure is familiar, with the oddball characters charming you and growing on you as they head further into the rural countryside and end up in various atypical situations. The last third takes a decidedly unexpected and emotionally gut wrenching turn and shifts the focus of the story in a surprising direction, though one that is hinted at throughout the film. Which isn't to say that the primary 'quest' isn't resolved satisfactorily either, because it is, but not quite in the way you imagine at the outset. It's a thoughtful and thought provoking film about history and how it defines us, and the importance of family heritage. The story has some moving moments and many very funny ones, and wonderful characters brought to life by some superb performances from the three leads.

'Everything is Illuminated' is one of those terrific little films that has heart and manages to feel real and honest despite being ostensibly surreal and artificial. Event though it's quirky it ought to appeal to everyone and is worth a watch.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rounders (1998)

Rounders (1998)

I'd heard good things about this little gem of a film, and it lived up to expectations. I'd love to write a full blown review but I've been pressed for time lately and am way behind on my blog stuff! I'd rather put a short post up than nothing at all, so here goes.

Matt Damon plays Mike McDermott, a law student with a gift for playing poker. He's so good that he plays for a living, using his winnings to pay his tuition fees. Until one fateful day when he blows away all his savings on a big game. Some time later, his best friend 'Worm' (Edward Norton) gets out of jail and gets him back in the game, to the disapproval of Mike's girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol). 'Worm' is an impetuous risk taker and winds up getting them in trouble with 'KGB' (John Malkovich), a dangerous mobster with a penchant for high stakes poker.

The movie is essentially a sports / follow your calling movie featuring poker. And it's terrific. Unlike most 'sports' movies, the fact that it features poker lends it a novelty factor that alone sets it apart from the rest of the crowd. It's unique, but putting that aside it's simply a very well made and entertaining film that manages to draw the viewer in to this strange world and make a bunch of people playing cards seem like the most exciting of events. It features a personal journey of self discovery, a story of friendship, a touch of romance, a quest, and a hefty dose of danger, and it is fascinating and compelling from start to finish. Damon and Norton are exceptional and despite the vast differences in their personalities their friendship is never anything less than convincing. Damon in particular really carries the movie as the level headed but ambitious Mike, who knows deep down that he's a virtuoso. Malkovich is excellent and menacing as KGB. The rest of the cast are also uniformly great, including Martin Landau, Famke Janssen, and John Turturro.

Since I actually understand (to a limited degree) and have played a bit of poker (and lost money consistently), I guess the poker scenes resonated with me more than they otherwise might have. Still, you don't need to really understand poker to follow what's going on, the tension is all there on the screen. Entertaining, exciting, and funny, Rounders is a an absolute blast!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Moonstruck (1987)

Moonstruck (1987)

I'm bemused by the number of accolades this film has received and how highly regarded it was at the time of its release. Sure, it's a fairly charming romantic comedy with oddball characters, but it ain't exactly phenomenal. 'Moonstruck' stars Cher as a thirty something widow who falls for her wimpy fiance's younger brother, played by pre-fame Nicolas Cage. Meanwhile her parents are having marital problems, with her dad having an affair.

It's not a conventional rom-com - especially for an eighties film - being quirky and and having what I can only describe oxymoronically as overwhelmingly downbeat humour. Seriously, while the film is funny the characters seem to be having a pretty horrid time. There are fine performances, particularly from Cage and Cher, but nothing to really write home about. The writing is witty in a sit-com kind of way, and the story is fairly predictable right up to the cop out deus ex machina ending. All in all, a harmless and enjoyable film that is a tad overrated.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Medium - Season 1 (2005)

Medium - Season 1 (2005)

Having seen several other modern supernatural dramas like Tru Calling and The Dead Zone, I was a little wary about watching yet another one, especially after sitting through Tru Calling. There's only so much of similarly themed shows that one can stomach, even when they are entertaining and fairly good, like The Dead Zone. Fortunately, despite suffering from many of the inevitable flaws that plague the genre, 'Medium' is a little bit special.

