Sunday, June 22, 2008

The X-Files - Fight the Future (1998)

(Image from Wikipedia)

The X-Files - Fight the Future (1998)

I'm the key figure in an ongoing government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials. It's a global conspiracy, actually, with key players in the highest levels of power, that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet, so, of course, no one believes me. I'm an annoyance to my superiors, a joke to my peers. They call me Spooky. Spooky Mulder, whose sister was abducted by aliens when he was just a kid and who now chases after little green men with a badge and a gun, shouting to the heavens or to anyone who will listen that the fix is in, that the sky is falling and when it hits it's gonna be the shit-storm of all time. - Fox Mulder

Ah, Fox Mulder - if ever there was a geek character who made the big time on television, it's him (though, I guess Dale Cooper comes pretty close!). And then there's his "skeptical beyond belief and in the face of overwhelming evidence" partner Scully. What a team they were, in a show that brought sci-fi and the supernatural to the mainstream without compromising good, intelligent writing and edgy thrills. The movie version of 'The X-Files' came out between the show's fifth and sixth seasons and was a pretty high profile release (despite it's modest box office), and watching it again after all these years it strikes me as a very strong extension of the show that remains faithful while being reasonably accessible to people going in cold.

The byzantine plot involves a conspiracy by Federal Agency FEMA (yeah right, after Katrina I doubt these guys could conspire to pull off a surprise birthday party) to hide the existence of extra terrestrials, whom they have been working with for decades towards sinister ends. When an alien virus hidden on earth for millennia gets out and results in a massive cover up, FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovy) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) get on the case and start digging. Mulder is aided by a possibly deluded conspiracy theorist named Alvin Kurtzweil (Martin Landau) as he searches for answers. Time is not on our heroes' side as an FBI Committee investigates the two of them, which prompts Scully to consider resigning; things don't get any better when their lives are placed in jeopardy as they start to get some answers. Along for the ride in this cinematic outing are a host of regulars from the show, such as the Lone Gunmen, Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and of course everyone's favourite villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis).

The film really does feel like a lengthy episode of the show, only with a bigger playing field. It's actually a pretty good balancing act in terms of style, never feeling too big or grand until the massive finale, which truth be told doesn't work all that well. For the most part it sticks to the dark alleys, autopsy rooms, secret meetings between old men, exploration of strange locations, and banter between Mulder and Scully, and the storytelling is fairly gripping when it does. It's hard to say if a non fan will find any of this engaging, but the script goes some way towards making the plot as standalone as possible. The relationships between characters and their history, however, are obviously not reintroduced and may be confusing to newbies, but I think the gaps can be filled in reasonably well by the astute viewer. The dialogue style is as strong as on the show, with no pandering, and the plot twists and turns without slowing down and without any dumbing down either. The story picks up on elements from the series but fortunately doesn't rely on them, and I think overall the story is momentous enough to justify a cinematic outing; there are some impressively big moments in here, like the building explosion at the start, the cornfield chase, and some of the alien stuff towards the end.

The production values are raised above those of the show, as are the set pieces, but the performances are perfectly in tune with what was established in the series. Duchovny and Anderson wear Mulder and Scully like second skins, and they play the material to perfection. As do all of the regular supporting actors, even if their presence is perfunctory and adds very little to the story besides being fan service. Martin Landau was inspired casting as the odd, paranoid, but trustworthy man in the know, and his scenes with Duchovny are great. William B. Davis as the Smoking Man is, well, his usual nonchalant self - I was never that big a fan of the character, but he plays the role well.

As a film on its own, it's not mind blowing, but for fans it's as good a TV to big screen transfer as could have been hoped for. It works reasonably well on its own but is best viewed as something complementary to the series. The denoument is perhaps frustrating in that it presents limited closure, instead serving as a launching point for the sixth series, and it's also somewhat jarringly grand in scale for the X-Files; I can let that slide because it's not bad per se and because everything leading upto the finale is pretty good. Overall the film is worth watching for X-Files fans, especially those in anticipation of the forthcoming sequel, 'I Want to Believe'.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Firefox 3!

