Friday, May 30, 2008

Red Heat (1988)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Red Heat (1988)

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Russian Police Captain Ivan Danko in this late eighties action comedy. The story has Danko tracking a Russian drug dealer, Viktor Rostavili (Ed O'Ross), to Chicago and reluctantly teaming up with Detective Sgt. Art Ridzik (Jim Belushi). Both men are mavericks who cause considerable amounts of trouble with their aggressive 'result oriented' styles, which pisses off Police Commander Donnelly (Peter Boyle) and Lt. Stobbs (Laurence 'Larry' Fishburne). Also in the mix is Viktor's dance teacher wife Catherine (Gina Gershon). As the investigation progresses both men end up developing personal reasons to pursue and bring Viktor to justice (i.e. lay him to rest six feet under), and are forced to go up against a dangerous gang working for their nemesis as they shoot and drive their way recklessly across Chicago.

The film is fairly typical for the genre, and if you've ever seen a buddy cop slash fish out of water action comedy before, you'll know what to expect here. The story is basic but fairly strong for a comedy - much of it could conceivably be transposed to a non comedic film, though the scene with the cross dressing killer in a nurse's uniform might have to go! The characterization and humour are obvious and you can usually see it coming in advance, though I found much of it quite funny nonetheless. A lot of that has to do with the leads and not any particular genius in the script; both Arnie and Belushi are coasting here but the two have a natural comedic tendency, particularly Arnie who requires only subtle variations to his usual shtick ("but I dohn't want too touch his ass!") to elicit a laugh or two. And seriously - Arnie as a Russian? Director Walter Hill's work is nothing to write home about except when it comes to the action sequences, which are frenetic and exciting, and there's also a fun chase scene towards the end featuring two buses.

'Red Heat' is by the numbers but leans slightly towards the above average end of the scale. It's fun, and probably the type of thing you'd end up watching on TV when there's nothing else demanding your attention. And one more plus in its favour is that it is R rated and doesn't skimp on the nudity and violence, unlike so many of today's kiddie friendly films (though sadly a lot of the nudity tends to be Arnie's well molded physique).

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Entourage - Season 2 (2005)

(Image from Play)

Entourage - Season 2 (2005)

Colour me surprised. I wasn't exactly enthused by season one of this show about an up and coming superstar actor and his entourage; I thought it was very well made, but somehow it just didn't connect with me. The second season, however, is a different story. I'm at a loss as to why - perhaps the show's style, subject matter and characters have grown on me. I just found Vince and his gang more likable this time around. The main storyline involving James Cameron's 'Aquaman' movie was right down my alley, and there seemed in general to be more of the movie stuff and less of the party stuff that irked me in season 1. I wasn't too fond of Mandy Moore popping up as a love interest, but it did make the storyline interesting in the latter half of the season. There's solid character and story progression and, the eclectic humour is spot on with few misses. The storylines are as varied as ever with plenty of locales - there are visits to Sundance, Comic Con, and the Playboy Mansion, and also a little house hopping - all with the absurdity of Hollywood on full display. The fact that much of this is purportedly based on reality makes it that much funnier.

The central cast is solid, but it's Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold who once again steals the show. I imagine too much of him would get annoying, but in short bursts the guy is pure dynamite, and is surely the most likable over the top asshole on TV, possibly ever. The addition of eye candy in the form of Emmanuelle Chriqui was also most welcome, and I'm surprised a show of this nature took so long to get (what appears to be) a regular hottie. Celebrity cameos abound, and it was great to see James Cameron pop up once in a while - I wonder if his explosive personality will be lampooned in season 3. The always cool Malcolm McDowell pops up as Ari's partner / boss, and delivers plenty of snark that works well against Piven's seething, poorly concealed rage. The music and visuals are excellent - as before - and the show doesn't cop out when it comes to flaunting the immense wealth of virtually character on the show!

So yeah, I'm hooked now and can't wait to see where the third season of 'Entourage' goes. I'd like to see more of 'Aquaman', so hopefully the next season doesn't start with 'Aquaman' being something that happened off screen between seasons, which is what happened with the 'Queen's Boulevard' storyline from season 1. I enjoyed season 2 immensely and, unlike with season 1, I actually looked forward to seeing the next episode whenever the credits began to roll.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Hitman (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Hitman (2007)

I took away two things from 'Hitman'. One is that Timothy Olyphant is pretty cool even in relatively mediocre fare (though perhaps not so much in Die Hard 4.0). The other is that Olga Kurylenko is smokin hot and her gratuitous nudity in this will undoubtedly give Hitman's DVD sales / rentals a boost once people see the next Bond movie, in which she plays the Bond girl. Okay fine, there is a third thing. Video game adaptations seem forever destined to be relegated to 'crap to decent' in terms of quality. 'Hitman', based on the successful video game series of the same name, tells the story of Agent 47 (Olyphant), the best of the best in a secret 'Organization' of assassins. Hired to kill the Russian president, 47 seemingly succeeds, only to discover that he has become ensnared in a complex conspiracy and is now being pursued by both FSB agent Yuri Marklov (Robert Knepper), Interpol agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), and his fellow assassins from the Organization. The key to clearing himself and getting back at those who set him up appears to be a prostitute, Nika Boronina (Kurylenko), whom he nabs before beginning his quest.

Directed by Xavier Gens - who apparently had the film taken away from him by the studio during editing - 'Hitman' is a fairly stylish film that in terms of production values is up there with the best videogame adaptations (that is, it's up there with Tomb Raider). It opens with a promising sequence depicting the assassins of the Organization training from early childhood before jumping forward to show us Agent 47 in action. The plot is actually quite straightforward but the screenplay manages to deliver it in an unnecessarily messy manner. None of the narrative threads are particularly compelling, and when you consider that the film is mostly devoid of any substantial characterization, it becomes apparent that the writers were the first barrier to quality (source material be damned). Gens action scenes are competent enough if uninspired, though Olyphant is great in them and makes them quite entertaining, particularly with that weirdly nonchalant gait of his. The film's not afraid of a little violence and mayhem either, always a plus in a shoot 'em up. Olyphant is the star and he delivers a good though necessarily one dimensional performance. Olga Kurylenko is surprisingly good (and easy on the eyes) as the feisty prostitute. Everyone else is forgettable, though it was funny to see Henry Ian Cusick make a small appearance as a Russian arms dealer - far removed from his role as Desmond in Lost, brutha!

Overall it's a decent action film that goes by fairly quickly. It won't impress, but it won't make you wish for your time back either. It doesn't do anything to improve the status of video game based movies, and I'm not sure what fans of the game will think - based on what I've seen of the games, they involved a lot of stealth and deception and sneaking around garroting people, not running around guns blazing. Actually, the kind of style seen in the games might have made the film more interesting, though the massively superior 'Leon' has already explored similar territory. This ain't no Leon, but on the other hand it ain't no Double Dragon either! It's more like Tomb Raider, only with violence and nudity, which is always a plus...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zoolander (2001)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Zoolander (2001)

The trailer for 'Zoolander' had me in stitches around 8 years ago, so it's a little strange that I'm only getting around to watching it now. This outlandish comedy co-written and directed by Ben Stiller stars Stiller as the world's most successful male model, the vacuous and vapid Derek Zoolander. In the universe of the film male models are the biggest celebrities in the world, and the story begins with Zoolander's crown as number 1 being threatened by fresh young up and coming model Hansel (Owen Wilson). But that's only one of Derek's problems - it turns out that male models are being used by the evil fashion industry as assassins, and Zoolander has been brainwashed by the evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and his assistant Katinka (Milla Jovovich) to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia (who intends to raise the minimum wage in Malaysian sweatshops, which would be bad news for the industry). Teaming up with ace reporter Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), Zoolander attempts to expose the bad guys and stop himself from carrying out his pre-programmed mission.