Patricia Arquette plays Alison DuBois, wife and mother of three and the show's titular medium. She has a 'gift' that lets her commune with the dead and have dreams about the future. She puts this gift to use by working as an assistant to the District Attorney Manuel Devalos (Miguel Sandoval), helping him prevent crimes or catch bad guys and put them away. Her job puts a bit of a strain on her family life as it keeps her away from her husband Joe (Jake Weber) and their three daughters. And that's the show in a nutshell!

Sounds kind of formulaic, and in some respects it is... but more on that later. What sets it apart is the writing, characterization, acting, and direction. 'Medium' is a drama first and supernatural show second. It features characters with depth who have believable relationships. The DuBois family feels like a real one and not just another one of the cliched artificial TV families that inundate screens everywhere. They're messy and live in a normal noisy, chaotic home where they juggle chores and manage their lives as best they can. The relationship between Alison and Joe, where the work and family issues come to a head, is the heart of the show. Their husband wife dynamic (the show is from the creator of Moonlighting!) is terrific - humorous and playful but also full of downbeat moments that are honest and raw, with both being petty and wrongheaded. The majority of the witty dialogue usually comes in these character moments, though the show also handles the exposition and procedural aspects very smoothly as well.

Though the mysteries are sometimes extravagant (I suppose necessarily so), they are executed with convincing plotting and character motivations, and there are a variety of characters and situations throughout the season to keep things from getting repetitive. The show also seems to have a good adherence to the realities of procedural work and the legal process (though I imagine experts in those fields will find that I am completely wrong). It raises interesting questions about objectivity and perspective through Alison's psychic power; her visions are often more than a little vague and are open to interpretation. It's refreshing to see psychic powers that aren't as clear cut as they are in so many other shows. And when the inevitable questions about the morality of using such powers are raised, it's usually in a relatively thoughtful and intelligent way, often through conversations between Alison and her husband or the DA that address both the logical and emotional arguments. The choices Allison has are not always clear cut, and the easy route is not always taken...

There are flaws though. I mentioned the prospect of formula rearing its ugly head, and it does, with the typical episode structure being very predictable, right down to the occasional twist that can be seen coming a mile away. A typical episode has the same beats, starting off with dreams, then clues to the dreams, doubts about what it all means, family problems popping up, etc... The plots tend to be a little outrageous, with a lot of weird violent crime murder mysteries that make you wonder just what kind of hellish place these people live in. Perhaps a few smaller, simpler stories would have helped alleviate this. The integration of Alison into the DA's office without any questions is a major plot point that stretches credibility; her behaviour would have been noticed fairly quickly, and although this issue is addressed in the early episodes it is quickly ignored! My last major quarrel is with Allison's ill defined powers. Her dreams are shown to us but the rest of her powers remain vague, and when the implication is that ghosts are everywhere and that they are drawn to her, one imagines that her every moment must be torment, and yet this aspect is hardly ever touched upon.

In terms of direction, the show embraces a serious tone but is full of humour as well and it usually hits all the right notes at the right time. It plays as a drama with little or no action, and despite the presence of ghosts it isn't really scary, although the dream sequences can often be quite harrowing. Overall it has a very sedate feel but it never spins its wheels and wastes time. Visually and aurally it's not particularly inventive but it's still solid, and quite atmospheric when it needs to be. The performances from everyone are terrific, especially Patricia Arquette and Jake Weber; the two play incredibly well off of each other and create a convincing relationship, one that genuinely feels like it has lasted for a fair while. Arquette strikes the right balance between being a headstrong woman fighting evil with her supernatural powers while also being a fairly normal (and also headstrong) wife and mother. Weber, whom I like in everything I've seen him in (American Gothic), is excellent as the nerdy rocket scientist husband trying to be accommodating towards his supernaturally gifted wife and her new job. Their kids are also very well portrayed, coming across as believable and smart in a non-precocious way. Miguel Sandoval is great as the DA, a seasoned and wily customer who manages to deliver a lot of exposition without becoming boring.