Download Day

The latest version of the best web browser around, Mozilla's Firefox, is out now. Get version 3 here. There's also this attempt to break the record for most number of downloads in a day, I believe it's still going on right now (based on when the thing became available on their site).

I've been using Firefox for around four years, and I honestly can't imagine browsing the Web without it (sorry Opera, I hate you). If you're still using Internet Explorer a)my sympathies and b)it's time to switch! I'm not going to go into the details as to why, but, in summary Firefox offers - better security, better web standards compliance, more and better features, the ability to customize and add functionality via myriad 'extensions', and a faster and smoother browsing experience (IE 7 is fairly decent now, but still relatively rubbish).

Get it now!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mobile phones expose human habits

Interesting BBC article about the use of mobile phones to track people's movements for research purposes. I feel kind of ambivalent about this - on the one hand it's terrific that they can build up data sets on human movement for research purposes that can be used in planning for disease outbreaks, traffic flow analysis, and optimizing pathfinding. On the other, it's kind of frightening how your every move can be so easily tracked; while this study is anonymous, it isn't voluntary either and can so easily be abused by, for instance, unscrupulous governments.

Still, there's already lots of great stuff that can be done with mobiles, and this is yet another. The idea of attaching more sensors that can be used for various purposes - such as studying air quality, as the article mentions - is pretty exciting. We're well on the way to having our own tricorders!

On another note, the findings of the study with regard to human movement patterns is quite interesting (though to my untrained mind, not altogether surprising)!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Beowulf (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Beowulf (2007)

The most ancient of English language tales is tweaked and brought to life quite spectacularly by director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary in this performance capture based computer animated 3-D adventure film. The classic tale tells of the heroic Geat warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who arrives in Denmark to rid King Hrothgar's (Anthony Hopkins) lands of a beast named Grendel (Crispin Glover) who has terrorized their Great Hall. Beowulf, accompanied by friend Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and a band of Geats, makes boastful promises and wins the admiration of Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright-Penn) but fails to convince the King's adviser Unforth (John Malkovich), who openly mocks him. When Grendel arrives to wreak havoc, an intense battle ensues that leads to the discovery that there is another monster waiting in the midst - Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie).

I can only remember the original story vaguely from many years ago, and a little research reveals that a lot has been changed from the original narrative despite the most basic elements still being in place. The changes serve to tie the disparate narrative together, and taken as a whole they work despite changing the nature of the story. Beowulf was originally a virtuous hero, whereas here he's a flawed character. The monster Grendel is less pure evil and has his own motivation for attacking humans. I'm not going to sit around comparing the two (I'd have to read the story again first), but I will say that I thought this adaptation works quite well in presenting a compelling story with some intriguing variations on the original. Some of this dialogue misses on occasion, but the writing is generally of a high standard, even if the characters lack much in the way of depth. As a heroic adventure epic, the story is more than satisfying.

The real big deal about 'Beowulf' is the fact that it's a 3-D performance capture film. Now, I obviously wasn't fortunate enough to see this in 3D (I hear it's stunning), but what I viewed on my puny monitor was pretty stunning in its own right and easily the most visually impressive film of this type. I was quite skeptical about the need to perfectly capture the actors' performances like this - why not just make it live action? - but now that I've seen it I can understand how it allows for some very impressive camera work and spectacular visuals while also allowing the many disparate scenes to achieve a uniformity that is nigh on impossible to achieve in live action (think of how often even the best special effects heavy films have moments that stand out jarringly). The 3D aspect is also exploited time and time again, with things pointing towards or flying at the camera. The quality of the performance capture is a mixed bag, sometimes stunningly realistic but at other times decidedly ordinary; still, overall the film avoids that distracting plasticine look and after the first 15 minutes or so I was completely immersed in the world that was created and stopped noticing the animation - a good sign that it was effective.