'Zoolander' is one of those comedies that is exactly what it appears to be, and in that sense it's sometimes predictable. The dumb models & the shallowness of celebrity culture and the fashion industry are lampooned at every conceivable opportunity, and it works beautifully but also feels a bit repetitive after a while. The story is - obviously - quite bizarre and unique; in fact, that could be said of almost everything in the film, even though it does follow certain tried and true storytelling beats. The thing is, there's something about the weird garishness that put me off. It's almost like they were trying a little too hard and went over the top with everything. Still, the film is very funny overall and there are some hilarious scenes and lines ("What is this? A school for ANTS?" gets me every time), and the jokes come nonstop since the film clocks in at a very packed 90 minutes.

The cast are uniformly great. Stiller is frighteningly spot on as the dumb, conceited, and slightly effeminate Zoolander, and his trademark 'looks' are a riot! The brilliant Owen Wilson is even better as the equally dumb but slightly more laid back, stoned Hansel, and the rivalry between the two models makes for some great scenes. Christine Taylor is the weak link as the bland reporter; she just isn't interesting, isn't remotely convincing as a top flight reporter (alright, I suppose this is part of the joke, but it didn't feel like it to me), and mainly serves as an instigator for Zoolander to demonstrate his stupidity. Will Ferrell is quite good as the sneering Mugatu, but it's Milla Jovovich as the crazed Katinka that really stands out from among the villains. There are also a couple of memorable bit parts, one from Jon Voight as Zoolander's father, and a brilliant little turn from David Duchovny as a hand model who keeps his precious hand encased in a protective cover, and who arranges shady late night meetings in cemeteries! There's also a host of celebrity cameos throughout the film.

As a comedy 'Zoolander' isn't a classic - I'm not even sure I'd call it great - but it is funny and very entertaining, and refreshingly devoid of some of the less appealing crudity that many of its contemporaries sport (Scary Movie, I'm looking at you). Garish, bizarre, and very watchable - and who knows, perhaps it has good replay value, since while writing this review I was amused by just thinking about some of those crazy scenes!

Hobbit Chat

The producer and director for the upcoming Hobbit movie and its sequel, geniuses Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, held a Q&A chat session about the films, and the transcript is now online. It's still very early days yet - they haven't even started writing the script - but so far I like everything I'm hearing. Most of the creative team are back, and with del Toro taking the Captain's chair there should be enough new creative input coming in to make this fresh while still having a sense of being part of the same universe in which LOTR took place.

I also think Guillermo is the perfect replacement for Jackson; if anything his relatively more intimate horror themed films seem quite close to the style needed for much of the Hobbit, making him a more apt choice than even Jackson himself. As for the sequel, that would depend on what it's about - apparently they'll pick events in the 60 year gap between the two stories. Still, I'm confident Guillermo will deliver the goods no matter what the second film is about.

This chat transcript reminds me of the original Q&A Jackson did way back in 2000 (as I recall), which is when a lot of people thought LOTR could be something special. This has the same vibe, and they're saying all the right things. Plus, this time they have a proven track record. These guys ain't no George Lucas!

It's going to be a long wait though - the first film is tentatively scheduled for 2011, exactly a decade after Fellowship of the Ring came out. I'll have to make some offerings to Cthulu to make sure that I don't get hit by a meteor, run over by a bus, fall down a manhole, be visited by a succubus, or have some other tragedy befall me during the next few years!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Iron Man (2008)

The superhero genre has become a part of the menu of cinema, with at least a couple of funny pages based movies having come out every year since X-Men scored a slam dunk back in 2000 (speaking of which, I really need to revisit those X-Men films). I have to confess to having felt just a little bit blase about the endless stream of superhero comic book adaptations, including those still on the horizon. How many more origin stories could we stomach? Well, having now seen Jon Favreau's Iron Man, I say plenty more! I hate to toot my own horn (yeah right), but I had a good feeling about this way back in April last year when I reviewed Favreau's Zathura:
The film confirms that Favreau is a very talented filmmaker who can handle effects heavy films with ease without sacrificing story and character, which bodes well for Iron Man.

This feeling was confirmed by the trailer, of which I said:
Robert Downey Jr. seems like genius casting as a cocky, self-centred multi-millionaire arms dealer. I'm glad this isn't going for an overly dark or dour approach and has some humour thrown in. It may be another origin story, but this origin actually seems a little more interesting than most. The glimpses of Iron Man in action, although it was mostly of the first bulky suit that he creates, looks spectacular! And the actual costume... wow, it looks stunning!

Just call me the prognosticator! Enough copy pasting, onwards with the review!

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a genius engineer and billionaire who runs Stark Industries, the world's leading arms supplier. Stark is brilliant and he knows it, and he walks around with an arrogant swagger and an air of amused indifference towards the world. His indifference extends to what his weapons are used for as well, until he is captured by a rebel group during a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan and forced to assemble a missile for them. A chest injury during his capture forces Stark to build an electromagnetic device based on his own revolutionary 'arc reactor' technology to keep himself alive. Together with another prisoner, Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), Stark spends his months of incarceration secretly building a suit of armour - instead of the missile - to be powered by his reactor, while being lectured by Yinsen about the evil deeds his company's weapons have been used for. He uses the suit of armour to bust his way out the cave prison and destroy the terrorists' weapons stockpile (all manufactured by Stark Industries), but Yinsen is killed in the process.

Shaken by his brush with death and the realization of the actual impact his company has on the world, Stark returns to the US a changed man and immediately vows to stop making weapons, a move frowned upon by his mentor and partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his military friend Jim Rhodes (Terence Howard). He immediately sets to work refining his armored suit to create something revolutionary. When he becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of impact he has via Stark Industries, he decides to take the fight to the bad guys using his new sleek, super powered armoured suit... and Iron Man is born!

The plot isn't going to set the world on fire, but there are some elements here that set 'Iron Man' apart from the typical superhero origin story. For one thing, the main character is far removed from the usual burdened, angst ridden sad sack type. Throughout the movie, even after his rough experience, Tony Stark is a carefree individual with a magnetic personality. Another departure is the lack of a major villain stealing the limelight - there is one but he really only pops up at the end. The focus is almost solely on Stark from start to finish, and in many ways the conflict is driven mostly by Stark trying to atone for what he himself has helped inflict upon mankind. The superhero mechanics of Iron Man are also fairly unique, with the protagonist having only one real power - his intelligence - that he uses to engineer himself into a superhero, a superhero who is incredibly cool in a flashy sports car kind of way! The screenplay is pretty good, with Stark being well fleshed out and equipped with plenty of great lines and humour. Even the relatively underdeveloped villain's incorporation into the story feels organic and works well. The commentary on weapons and war seems a bit muddled, with the US military coming out looking squeaky clean, but I'll let that pass as the underlying message about the impact of arms suppliers is still valid and topical.