Overall, despite its flaws, 'Medium' stands out thanks to its mature take on subject matter that is usually turned into kiddie fare (in that respect it is much like 'The Dead Zone', which also features an older cast and a restrained style, but has less domestic drama). It's a very good drama featuring memorable writing and performances. The only question is, can the writers mix things up and keep the show going in interesting directions? It's now entering its fourth season, so I guess I'll be able to learn the answer to that question when I go through the DVDs of seasons two and three!

Trek Casting

After some decidedly mixed early casting news - Leonard Nimoy cameo, yay! Zacharay Quinto as Spock, ugh! - and rumours about who would play the legendary Captain James Tiberius Kirk - Matt Damon, excellent! - some solid news is finally coming out.

The villain, named Nero, has been cast and it is none other than former irradiated Hulk and Achilles victim Eric Bana! Seriously cool news, as Bana has been great in everything I've seen him in and I can buy him as a menacing villain. Second cool bit of casting news is that Simon Pegg, he of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame, will be playing Scotty! This is cool and also completely and utterly bizarre and will have to be seen to be believed - is Scotty going to be comic relief? Some guy named John Cho has also been cast as Sulu.

They join the already announced Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Zoe Saldana as Uhura. The big question remains - who will step into the 'hold your stomach in' tight fitting pants of Kirk? Some guy named Chris Pine is rumoured to be a potential candidate for the part. An unknown sounds like a good idea. This film will rest on the shoulders of whomever plays Kirk and the camaraderie that the central trio has together. And also on whatever J J Abrams and his writers bring to the table as well of course.

This film is looking weird but interesting. Surely it'll at least be better than the last one, right?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Babylon 5 - Season 5 (1998)

Babylon 5 - Season 5 (1998)

Babylon 5, the last best hope for peace. And victory, as it turned out in Season 4 when the Alliance created and led by Captain John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) brought the Shadow War to an end and also defeated the fascist forces of President Clark and liberated the Earth. That season ended with the creation of the Interstellar Alliance and the prospect of trouble down the road by way of the Shadows' allies and also the possibility of conflict between telepaths and 'mundanes'. And trouble is indeed what our favourite Babylonians got in Season 5 of the epic sci-fi drama series.

Sheridan and Delenn (Mira Furlan) establish B5 as the temporary headquarters of the Alliance, with Sheridan as President and a new commander in place to run the station, Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins). Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle) returns to B5 and becomes the head of Covert Intelligence for the Alliance with his old friend Zack (Jeff Conoway) having taken over as the head of B5 Security. Dr Franklin (Richard Biggs) remains on the station as the chief medical officer. Londo (Peter Jurasik) remains as Centauri ambassador while also holding the post of Centauri Prime Minister. He begins to form a friendship with G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas), who winds up becoming his bodyguard. Notable by her absence is Susan Ivonova, who left the station following the death of Marcus Cole. Mopey Minbari Lennier (Bill Mumy) goes off to train as a Ranger so that he can stay away from Delenn, for whom he has strong feelings. Super telepath Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) has a significant presence in this season when she gets caught up in the telepath conflict. And finally, of course, there's Vir Coto (Stephen Furst), who continues to bungle around with the best of intentions.

The main story threads in the fifth season involve the formation and development of the fragile Alliance, the conflict between 'rogue' telepaths and the Psi Corps, and the influence of Shadow allies on Centarui Prime, who attempt to drive the Alliance to war. After the events of the preceding four years, the first half of Season 5 was on slow burn, building up again from a new beginning. It was interesting in that it was so different, depicting the events following a major war where all the parties involved slowly pick up from where they left off, with all the idealistic notions they championed immediately after the war becoming distant memories as political realities reassert themselves. Still, interesting as it was the pacing was a bit slow, but then again the previous season was a hard act to follow. One of the biggest problems was the lack of a true central figure in the season - previously it has always been Sheridan, or before him Sinclair - with the central role being filled in by several characters depending on the episode. B5 needs a strong driving force, and without one it felt a little aimless.