Zemckis, a filmmaker I really like who was responsible for some of my favourites (Back to the Future, Contact) hasn't made a particularly noteworthy film in some time, so I was surprised at how entertaining this was, and also how brutal. The film is littered with strong visuals, and the action is spectacular with the dragon battle in particular being a standout. None of this is 'realistic' mind you, instead it's done in an outrageous style, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The drama aspects of the film are not as strong, but for this type of film one doesn't expect a Merchant-Ivory style of storytelling, though the scenes between Beowulf and Grendel's mother were definitely captivating. There are also some pretty funny moments, and while most of those come from the script the scene in which Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude is hilarious in the way his manhood is creatively blocked, Austin Powers style! I'm not sure this was intentional, but it resulted in an action sequence that managed to be as humourous as it was exciting!

The cast is pretty good, though I have to say no one really stands out. It's awesome that Ray Winstone is the main star of the film though - Will Scarlett off Robin of Sherwood headlining a big budget Hollywood Epic? It's like bizarro world! - and his performance, while initially jarring (he's the only guy whose 3D facsimile doesn't look anything like him; instead, it looks somewhat like Sean Bean) what with a heavy Cockney accent coming out of the lips of a Scandinavian hero, eventually grows on you and by the end of the film his casting seems completely appropriate. Angelina Jolie also weilds a weird accent, somewhat reminiscent of her work in Alexander, but it works and that coupled with her CGI nakedness makes for an, erm, captivating performance! I would say that Crispin Glover is the scene stealer as the crazed creature Grendel - crazed seems to be a natural for this guy! Hopkins, Wright-Penn, and Gleeson are all fine, with Malkovich being the most memorable of the supporting characters as the scheming advisor.

'Beowulf' is surprisingly good. I didn't anticipate liking it as much as I did, and to be honest I think I'm being a bit generous in understating some of its flaws, but I think it works better than a lot of people give it credit for. It's a terrifically entertaining adventure film, and offers the type of visuals that you really won't have seen anywhere else. Sure, this type of thing will grow old fast, and later films will obviously eclipse this one in terms of technology, but I think it'll stand the test of time as a good movie even when the CGI work looks antiquated. It's the best Robert Zemeckis movie in a long time!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Superman: Doomsday (2007)

(Image from Amazon)

Superman: Doomsday (2007)

Superman died in the early nineties, killed while fighting the alien monster Doomsday, who was probably as much a metaphor for the growing indifference towards comic books as he was an unstoppable threat to DC's superheroes. Anyway, it was a big event back then, and naturally death could only keep Supes down for a brief period before he came back to life. This recently released direct to DVD animated film basically tells the Doomsday storyline from the comics in abbreviated form. Lex Luthor (James Marsters) unwittingly unleashes a monstrous creature held prisoner in an alien prison ship hidden deep inside the Earth. The creature, Doomsday, wreaks havoc on Metropolis, causing Superman (Adam Baldwin) to take him on in a truly epic battle that leaves both of them dead. The city, and Supe's girlfriend Lois Lane (Anne Heche) struggle to cope in a world without Superman... until he miraculously returns from the dead. But things are not quite right with this returned Superman, and Lex Luthor may have something to do with it.

Apparently this adaptation takes a lot of liberties with the source material; even I know that after the big blue boy scout's demise four 'Supermen' tried to take his place, whereas here only one Superman 'returns' from the dead. And I know that in the comics the entire pantheon of heroes, including the Justice League, get hammered by Doomsday before Superman shows up to save the day. The battle in the cartoon is truly momentous even without the Justice League, with Superman taking a hell of a beating before finally doing his super pile driver from space move to kill Doomsday and himself in the process. For a while I almost imagined that the whole 90 minutes of the movie would be an extended battle sequence, but fortunately the fight ends before it wears out its welcome. It's kinda hard to top the Doomsday fight, but the tale does get interesting for a while with Superman gone - the world without him is one aspect that just isn't explored enough though, because Supes returns from the dead way too quickly. The third act is full of not so shocking surprises, but it culminates in a fairly good battle sequence between... well, Supermen!