John Favreau's filmography demonstrates a proclivity for character driven fare that isn't overly serious, and this is something he brings along to Iron Man - a sense of fun and storytelling that focuses largely on character. The best stuff in this movie isn't the material involving Iron Man battling, it's the stuff with Tony Stark and the journey he goes through, and his interactions with people around him. The stuff with Stark designing and experimenting with his suits are also fantastic standout moments. This is not to say that the Iron Man scenes aren't great either, because they are, and Favreau's tendency to eschew CGI in favour of models and real, physical elements brings a sense of tangibility to many scenes (though I must confess the line is starting to blur - CGI is really getting there!). The final battle is quite well done even if it does feel a little small scale for a fight between men in super powered armoured suits. But hey, that's what sequels are for - to up the ante! The production values are stellar, with excellent special effects throughout and gadgets and technology that are truly droolworthy without looking too far fetched.

Which brings me to the key piece in the puzzle - in much the same way that Tony Stark is the heart and soul of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. is the heart and soul of this movie, and I can't imagine too many other actors pulling this off with such aplomb. It should come as no surprise though, as Downey's always been great (see 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang' for recent proof), and his charisma and brilliant comic timing make the character of Stark eminently watchable. If you consider for a moment the fact that despite the character being a spoilt asshole on paper he still comes across as human and sympathetic on screen throughout, you'll realize what Downey brings to the role. The rest of the cast are also pretty great. Jeff Bridges is cold and bald and more than a little sinister; Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's assistant Pepper Potts (!) is surprisingly endearing; and of course there's Terence Howard, who's great but underutilized for an actor with enough presence to star in his own superhero film (and who may yet at least play one, if the comic book's story is anything to go by). There are also memorable turns by Shaun Toub as Dr. Yinsen (love the crazed shooting in the caves!) and Faran Tahir as the leader of the Afghan rebels.

'Iron Man' is an excellent film, and particularly exceptional as a superhero origin story. I think it has reinvigorated the genre to some extent by avoiding those now all too familiar trappings while still staying true to the overall formula of the classic superhero yarn. It's fun, funny, and offers enough action and excitement to make the two hours fly by while offering a wee bit of commentary about the business of war and personal responsibility. The sequel is already in the pipeline, and with Downey Jr. and the rest of the crew on board it's not unreasonable, based on how terrific 'Iron Man' part one is, to expect something good a couple of years from now!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I Am Legend (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

I Am Legend (2007)

As an adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic novel 'I Am Legend' is woeful. As a sci fi film in it's own right, it's fairly decent. As an indicator that Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world (TM), it's pretty definitive.

Robert Neville (Smith) is seemingly the last man on earth, the survivor of a deadly man made plague that has wiped out most of humanity and turned what remains into vampire-like creatures. Neville - who is immune to the virus - and his dog Sam live alone in the now deserted New York City where he spends his days roaming the streets hunting deer (animals are back with a vengeance!), collecting supplies, waiting hopefully for other survivors, or trying to find a cure. For not only is Neville immune to the disease, he's also a military scientist with a lab in the basement of his home where he conducts research. Neville's home is fortified and he has to take every precaution against the mindless bloodthirsty vampires who come out at night. Intercut with the primary storyline are flashbacks depicting Neville trying to get his family to safety against the backdrop of the disease spreading and causing panic.

The film starts off quite well when it establishes the scenario and introduces us to Neville and his routine. This is hardly surprising because the idea comes directly from Matheson's book. Beyond the premise, however, the film deviates wildly and is much poorer for it. The book was thought provoking and explored the psychology of Neville's situation and had something to say about society and the fragility and transience of life on Earth. The film does not have much to say apart from making some kind of comment on meddling with nature, an invention not present in the book in which the disease's origins were unknown. The creatures are also significantly different and far less interesting, and much of the detail of Neville's routine and his research into the disease are reduced to a few uninspired scenes. The twist that comes at the end of the book is also completely missing, and the very meaning of the title 'I Am Legend' is subverted.

Setting the book aside for a moment, the premise of the story is so strong that despite being dumbed down the film is not half bad. It's not an action fest - in fact, in comparison to most blockbusters it's downright solemn and contemplative, though there are some routine horror and action scenes in there. The imagery of an abandoned New York is haunting and director Francis Lawrence makes quite an impact with these scenes, making them massive in scope but eerily quiet and depressing. The film is well constructed and is atmospheric and scary and exciting in all the right ways, with the only major flaw being the dodgy effects used to create animals and the vampires themselves; a huge blunder that robs the creatures of any menace and makes them uninspired CGI baddies (except for one scene inside a dark building that is fantastic).

The biggest weakness is the screenplay that always seems to start building on a good idea before veering off into more mundane, superficial territory. How is the isolation affecting Neville? He talks to mannequins and his dog, something that that feels far too cute instead of being heartbreakingly tragic - why bother revealing his torment any further? Are the vampires intelligent? They seem smart at times, but let's not explore that idea or think too hard about it - much easier to just have them run around like crazy animals! The way the story develops in the final act is also very disappointing and unimaginative, with the resolution leaving me with a feeling of complete indifference. They should have just stuck to the book, which introduced a fascinating element that turned the story on its head!

As you can imagine, Smith is the film's centre and he is ultimately the key element that makes it so darn watchable despite its flaws. A large portion of the film simply depicts Neville going about his business, with the dog used as a good excuse to get him talking once in a while (the dog is a neat idea, probably adapted from the fairly moving dog story from the book). Smith is effortlessly charismatic and has always been an easy actor to root for, and here he makes Neville believable and sympathetic and perfectly conveys the sense of loneliness and despair necessary for the story, something the script didn't really bring to the table all that well. I can't think of too many other movie stars who could play this role in as accessible and believable a manner as Smith. And the dog's pretty good too! It's a shame about the vampires though; they are just plain execrable.

'I Am Legend' is a reasonably entertaining film, quite good for a blockbuster and one that feels fresh for the most part. It's well made and I suppose worth watching if you haven't read the book. If you have, well, I can't imagine not being at least a little disappointed at the wasted opportunity. Anyone who watches this and thinks it's a decent film owes it to themselves to read the book, which is far superior and which I can't recommend strongly enough.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

The 'Terminator' franchise ploughs ahead, seemingly as unstoppable as its titular robotic killers themselves. With a proposed trilogy of new movies on the horizon, one could argue that it's stronger than ever, and the renewal of this series for a second season suggests it has the cachet to endure on the small screen as well.