Another issue I had was with the telepath war; it was great in theory, the concept of a class of people left disenfranchised and persecuted, but it dragged on for a bit too long and the rogue telepaths were a little too cheesy for my tastes, often coming across as overly broody goths. There was some very good stuff in there though, particularly the charismatic telepath leader Byron (Robin Atkin Downes) and his relationship with Lyta, which pays off in the latter half of the season. And then there's the major storyline involving the Centauri that starts off in the background and builds up to massive confrontations and a very satisfying and surprisingly dark conclusion (there are elements of this story that are not resolved till much later in the time line, though they were actually touched upon in earlier seasons!). The very last episode deserves a special mention - it was filmed at the culmination of Season 4 before the show was unexpectedly renewed for this a fifth and final season - as it is a terrific and moving conclusion that serves as a fitting farewell to the characters as they all gather together for one last time.

From a character point of view, many of the primary characters have been through a lot and are given less in terms of development. Sheridan and Delenn have a significant presence and their relationship is always dwelt on, but it's mostly business as usual for them. It's business as usual for Dr. Franklin and Zack as well. The primary characters who go through the most this season are Garibaldi, G'Kar, and Londo. Garibaldi deals with the effects of Bester's brainwashing by once again turning to alcohol, a storyline that is overplayed beyond belief and is dragged out for way too long. G'Kar and Londo initially make a light hearted duo who, despite all they've been through, become firm friends; their storyline and friendship becomes much more substantial as the season progresses and events involving the Centauri heat up. G'Kar also has to deal with his growing reputation as a religious figure following the unauthorized publication of his book. And then there's Lyta, the ultra powerful Vorlon modified telepath who, inspired by Byron's belief in freedom for telepaths, transforms from a meek doormat and finally asserts herself. The usually humble and sagely Lennier takes a dark and somewhat annoying turn as he becomes a brooding wanker who is upset that Delenn chose Sheridan over him. And finally there's newcomer Captain Lochley, whose presence is irritating mainly because she's always in a bad mood, but fortunately she doesn't show up all that often.

Season 5 falls somewhat short of the previous three (but is better than Season 1) due to the aforementioned problems with characters and storylines, but by most other measures it's on par. The stories avoid simplistic takes on their subject matter by acknowledging some of the complexities of reality, with corruption and immorality always present to counterbalance whatever decency and nobility is on display. The show, as always, embraces political realities and incorporates human foibles and weaknesses into its characters. And despite all the darkness, there's still a nice mix of humour and action thrown in together with the drama.

The production values are pretty much at the same level as before, so whatever I said for previous seasons still applies. They get the job done but aren't exactly mind blowing, and that trademark stagy, almost theatrical feel is always present. The effects seem more dynamic, even if they are still not entirely realistic. The acting is, as usual, a mixed bag, with the cast being solid overall with the usual great work from some actors like Katsulas and Jurasik, and some cringe inducing work from others, particularly guest stars and supporting players like Furst and Tallman. As for the music, I didn't much care for the new theme but the incidental music is still good, overly dramatic beats and all.

Overall it's a very good season that is unfairly maligned. It takes the characters and stories forward and there's certainly no wheel spinning or repetition, though there are admittedly some crappy stories in the mix like the one with the assassin who tries to kill Sheridan early on (I'm sick of psycho assassins!). The storylines are perhaps overlong and drag a little, but the season still serves as a fitting swan song for the series. It's a season that ends with a sense of awe and hope but also acknowledges that there are no real endings and no finality; some questions are left unanswered, and we know that the struggles will go on after the credits roll.