After Justice League Unlimited, 'Superman: Doomsday' had a lot to live up to, and it succeeds in many ways. The animation - which is distinctively different from what has come before - is pretty cool, as is the epic scope of the action. And there are some nice nods to the Superman movies thrown in there that should give fans a bit of a kick! The writing is not too shabby, but it does lack the wit of the JLU series. The biggest failing is the voice acting however, with this cast being decent enough but nowhere near as cool as the JLU team. How could James Marsters possibly have topped Clancy Brown, or Anne Heche stand in for Dana Delany? Adam Baldwin is always cool, but he does sound uncharacteristically unimposing at times.

It's pretty good overall, great stuff if you're into superheroes at all. It's the type of massive scale mayhem that would be very hard to pull off in live action. Apparently at one point this storyline was meant to be the one to hit the big screen before Bryan Singer came on board and made Superman Returns; this story in live action could have been either incredible or a horrendous failure! As it stands this is probably all we're going to get of Doomsday, which isn't a bad thing as it's pretty cool and worth checking out.

Classics in Lego

This is just too awesome to not post. Classic photos recreated with Lego.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Class of 1999 (1990)

(Image from IMDB)

Class of 1999 (1990)

This is almost a weird spiritual cousin to Battle Royale, which it predates by a decade. The story: in the near future of 1999, society is facing a crisis as schools throughout the US suffer at the hands of youth gangs and violence, with entire regions of cities being cut off and abandoned as lawless zones. The solution to this educational crisis is, of course, blindingly obvious - introduce robot teachers to inject a little discipline into those young punks! Three cyborg teachers - played by Patrick Kilpatrick, John P. Ryan, and Pam Grier - are introduced in a trial run by the creepy Dr. Bob Forrest (Stacy Keach) at the school of Doctor Miles Longford (Malcolm McDowell). Meanwhile a senior gang member, Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg) gets out of prison and heads back to school determined to keep his head down and to stay out of gang business. Unfortunately, the robot teachers are a little too enthusiastic about their work, and when they start killing students Cody teams up with the principal's daughter Christie (Traci Lind) to try and expose them and bring them down.

It's as ridiculous as it sounds, and low budget to boot. This is not a good film by any definition of the word that I can come up with. It's sloppily written - cheesy, poorly plotted, and cliched with fairly inane dialogue. It looks cheap as hell and has some pretty sloppy effects and action sequences. The acting is fairly dire. And yet, there's something about the weird gestalt of the film that makes the whole thing quite entertaining. The robotic antics are fun, and they behave with a comical sinisterness that'll have you rolling your eyes and laughing out loud. Actually, there's a weird sense of earnestness to the film from the entire cast, particularly the people playing the young gangsters. Bradley Gregg doesn't really act well, but he's still clearly the star and manages to command attention whenever he's around, and all of the young actors around him seem to believe they're actually gangsters, in much the same way little kids 'believe' that they are actually superheroes or wizards or Sheena Queen of the Jungle when playing. *SPOILERS AHEAD* It all culminates in a bizarre battle in the school halls between flamethrower wielding robots and gangsters on motorbikes that perfectly encapsulates the cheese factor of the film in the space of 15 minutes.

So yeah, 'Class of 1999' is trash, but fun trash. Not really recommended, except for those who are just plain curious or who, like me, enjoy cheesy but entertaining sci-fi.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Mist (Director's Black and White Edition) (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Mist (Director's Black and White Edition) (2007)

The best Stephen King adapter around, Frank Darabont (he of 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'The Green Mile' fame), brought yet another of King's tales to the big screen last year. Though 'The Mist' came and went with little fanfare, Darabont delivered with aplomb for the third successive time by turning King's writing into an excellent film.