'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' (quite a mouthful, and it makes for an amusing 'previously on') focuses on 15 year old John Connor (Thomas Dekker) and his mother Sarah (Lena Headey), and begins in 1997, some years after the events of T2. We find them living in a small town hiding from the authorities, with Sarah in a serious relationship with a paramedic named Charley (Dean Winters). Afraid of being discovered and deeming it necessary to move on, they leave in secret, reluctantly abandoning their small town lives. Shortly thereafter they learn that the nuclear holocaust called Judgement Day still happens; the destruction of Cyberdyne Systems only delayed the apocalyptic event till 2011. A 'female' Terminator model named Cameron (Summer Glau) locates and protects the Connors from a Terminator called 'Cromartie' (Owain Yeoman / Garret Dillahunt) sent to 1997 to kill John, and she ends up transporting them to the presumed safety of the year 2007 using a time machine hidden in a bank vault, put there by people from the future in the past (!).

The three of them base themselves in Los Angeles and resolve to try and prevent Skynet from coming into being. Meanwhile the Charley of 2007 is now in LA and he becomes aware of their presence, and an FBI agent named James Ellison (Richard T. Jones) who was tracking Sarah Connor in 97 gets wind of mysterious incidents that he believes are somehow related to her. These incidents involve the presence of other Terminators in 2007 performing various missions for Skynet unrelated to the Connors, including killing resistance members sent back by John to assassinate key people involved in the creation of Skynet. To add to the Connors' list of problems, 'Cromartie' manages to follow them to the future and continues his mission to hunt down and kill John.

And that's just the first few episodes of this cut down, nine episode first season! Following the story requires some knowledge of the movies, but let's face it, most people who start watching this series probably have a decent idea what it's about. The show's storylines develop in both interesting and frustrating ways. First, the good. Cromartie's relentless pursuit is exciting and sits comfortably with the established Terminator mythos, and the idea of having several Terminators wandering around is used well and sparingly, though it does create yet more head scratching temporal paradoxes where Skynet influences its own creation; I figure that once you have one paradox, anything goes, and it allows the writers to get away with all kinds of tricks without having to provide explanations. For instance, every change in the timeline ought to change the future in some way - clearly this can happen since Judgement Day was delayed by the events of T2 - which raises interesting questions about how resilient the future can be to these changes. Every thing they muck about with could change the future dramatically. What if a change prevents John from sending Kyle back? What if they push Judgement Day back by decades - will Connor really still be the leader of the resistance as a very old man? But I digress; our heroes' mission to try and prevent Skynet from coming into existence is still a compelling one that runs the length of the season.

Now, the not so great - the school scenes. That's right, John Connor, future saviour of mankind who spent his pre teens in South American jungles with guerillas, goes to high school and deals with some weird Veronica Mars type high school drama, and these sequences are simply forgettable. Also not so great is pariah FBI Agent James Ellison's pursuit of Sarah Connor. He's always playing catchup to the audience, slowly and interminably coming around to the truth, and annoyingly sprouting biblical phrases at every turn while adding little to the overall story. Granted, he may yet play a large role (the final episode hints at this quite dramatically), but the writers have dragged his story out and it doesn't help that he isn't all that interesting to boot.

In fact, the writing is the main aspect of the show that needs talking about - they show a tremendous faithfulness to details from the earlier movies, but also contradict things. John Connor, who was such a tough and driven 10 year old, is now a mopey teen who doesn't seem to have the same moral compass that was such a defining characteristic in T2; in fact, he's a bit of a wimp in this, literally asking his mother to take care of things for him. And what in the movies started out as a seemingly desperate last ditch effort on the part of Skynet to save itself by sending killing machines into the past has now morphed into something labyrinthine, with time travellers aplenty all over the place and the resistance possessing its own selection of Terminators, which is at odds with the impression created in the movies ("Nobody goes home. Nobody else comes through. It's just him - and me" - presumably events we've seen in the first two films still played out in this manner; that, or all of the earlier movies have been rendered null and void in this new timeline).

I've gotten carried away however, and am admittedly being too harsh in judging this show by comparing it to the movies and not accepting it as its own thing. In my defense, however, it is a part of that series and therefore cannot avoid comparison. As its own entity, for the most part the series excels. The writing isn't the greatest - some of Sarah Connor's voiceovers are grating (and the opening narration is appalling), the school stuff is terrible, and the story structure seems unfocused, and oh yeah there's an episode featuring a married terminator that strains credulity - but overall the dialogue and characters are quite good and many of the themes of the story like fate vs. free will, the needs of the many over the lives of a few, and the ramifications of artificial life are addressed quite well. While obviously on a lower budget than the movies, the show looks pretty good in terms of production design and special effects, and the action scenes are surprisingly effective. Another standout element is the music, which features remixed themes from the movies as well as some excellent original ones - music for TV shows like this rarely makes an impression, but I was pleasantly surprised here.

Then there's the performances (this review will end soon - honest!). Lena Headey is excellent in the starring role, and although the character isn't as physically imposing or as wonderfully unhinged as Linda Hamilton's interpretation was in T2 (killer robots would drive anyone a little loopy), she's still as tough as nails. She also has some 'mom' type stuff that is a bit off; the need to make the show more mainstream friendly by setting it up as a pseudo conventional 'fractured family tale' is annoying but understandable. Thomas Dekker is alright in his role as John, though most of my problems with the character stem from the writing. Summer Glau is sometimes fantastic as the Terminator (or is it terminatrix?) Cameron - and kind of creepy - but also awful on occasion. Physically I don't get the casting since she's obviously not liquid metal like the T-1000 and yet her tiny metal frame (!) seems to be capable of taking on Terminators twice her size. Dean Winters as Charley and Richard T. Jones as James Ellison both do a reasonable job in their respective roles. Garret Dillahunt, whom I mentioned in my review of Deadwood's second season, is great as the Terminator Cromartie, though I think his presence is ultimately a real waste of talent.

Alright, time to conclude with my overall thoughts. As part of the Terminator franchise, 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' is decent. As a standalone show, it's quite good. It shows a lot of potential and certainly showed signs of getting better as time went on even during its shortened run. There are some elements that, frankly, just need to be excised, but most of the storylines are either interesting or getting interesting. The overall quality of the show is high, but the writing needs some work. All in all, quite good but could (and should) be better. I look forward to finding out if the second season manages to raise the bar and deliver something truly great.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Planet Earth (2006)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Planet Earth (2006)

I'm not going to say much about 'Planet Earth' other than to state the obvious - the BBC produced nature documentary is fantastic. Spanning every conceivable environment on the planet, it serves as an awe inspiring snapshot of the wonders of the natural world. David Attenborough's dulcet tones guide viewers through 11 episodes, each of which covers a different habitat and the diverse life within it, from tropical rainforests to mountains to caves to the creepily alien depths of the ocean. While it only scratches the surface, what it presents is still overwhelming in terms of scope and visual impact. The camerawork on display is simply incredible*, and the mind reels at the visuals the crew managed to capture - thankfully each episode has a short video diary that shows how they went about getting some of these shots, but to be honest I could have done with even more. The series is accompanied by a fitting orchestral score that varies from episode to episode to match the environment on display.