My Babylon 5 journey is not quite over, with some more TV movies and Crusade left, but I've now experienced the main body of work and it is indeed an impressive achievement that's well worth the time for any self respecting sci-fi fan. It hasn't aged all that well in some ways, but then again everything ages eventually and I suspect that the strengths of the story and characters of Babylon 5 will always shine through.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bad Boys II (2003)

Bad Boys II (2003)

In a word: terrible. An 'action' fest that runs way too long, is devoid of any depth whatsoever, and that features characters whose sole function is to utter banal dialogue that is meant to be funny but isn't even remotely so. Oh, and the action, as with Michael Bay's 'The Island', is overly flashy and tries too hard to be cool, with the end result being scenes that are hyperkinetic yet lifeless. As for the acting, it comprises mostly posing, whooping, screaming, and glaring. Two and a half hours of this is way too much.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Babylon 5: Thirdspace (1998)

Babylon 5: Thirdspace (1998)

And yet more Babylon 5! This time it's a standalone TV movie set sometime in the middle of Season 4 that has a horror / alien invasion bent.

The story, which is focused on Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), Susan Ivonova (Claudia Christian), Zack Allen (Jeff Conaway), and Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) and features a few other regulars as well, revolves around the discovery of a colossal ancient artifact in hyperspace that is brought to B5 for investigation. A team from the organization Interplanetary Expeditions led by a scientist named Dr. Elizabeth Trent (Shari Bellafonte) arrives and negotiates a deal whereby they get access to the artifact as long as they share their findings. As they play around with the object, strange things begin to happen on the station as people start having strange dreams and becoming possessed, and Lyta Alexander finds herself the unwitting carrier of a warning from the Vorlons. It turns out that the object is an ancient jump-gate that opens not into hyperspace but into another type of space, a 'thirdspace', that harbours a deadly evil force.

'Babylon 5: Thirdspace' is a fairly entertaining addition to the B5 mythology. It feels a lot like an elaborate standalone episode that's part mystery and part horror. It's certainly larger in scale than a typical episode, and there are some impressive effects and visuals. There's a genuine sense of awe created by the discovery of the artifact, something sci-fi movies and TV quite often seems to lack so it's nice to see that aspect emphasized. The movie adds to the depth of the universe of B5, despite appearing to have very little impact on it. It's fun to see these familiar characters in this sort of scenario, but ultimately the whole thing feels a little bit hollow. It builds up like an epic alien invasion movie that feels, stylistically, like it doesn't quite fit in with the B5 universe. And some things irked me no end, like how the B5 security forces end up brawling repetitively with the 'possessed' hordes; don't they have Tazers in the 23rd century? Or any kind of effective riot control? The final solution to the problem also seemed mind bogglingly uninspired (hint: use nukes), especially since it was apparently one thought up by the Vorlons.

As a story in its own right 'Thirdspace' isn't worthy movie material, but it is cool seeing these characters in this kind of narrative. Though it isn't essential viewing it's still a worthwhile 90 minutes for a B5 fan. Non fans, however, will probably see it as just another cliched sci-fi flick.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A good use for CAPTCHA!

You know those annoying CAPTCHA things that show up on websites in order to verify that you are a human being and not a spam bot? Well, a bunch of clever people have found an ingenious use for them. See, the CAPTCHA asks you to identify a distorted looking word or string of characters that the character recognition software of a computer can't. Book scanning projects have a problem where computer character recognition software can't always recognise text scanned in from books. By taking this unidentified scanned text and using it for CAPTCHAs, the folk at Carnegie Mellon have found an effective way for people everywhere to help identify the unrecognisable words, thereby facilitating the accurate digital archival of books!

While users of websites still have to go through the hassle of entering a CAPTCHA, at least now it's for a good cause!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Children of Men (2006)

'Children of Men' is magnificent film, the best film that I have seen so far from 2006. When I first saw the trailers I was intrigued and looked forward to it, but it didn't grab my attention as a must see. Then the reviews started coming in, and they were pretty much universally positive and many of them were effusive with their praise. My anticipation factor went up a few notches, to that point where you wonder whether you'll end up being disappointed regardless of the quality of the film. Fortunately, I was far from disappointed.