Some of my favourite moments: everything from the deep ocean - seriously, it was like looking upon another, completely alien, world! An elephant being taken down by a pack of ravenous lions. A snow leopard hunting on the rocky slopes of the Afghan Himalayan mountains. Jumpy lizards bouncing around like jack-in-the-boxes while feeding on flies. A plague of locusts. A chimpanzee tribe brutally raiding their neighbours in order to assert their dominance. Dolphins risking becoming beached by 'sliding' along very shallow water to nab out-of-reach fish. A great white shark making a kill in glorious slow motion. A polar bear curling up to die far away from its usual territory after repeatedly failing to earn a kill from a nearby colony of walruses.

And there are many many more incredible moments on display. 'Planet Earth' is 11 hours of absolutely superb documentary filmmaking that captures the sheer diversity present on good old Terra; it's a must watch for everybody.

*One amusing think I noticed while watching this - after years of seeing massive special effects shots in movies, some of the aerial shots looking down on herds of animals looked 'fake'. Perhaps the effects are better than I give them credit for!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trailer Watch!

Alright, so not all of these are all that recent, but they caught my eye only recently. I'm ignoring the new trailers for those obscure art house films coming out, namely 'The Dark Knight' and 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull', as I suspect there isn't much interest in them.

The links below are to the direct 'mov' file download, but the trailers can probably be found in lower quality on Youtube as well.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe: The X-Files is back! The trailer isn't exactly awe inspiring, and our intrepid heroes are starting to show their age, but it's Mulder and Scully, back in action in a standalone (i.e. non mythology) sci-fi thriller! The trailer features a tantalizing taste of that classic theme to get fans' pulses racing! 'I Want to Believe' sounds a bit clunky as far as names go, but I guess it's a line that's fairly representative of the show.

Star Wars: Clone Wars: Star Wars is the franchise that just can't be killed. George Lucas is back with yet another offering in the prequel franchise designed purely to make money and sell toys and little else. This time it's a prequel to the last prequel, and like the last few films it is computer animated (low blow, I know, but let's face it, this seems like a natural progression from the CGI infested 'Revenge of the Sith')! Looks mildly interesting, if a little too 'made for TV'; I wonder how it'll fare when it comes out in cinemas...

The Happening: M. Night Shyamalan made such an impact with 'The Sixth Sense'; 'Unbreakable' was pretty terrific too, but it's been a steady slide downhill since then as far as I'm concerned. This trailer invokes his two biggest successes, 'Sixth Sense' and 'Signs', and still puts his name front and centre despite the fact that the guy wrote and directed the decidedly poor 'Lady in the Water'. The lamely titled 'The Happening' looks interesting and is stylistically pure Night, but the early word on the supernatural thriller has been devastating.

Tropic Thunder: This is easily the best trailer of the bunch - it's a red band (i.e. R rated) trailer that is absolutely hilarious. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, the film stars Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black as actors shooting a war film who end up in the middle of a real war but continue to assume that it's all make believe. And yes, that is Downey Jr. in blackface as a method actor who has surgery to make himself appear African American! That gag at the end with the kid is simply brilliant! I can only hope that the final film is even half as funny, but based on this trailer 'Tropic Thunder' has shot up towards the top of my most anticpated films list!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

OLPC has been assimilated!

No, not by the Borg, but by Microsoft! In news that's been expected for some time now, it's been announced that the XO laptop will be made available with Windows XP as well, with even project founder Nicolas Negroponte admitting that in the future they may well end up being XP only. For the time being, though, the plan is for the machines to dual boot to either Windows XP or the customized Linux OS. Not that XP hasn't been customized - apparently Microsoft have done a bit of work to get their bloated OS (and this is XP; imagine Vista!) working on the modest XO hardware, and it's still not perfect - the innovative mesh networking technology doesn't function with it. The hypocrisy of this move from MS is astounding - this is the company that repeatedly slammed the OLPC project during it's initial phases as being a fundamentally flawed idea. Apparently with Microsoft software on the laptop, it's now a great idea!

I can kind of understand why this happened. The project hasn't come close to the $100 pricepoint initially envisaged - it's at around $180 now, plus orders haven't exactly been brisk. Apparently there was a lot of demand from governments for XP. Again, understandable - Windows is in a sense the de facto standard operating system, and many governments were reluctant to invest in laptops that weren't equipped with the OS used by most of the world. They figure their kids should have the opportunity to gain experience with Windows in order to be globally competitive. Fair enough. They should also realize, however, that by investing in Microsoft for a low cost today means an investment in Microsoft for a much higher cost in the future as well, when everyone growing up with these laptops is conditioned to associate their costly, properietary, and excessively restrictive software with 'computers' in general, and is thus incapable of using any alternatives. The continued establishment of Microsoft tech is like a vicious circle where everyone needs to use it because it's established, but it becomes all the more established because everyone keeps using it. Which is exactly why Microsoft will be well pleased that Windows XP is on these laptops.

Negroponte's explanations for this move make sense, but at the end of the day it can't be seen as anything but capitulation by OLPC to corporate behemoths. The big bad MS wins again, sinking their claws into the future knowing that the low price of this basic XP will guarantee continued revenue in the future.

OLPC is still a great project though, just one that's been sullied a bit by this news. Let's also not forget the influence it's had in helping to establish low cost laptops as a viable and quite lucrative market; indeed, even Microsoft has got in on the act to ensure their presence in this growing sector. The other good news is that the innovative user interface developed for the XO will live on as a multi platform technology no longer tied down to one kind of machine! Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

'The Dirty Dozen' is a slightly comical action movie set during WWII about a team of misfit soldiers (the eponymous dozen), each of whom has been convicted of murder, who are given one last chance to redeem themselves and earn their freedom. That chance involves receiving rigorous training under the stern supervision of one Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), with their actual mission being a virtually suicidal attack against a castle that is a nexus for Nazi bigwigs. The first two acts of the movie revolve around their training at a secret compound and their participation in war games exercises, with the final act depicting the crazy assault on the castle itself.

Given the nature of the 'heroes' involved, it should come as no surprise that much of the humour and conflict is derived from their aggressive, unruly, contempt for authority laced behaviour! Lively character interactions make up the bulk of the movie, and they are very entertaining, with the remainder being composed of some quite effective action sequences that don't shy away from brutality.

Lee Marvin is the marquee name, and this sort of thing is his bread and butter - steely badass! I can't think of too many other actors being as effortlessly convincing as the unflappable instructor of a dozen ruthless killers. Marvin's superior is, naturally, played by the preternaturally grumpy face possessing Ernest Borgnine. Among the dozen, some of the more notable faces include Donald Sutherland as a somewhat goofy doofus, Charles Bronson as a shrewd and taciturn tough guy (natch), and Telly Savalas (Who loves ya, baby?) as a creepy religious fundamentalist. The cast is quite an appealing one, and they do a great job of representing a wide range of caricatures - besides the aforementioned three there's also the gentle giant, the surly complainer, and the big black guy, amongst others, and they all get along swimmingly.

It offers no more than what it promises on the tin, but when that turns out to be a very entertaining (if slightly overlong) two hours and twenty-something minutes it's hard to find fault. It's good for what it is - a straightforward war / action comedy with a diverse ensemble cast. So if that sounds interesting (it did to me), then 'The Dirty Dozen' comes highly recommended.

How Wude!

As Jar Jar Binks might put it. In a situation that felt like the beginning of something Kafkaesque, I was accosted by a saleswoman at the supermarket trying to push samples of some bloody biscuit. I hate these promotional people, so much so that when I see them standing in an aisle I'll reflexively pull away and return to that aisle later, when the coast is clear. This is partly because they can be nagging, irritating assholes, and partly because they sometimes look so desperate that I feel bad telling them I'm not interested.

Anyway, to get back on track, today as I'm heading for the cheese rack I see her out of the corner of my eye, waiting to pounce; it's too late to turn back without looking like a chump, so I change course slightly to walk in a wide arc around her. To a sane human, this ought to be a clear sign that I don't want biscuit samples, but this crazy woman just darts in front of me and starts telling me about this promotion. Politely as I can, I say no thank you, I'm not interested, and start to walk away, but she moves those first two steps with me and says, quite impudently, that I should just try a sample. I repeat, slightly more firmly, no thanks... and then it happens. The non smile she was supposed to be wearing disappears faster than Iraq's WMDs, her face turns as rigid as Skeletor's, and she gives me the coldest, freakiest glare one would hope never to behold in the dairy food section.

This supermarket Medusa's icy stare holds my upper body transfixed, unable to look away even as my legs continue walking, probably making me look like some kind of strange sideways walker or a deleted scene from 'The Exorcist'. She may have been the spawn of the Devil or Cthulu, looking at me as if my rejection of those biscuits was the greatest sin since the Original (TM). And then I finally tear my eyes away and scurry off to where the cheese is, out of sight of her accusing visage. I manage to later sneak back past her while she's busy accosting other customers.

AAAHHHH! My point is, can't a guy buy some cheese in peace anymore without having to go through this sort of bizarre, unnerving, and wholly unjustifiable treatment? How freakin wude!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke

(Image from Wikipedia)

A Fall of Moondust (1961) by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the grand masters of science fiction, passed away recently but he left behind a legacy that comprises a significant number of works. I've read a fair number of them but it's been a while, so I intend to revisit his most significant efforts sometime soon. 'A Fall of Moondust' is actually one that I'd never read before. It's basically a disaster story set on the moon involving a tourist 'boat' that travels on a 'sea' of sand; a lunar quake causes the boat to be buried under the sand with only days of life support left. The plot revolves around the rescue efforts by the engineers on the moon and the efforts of the trapped passengers to try and stay alive and keep their hopes up.

Clarke was never one for writing great characters, and this book is particularly weak when it comes to the human side of things, with sketchy and cliched characterization and mechanical behaviour. But reading Clarke for the characters is like reading Mills & Boon for the technology - it's misguided in the extreme. What he was a master of was creating interesting and believable future scenarios grounded in (extrapolated) science, scenarios full of keenly observed details regarding both technology and its impact on society. He also typically managed to create a narrative within the scenario that featured science (mainly physics) in a big way.

This book is no different - at every turn Clarke throws out little nuggets of physics and technology and brief asides on what this future world and society is like and why it is that way. Sometimes though it can all sound a little too didactic, almost like he wrote the book more to convey his ideas and conjured up a loose narrative out of necessity, but more often than not the two aspects complement each other nicely. As the search and rescue operation gets underway, we are treated to discourse on space travel, communication, the moon and lunar life, the problems of reduced gravity, the media, and so on. For me and other geeks like me the subject matter is utterly intriguing.

While I complained about the characters, their behaviour from a story point of view is actually quite convincing - it's the way they're written, the dialogue and the clunkiness of their personality that is weak - which makes for an interesting human aspect as the passengers, a quite motley crew, try to while away the time without losing control of the situation. There's a terrific sense of pacing in the book, it really is well structured and very cinematic with bouts of excitement and despair being introduced at regular intervals, and the whole story culminating in a thrilling race against time.

In the end there's nothing particularly brilliant about the book, but as a 'what if' scenario it is fascinating. Clarke's style is basic but the strength of the ideas and his descriptiveness are enough to make this a real page turner, and the flaws fall by the wayside as you are hurtled towards the conclusion. Perhaps not the best of his works, but a good read nonetheless.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bloody Sunday (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Amazing film - Paul Greengrass really burst onto the scene with 'Bloody Sunday', and he's gone on to make a splash with the last two Bourne films (I reviewed part 2 here) and United 93. Unsurprisingly, this film is as brilliant as I was expecting.

Made in Greengrass' now trademark faux documentary fashion, it takes place during the course of a single day and recreates the Bloody Sunday incident in Derry, Northern Ireland, that took place in 1972. James Nesbitt stars as Ivan Cooper, MP and prominent figure in the Civil Rights Association who has planned a civil rights march despite the British Government prohibiting such activities. The film basically cuts between the march organizers and the military, who are convinced that there will be violence despite all claims to the contrary and consequently bring paratroopers onto the scene in anticipation. Tension mounts as the rally gets underway, and despite the best efforts of the rally organizers a faction becomes agitated by the aggressive military presence and starts to react with violence. This of course soon escalates with tragic results as overzealous soldiers gun down many innocent civilians.

Most of the film is based on established fact, though there is obviously some extrapolation and guesswork thrown in there. It's an even handed recounting of events, representing both sides; yes, the soldiers are ultimately shown as the 'bad guys', but in all fairness when 26 unarmed people are shot with live rounds, some of them in the back, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which these guys simply cocked up.

I think one of the best thing about the film is how it manages to get across the complexity of the situation. No one here is pure 'evil', they are all people with biases and prejudices who believe they are in the right. The military has been experiencing high casualties in the region and the top brass feel the need to assert their authority; the restless local youth detest the military presence and lash out whenever and however they can; the soldiers on the street are angry at the deaths of their colleagues and feel the need to dish out some payback; and of the marchers, while the majority are peaceful some do agitate and incite violence, with a few even packing firearms (presumably members of the IRA).

The script presents all of this effectively and sets all the pieces in place for the bloody massacre that ensues. And it also highlights some simple truths - that the belligerent use of military force invariably leads to resentment from the people, and that the military inevitably dehumanizes everyone - including civilians - and lumps them all into the same boat, resulting in violence that can often be indiscriminate. Which in turn leads to more people lining up to fight them, further fueling a vicious circle of violence. Current events lend weight to the argument that such aggressive strategies are doomed to failure, and that the cost of apparent short term gains will result merely in sowing the seeds of undesirable long term repercussions. I'm no peacenik, but more often than not callous, rampant military actions seem to achieve little besides causing loss of life and continued instability over time.

Subject matter aside, film is exceptionally well made. The feeling of actually being there is what elevates this above a mere recreation of facts - it's the pervasive verisimilitude. The writing and the intense, atmospheric direction completely sell the notion that what is on screen is for real. Greengrass' hand-held photography and austere visuals draw you in - I know some people hate shakey-cam, but it works in some contexts, and I think Greengrass is masterful with his camerawork. As with his other films, this is all very matter-of-fact and doesn't resort to anything showy. It merely presents the event as realistically as possible and allows what is on screen to speak for itself. The behaviour of everyone rings absolutely true, from the soldiers to the military planners to the masses marching, a fact that is brought about by the excellent performances throughout from every actor no matter how insignificant. James Nesbitt is of course the star, and he's absolutely superb as the charismatic, seemingly tireless activist who deep down is weary and just wants to be with his girlfriend. On a side note, most of the people are presented as blank slates but some are given a little background - it's not much, but it adds humanity to what would otherwise be a bunch of strangers.