Set in England around 20 years in the future, 'Children of Men' depicts a world that has gone to hell. For some unknown reason women can no longer have children, and mankind is dying out. The realization that humanity's days are numbered has resulted in societies crumbling, and only Britain 'soldiers on' by maintaining a fascist police state to keep everyone in line. The rest of the world sees this police state as being better than the alternatives and as a result refugees arrive in England in droves, so much so that the authorities clamp down on them by conducting raids and rounding them up in camps. The story begins with the death of 'Baby Diego', an 18 year old who was a celebrity by virtue of being the youngest person on Earth. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) looks on in disgust as people all around him mourn the loss of Baby Diego. He skips work and hooks up with his old stoner friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a retired political cartoonist, and the two of them get stoned while discussing the state of the world.

Later, Theo is grabbed off the street by 'The Fishes', a so-called terrorist group that fights for the rights of migrants, that is led by his estranged ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and her deputy, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They need his help to get transit papers for a refugee to move across the country; Theo's cousin is a well off member of the bureaucracy who can acquire such papers. Theo agrees to help them in exchange for money. His cynical world-view is soon shaken however when he discovers that the girl he has to help move, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), is pregnant, the first known pregnancy in 18 years. What follows is a desperate journey as Theo and a midwife named Miriam (Pam Ferris) attempt to get Kee to the 'Human Project' - a near mythical group of scientists working on solving the fertility problem - while avoiding both the authorities as well as the Fishes, who want to use Kee's baby as a symbol for their cause.

The story structure is deceptively simple - it all boils down to an action road movie. And while it can be enjoyed as merely that, the film is anything but simple. 'Children of Men' presents an absolutely compelling and plausible future world, one that is fully realized down to the smallest detail. Technology has advanced (though only marginally given the downward spiral of civilization) yet the film doesn't dwell on technology, instead it depicts it in a matter of fact fashion and just lets it enrich the world on display. It's far more concerned with the themes it deals with, and as with all great science fiction these are themes that are universal and relevant to the real world. By means of extreme extrapolation the 'what if?' scenario is used to present a scary fictional world that acts as a commentary on the real one.

First and foremost is the omnipotent police state that has supreme authority over its people, controlling them to keep them 'free', ruling through fear and propaganda. Law enforcement officials have unchecked power and are able to exercise it callously, as Theo and Kee discover when an immigration officer toys with them without compunction. The state inculcates an extreme nationalist mentality, with refugees ('fugees') being demonized; noticeboards constantly remind people that hiding refugees is a serious crime, and slogans everywhere incite xenophobia. This regime has also fostered gross social inequality, with the masses eking out their living in a miserable, decrepit environment while those in power live in a surreal state of luxury, as depicted in one memorable sequence early on when Theo enters the 'elite' neighborhood to meet his cousin (who lives in palatial accommodations surrounded by original works of art). But it's not just the elite who are at fault; the so called rebels are selfish and agenda driven as well, and the end result is that the people both sides purportedly represent are the ones who suffer the most, being stuck in the middle as collateral damage.

Coming back to the believability of the world depicted, this is realized through all aspects of the film, from script through to production design and direction. The status quo is conveyed through strong dialogue that only occasionally veers into overly expository territory, a flaw that crops up in the early stages and one that is easily forgiven given its necessity. Throughout Theo and Kee's journey, the world and ideas of the film are reinforced and embellished via the places they pass through and the people they encounter. Details litter the screen, from digital billboards and graffiti to people and incidents in the background, and the stark visuals are often evocative of the type horrors we have become familiar with in the real world. The production design incorporates technology subtly - unobtrusive but noticeable if you pay attention - and also convincingly depicts a world that is slowly decaying through neglect. All of these elements coalesce, each reinforcing the other and selling the idea that what is happening is real.