'Bloody Sunday' is a relatively low budget film that was actually released as a TV movie. It's a masterful, even handed recreation of a historical event that is absorbing and exciting as an entertainment experience but also gives the viewer a deeper insight into the myriad variables that were in play that had a hand in leading to the massacre. While the filmmakers clearly veer towards siding with one group over the other, it's hard to argue against them. When all is said and done however the film is a sobering experience that leaves one with an indelible impression and a lot to dwell upon. Which is always a sign of a great film. Needless to say, highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Magdalene Sisters (2002)

'The Magdalene Sisters' is a fictionalized story based on true events that tells of the harrowing experiences of three young women in Ireland during the 1960s when they are sent to a Magdalene Asylum, a Catholic institute run by nuns for 'fallen' women to repent in the manner of Mary Magdalene. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped at a wedding, so her shamed family whisks her away to one of the asylums. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) gives birth out of wedlock - her child is immediately put up for adoption and she is sent away. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), a girl at an orphanage, is condemned to an asylum for simply being too attractive and drawing the interest of neighbourhood bosys. The asylum they are sent to - the places were apparently mostly laundries - is run by the cruel Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan) who enjoys regularly counting the rolls of money she earns by using her 'inmates' as free labour.

What follows is in many ways predictably formulaic as we are introduced to the harsh routine of the asylum. The focus is mainly on the three new arrivals as well as the slightly flaky Crispina (Eileen Walsh) as they acclimatize to their new surroundings. Initially of course their thoughts are on escape or eventual 'release', but failed attempts and cruel punishments together with the passage of time begin to break their spirits as they resign themselves to their fates. Each of the girls has her own problems and means of coping; and in the same way, the nuns running the place have their own means of keeping their charges in line and dishing out pain and humiliation. Fragile friendships are forged as the young women endure tremendous hardship.

It's not difficult to imagine that this film is based on the true nature of some of these 'asylums', if the human proclivity for exploiting and abusing others is anything to go by. The sheer hopelessness of such a place is hard to imagine, but the film does a very good job of conveying it. It would have been easy to go the typical maudlin route, but despite being devoid of any real surprises there's something stark and truthful about the film that elevates it above other similar fare. The structure of the story is typical, but it manages to avoid being cliched and trite. It's restrained and very moody. And also darkly humorous at times (witness the 'You're not a man of god!' scene in which a priest strips down and runs naked across a field after developing a rash). There isn't much backstory to the characters but we get to know them fairly well during the film's runtime and they are believable and their gradual progression to a state of numb acceptance is quite tragic. The performances are terrific - as with all things in the film, restrained and with a touch of subtlety. Geraldine McEwan's performance as Sister Bridget is particularly noteworthy, with her character usually being quite cold and frightening but on the odd occasion convincingly charming and obsequious. There must be something about playing villains of this nature that brings out the best in actors!

The ending is the only real area where the film disappoints, with a rather facile conclusion that arrives abruptly. I suppose a downbeat conclusion would have been too much, but this felt unearned and unsatisfying. That caveat aside, 'The Magdalene Sisters' is a very good film that presents a bleak look into an immoral (and now thankfully defunct) institution that was bent on trading in human suffering while hiding behind the impenetrable shield of religious righteousness. Somber and hardly popcorn fare, this is a film that deserves serious attention.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Science of Lost

"It kind of boggles our minds, actually," Cuse says. "We never imagined that people would get wrapped up in the intricacies of it to the degree that they have. We really just set out to make a show that we thought was kind of cool and entertaining."

Popular Mechanics has an interesting article (though a tad superficial) about the scientific inspiration behind 'Lost', one of the best shows on TV right now (I keep swapping my favourite crown between this and BSG). Lost has always been a fantastic mixture of character drama, mystery, action, philosophy, and science, but this fourth season has really ramped up the sci-fi aspects of the show. I think it's turning some people off - mainly, the people who watched the show oblivious to the fact that it was sci-fi - but I'm loving it.

As a puzzle show Lost has been a terrific tease, throwing hints here and there and giving fans plenty to ponder. I don't know if the writers will be able to tie things together neatly by the end of the sixth and final season. I hope they will. I'm certain every single detail will not be explained - in fact, I welcome the possibility that when it ends it'll leave some puzzles open to interpretation. Even if they fail in making the conclusion satisfying, it's been one hell of a rewarding ride so far, and I can't wait to see the remaining episodes

Monday, May 05, 2008

Battle Royale (2000)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Battle Royale (2000)

In the near future, Japan faces a social crisis with mass unemployment and uncontrollable student hooliganism. The solution? The Battle Royale act, which basically makes an example of unruly school children by throwing a class onto an island for three days, with each student armed with a weapon of some sort and a basic survival kit. The rules are simple - at the end of the three days only one person can remain alive and standing; if there's more than one, they all die. Their locations are tracked at all times, and leaving the island is impossible. Additionally, to make things interesting, every few hours parts of the island are added to an ever growing list of 'danger zones' that cannot be entered, effectively herding the survivors closer and closer together.

The movie depicts the game being played out by one particular class that comprises the usual assortment of typical teens replete with friendships, rivalries, and cliques. There are also intermittent flashbacks that delve into the history of some of the characters that are fairly important in explaining their behaviour on the island. As the game begins the students break off into factions and, with survival at stake, find that killing each other comes fairly naturally. The focus is mainly on four characters - Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the class teacher who hates his students after he was stabbed by one of them, nice guy Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his girlfriend Noriko (Aki Maeda), and Shogo (Taro Yamamoto), a survivor from a former game. There are of course many other varied characters as well, many of whom meet gruesome ends.

'Battle Royale' is, as you can imagine, a fairly unique film - it's like a satire of reality television taken to the extreme, with a helping of social commentary on the fragility of human relationships and our capacity for violence. Although, mostly it's an entertaining free-for-all full of mayhem. It's hard to say if the behaviour of the characters is realistic; when your life is on the line and there's only one way out, who can say how far one will go? Perhaps I too would run at my colleagues with a crazed expression swinging whatever weapon I had (wait, I'd definitely do that). The film handles this question head on by having different people take different approaches - some are outright killers, others huddle together in fear; some try to unite everyone, while others stick close only to those they care about; and some take themselves out of the equation voluntarily - but almost every character inevitably ends up knee deep in violence due to the unavoidable suspicion, misunderstanding, and fear that accompanies their situation.

The performances of the kids are quite good, but this isn't really an actor friendly drama - much of it is focused on carnage, and there is plenty of that to go around as they start to off each other in fairly imaginative ways. It's violent and completely un-PC (school kids and violence? check!), which is part of what makes it so much fun. The other factor that makes it a fine piece of entertainment is that it's quite gripping; as the three day deadline approaches the body count piles up, with familiar characters being dispatched regularly and often quite abruptly and unceremoniously. There's a large cast, but each of them is distinctive enough to make him or her recognisable and the story comprehensible - though you probably won't remember most of their names. Since most of the film involves kids running around amidst foliage there isn't much to say about production values, but the film is quite slickly put together and often quite over the top.

This is one of those films that you feel kind of ambivalent about enjoying, since at its heart it's pure grand guignol. But it's a well made and entertaining one that has a little bit of substance in there amidst the chaos. I enjoyed 'Battle Royale' as much as I expected I would, and I suspect that most people will be able to predict their enjoyment of the film based on the premise alone.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ben Hur (1959)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Ben Hur (1959)

'Ben Hur'. Biblical epic. Won 11 Oscars. The very name evokes a mental image of the grand, old fashioned Hollywood epic. The film tells the story of Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince during the time of Jesus (whose birth story is depicted in an over-earnest prologue) who is betrayed by his Roman best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) and winds up on a galley as a slave. Judah believes in the right of the Jewish people to be free of the Romans, while Messala believes that the civilized world must be under the rule of Caesar. Judah's mother and sister are arrested alongside him and are disappeared; he vows to somehow survive his impossible situation and escape slavery, thereby giving himself a chance to save them and exact revenge upon his erstwhile buddy. Oh, and during his incarceration he happens to bump into Jesus.

The film is unquestionably epic, and the scale is certainly impressive. The much famed chariot race sequence is, to this day, incredible to behold, a truly brilliant action set piece that still packs quite a punch. The production values are grand for their day. Heston and Boyd make for fine protagonists - both have presence and charisma (and is there some kind of homosexual subtext between them?). The rest of the cast are also fairly good, though it must be said that everyone exudes a sense of solemnity that verges on the annoying. Clocking in at 3 hours and 40 odd minutes, it's certainly long, but unfortunately unlike other butt numbing epics like Lord of the Rings it doesn't really earn its runtime. The hero returning from slavery to wreak vengeance angle is great - and is almost certainly part of the inspiration for Gladiator - and for the first two hours or so it's fairly engaging. Ben Hur survives against all odds, driven by his thirst for vengeance, and while this mission gives him purpose it starts to consume his innate decency. The revenge part of the story ends surprisingly early however as the film shifts to an extended final act revolving around his mother and sister that drags and is a little silly.

And sadly, things don't get much better as the end approaches. The religious angle derails the film in its concluding moments and really caps off the pompousness that permeates the first 2 or so hours. The idea of a great preacher spreading a message of peace and forgiveness is fine and could have been interesting. Unfortunately the film is far too reverent and its literal interpretation of biblical events and their impact on the protagonists comes as a slap in the face to those who aren't overly enamoured of ancient fairy tales, especially when said fairy tales creep into what for the most part presents itself as relatively realistic and historical. It's too left field and assumes that viewers are also true believers by almost randomly inserting magic into proceedings - if this stuff had been peripheral and only alluded to instead of depicted literally, the film would have been far better. I realize that the story starts off with Jesus's magical birth and thus establishes its intentions early on, but there's almost two and a half hours of (relatively) grounded in reality film between the beginning and the end, making the end supremely jarring.

As it stands, 'Ben Hur' is a very good film, certainly wonderfully put together and impressive as far as epics go. Unfortunately, it descends into insufferable religious propaganda by the end. Worth seeing as a significant and well done piece of cinematic history, though your mileage may vary.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Michael Mann seems like a strange director to be associated with this film - his filmography veers strongly towards contemporary dramas and thrillers that have a very modern aesthetic. The man is, however, flexible enough to step outside that zone, as 'The Last of the Mohicans' ably demonstrates.

Set during the 18th Century 'French and Indian War' in North America, the story is quite lean. The English are fighting the French who are allied with several Indian tribes, and they enlist the help of the American colonists to fight with them; this requires that the colonists leave their families exposed to raids by the Indians allied to the French while they go off to the front lines. Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), Chingachgook (Russel Means), and Uncas (Eric Schweig) are the last of an Indian tribe called the Mohicans who refuse to get involved with the war but are inadvertently caught up in events when they rescue a British Colonel's (Maurice Roëves) two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May) Munro, from a Huron Indian attack. It turns out that a Huron man named Magua (Wes Studi) has sworn to take vengeance on Colonel Munro and his children. As a romantic relationship develops between Hawkeye and Cora, the three Mohicans find themselves guiding and protecting the two women and a British officer, Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington), from Magua.

Simple enough, but it makes for a relentlessly thrilling adventure film with a touch of romance set against a well flushed out historical backdrop. The historical aspects are deftly interwoven into the story without ever overriding it, which allows the film to work as purely an adventure even though there is much to appreciate with respect to the military conflict, American colonial life, and the native Indians and their uneasy relationships with the foreign settlers. The script presents these aspects quite neatly and the film is well paced, providing some excitement right from the opening scenes and only slowing down for brief periods. The dialogue is a little weak at times and it sounds very awkward initially but seems to click after a while (or perhaps I just got used to it). The production values are quite excellent, and Mann stages the film as a grand war epic complete with a fort under siege, a large scale battle (keeping in mind that this was in the pre-Gladiator / Braveheart days), several skirmishes, and a lot of running through stunning landscapes (some of this reminded me of The Two Towers)! The action isn't as intense and brutal as some newer films, but the set pieces are still very impressively executed, with the leads in particular being convincing in the action department.

Russel Means and Eric Schweig have little in the way of dialogue and are really supporting players, but they deliver pretty strong performances nonetheless, with their characters being defined as stoic, devoted, and lethal; both performances are defined mostly by physicality. Daniel Day-Lewis is, unsurprisingly, excellent even when he just seems to be posing in statuesque positions for the camera. Hawkeye is noble and decent, but can also be a complete badass when the situation calls for it. Physically he's more than a match for his two fellow 'Mohicans', but as is always the case with Day-Lewis the character appears to have depths only hinted at in the script. One of the weaknesses of the script is the romance, which is severely undercooked, but Day-Lewis and the stunning Madeline Stowe make it convincing. Stowe's Cora is that slightly modern period character who often seems jarringly contemporary and out of place, but here it works and she comes across as tenacious and strong willed without any of that forced female empowerment nonsense. As Cora's sister Jodhi May is, like the other Mohicans, mostly quiet and in the sidelines but makes a decent enough impression as the more fragile of the two women. Wes Studi is terrific as the hellbent Magua, cutting a striking, frightening figure obsessed with vengeance. Also pretty good are Steven Waddington as Maj. Heyward, Maurice Roëves as Colonel Munro, and Patrice Chéreau as the noble French General Montcalm.

All in all 'The Last of the Mohicans' is an adventure film that is surprisingly action heavy but one that still delivers on all fronts. It's an engaging, exciting historical epic that is rousing and propulsive right up to its somewhat melancholy finale. Strangely it seems to be a tad underrated if the IMDB consensus is anything to go by, but that shouldn't put anyone off watching what is an excellent cinematic experience.

* Edited to add - I forgot to mention the magnificent score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, which includes a stirring and memorable main theme (which is, understandably, a little overused).