This verisimilitude comes courtesy of director Alfonso Cuaron, the guy who directed the best of the Harry Potter series. The film is grounded in a realistic and bleak style, both visually and tonally, and is unrelenting with not a wasted scene in its 110 minute runtime. There are no false moments, and while the there is an overarching sense of doom and gloom the film actually runs the gamut of emotions; there are some funny moments and contemplative moments between characters, as well as some very poignant and profound ones. Amazingly, while this film is excellent as a sci-fi drama, it also features some of the best and most unique action sequences I've ever seen, ones that feel almost documentary-like in their unflinching realism. There's a thrilling assault on a car by a crazed horde, an insane single take sequence in the middle of an urban battlefield, and even a heart pounding scene in which Theo has to push start a car while being chased by a gang of Fishes. The sense of danger is genuine throughout, and some of the tensest moments actually occur in the smaller scale sequences. It's thrilling stuff, and the best thing is that the action doesn't feel like contrived set pieces, as it all flows organically from the story.

The biggest irony of the film, I think, is that while everything about it makes it sound depressing, it's ultimately a story about hope, hope against the odds, hope that is borne by a guy who at the outset appears more cynical than everyone else around him. 'Children of Men' is full of well written characters, all of whom have their own beliefs and points of view and none of whom can be easily categorized as absolutely good or bad, but Theo is the character who guides us through the movie and is easily the most important. Here I think most of the credit goes to Clive Owen, who is always terrific in everything but really shines in this role. Even when he is first presented as a world weary cynic he gives off the impression that there's much more to him, and as the story progresses we see him take charge and take responsibility for protecting Kee. His heroism is selfless and his personal rewakening is made completely believable through Owen's subtle changes in demeanour.

Owen aside, the rest of the cast does fantastic work as well. Michael Caine is a hoot as the lovable hermit-like hippie hiding out in the forest. Clare-Hope Ashitey doesn't have all that much to do but makes a strong impression as the snarky and very pregnant Kee, while Pam Ferris is appropriately fussy and concerned as midwife Miriam. Julianne Moore is terrific in a small but pivotal role as the leader of the Fishes, convincing as a tough revolutionary figurehead but also able to believably establish a history with Theo in a mere handful of scenes. Chiwetel Ejiofor rounds out the main cast and is great as the ambitious and overly idealistic second in command of the Fishes. Danny Huston and Peter Mullan make small but very memorable appearances as Theo's wealthy cousin Nigel and sadistic immigration cop Syd respectively, two people at opposite ends of the system who revel in their power.

This review wouldn't be complete without mentioning the special effects and soundtrack. The effects are, for the most part, completely seamless and flawless, never drawing attention to themselves. And as for the soundtrack, accompanying the excellent sound design is the haunting original score by John Tavener that is used sparingly and effectively. Equally good is the eclectic mix of songs that always feel appropriate to the visuals they accompany. The bottom line is it's a terrific looking and sounding film!

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that I absolutely love 'Children of Men'. Sure, it isn't without its flaws - an occasionally expository script and oddly placed humour, a slightly below par effect, and an arguably overearnest use of symbolism - but the good so heavily outweighs them that they are rendered negligible. It's part sci-fi, part drama, part thriller, part action movie, and all brilliant. Exciting, thoughtful, and moving, featuring excellent performances and stunning visuals; for me, it encapsulates all the best stuff the medium has to offer. It's fast becoming one of my favourites, and I think it's a must see for everyone.

Moffat to Launch Thundering Typhoons!

British screenwriter Steven Moffat will be penning the forthcoming Tintin trilogy of films, which I wrote about a few months ago. Apart from having two great directors in the form of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, this project now has a great screenwriter as well.

Alright, so he doesn't have the pedigree of those two, but what I know of his work bodes well. Moffat created and wrote the hilarious and very sharply written BBC comedy series Coupling (which I'm watching right now), for one thing. For another, he also wrote some of the most acclaimed episodes of the new Doctor Who series, including one of my favourites from the first season, which I wrote about here; one of his episodes was the one I mentioned in my review, about the boy with the gas mask melded to his face! Also, Doctor Who has that meld of adventure, comedy and drama as well as that whimsical feel that is perfectly suited to Tintin, which makes a good writer from that show all the more fitting. Moffat was also involved in a new BBC series called Jekyll, based on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, which I don't know much about but am now very interested in seeing.

So the Tintin movies now have a darn good writer behind them... This project suddenly looks even more exciting.