It's quite a simple set up - in a small town in Maine, a strange mist appears after a storm, and within it exist strange and dangerous creatures who enjoy munching on man flesh. The film focuses on a group of people who barricade themselves in a supermarket and fight to keep the monsters out. Among the survivors are level headed artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble), Judge Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), schoolteacher Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden), nutty religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), and simpleton supermarket employee Jim (William Sadler), amongst many others. Their situation starts off quite shakily with the different personalities having trouble getting along and working together. As their situation becomes bleaker, two groups form, one trying to find rational solutions to their dilemma, and the other, larger group giving into despair and following the religious ramblings of Mrs. Carmody, whose power and influence rises with shocking speed.

I'm not sure how accurate the screenplay is to the novella, but the story develops very nicely indeed, wasting no time setting up all the pieces on the board but also never rushing to throw cheap thrills at the audience just for the sake of it. The monster elements are introduced in memorable ways and build up to some terrific and horrifying sequences throughout the film. And the ending is a real whopper, a punch to the gut that leaves you reeling. The characters are well fleshed out given the context and type of film; most are quite believable but a few are a tad exaggerated and some behaviour is a little contrived in order to drive the plot, but these problems are minor and easily overlooked. The dialogue is quite good if a little too didactic and clunky at times. Overall though, Darabont's screenplay is very good and is characterized by interesting thematic material.

As a simple horror film, 'The Mist' works very well. But it has a bit more going on besides monsters. Or rather, it depicts more than one kind of monster, with the second kind being the one trapped inside the supermarket. Society viewed in a microcosm is always an excellent narrative device if done right, and here it works brilliantly. In the early stages the story plays on class divides and personality clashes, but things take an interesting turn after some time passes and hope of rescue begins to fade. People begin to give in to their hopelessness and turn to the blathering Mrs. Carmody, whose readings from the Bible seem to give them something to hold on to at the expense of reason. Her rise in stature fuels her confidence, resulting in the situation becoming more extreme as she exploits people's fear to turn them to her side and to turn her side against the few - including David Drayton and Amanda Dumfries - who refuse to defer to her. Admittedly the story requires the presence of the extreme character of Mrs. Carmody to hasten events, but that's storytelling for you, and despite being contrived the rapid disintegration of civilized behaviour is still frighteningly believable! If the world seemed to be coming to an end, it isn't that far fetched to assume that people's violent, primal instincts would take over. This cynicism permeates the entire film, with even the 'good' people being painted in shades of grey.

Darabont injects into the film an atmosphere of genuine dread and fear, fear derived both from the mist and from the delicate situation inside the supermarket. The film is relentlessly bleak and has a really wicked capriciousness, dispatching people without restraint. The tension and dread are palpable, and the black and white photography seems ideal for the film's tone and a perfect accompaniment to its misty visuals, and it also helps sell the admittedly sub par effects (which looked far worse in the colour trailers I've seen). The film is sparse when it comes to music, relying more on sound effects and only occasionally switching to a moody score and some mournful vocals. While Darabont proves more than a little adept at the monster horror stuff, his track record in creating compelling films about people is maintained here. The film is great as a drama, with terrific performances all round and moments of genuine terror created by both the beasts and the humans! And before you think it's all doom and gloom, there are some moments of humour here and there that relieve the pressure.

Thomas Jane, a very good actor and one I've always liked (see Stander), has probably never been better than he is here as a decent, intelligent everyman thrust into horrible circumstances and forced to rise to the occasion. And no, that isn't nearly as cheesy as it sounds as he runs the emotional gamut while trying to help everyone and take care of his son. Marcia Gay Harden is the perfect counterpoint to Jane as the frightening Mrs. Carmody - she's over the top and hysterical, but epitomizes the type of fanatic who uses pseudo logic, unwavering conviction, and nonsensical morality to persuade the gullible and the desperate. Laurie Holden is fairly good as the good natured schoolteacher, while William Sadler and Toby Jones are excellent as supermarket employees who wind up on opposite sides of the divide. Last but not least, Andre Braugher is terrific and very funny (in a tragic way) as the pompous, arrogant judge Brent Norton.

At the end of the day, 'The Mist' is a breath of fresh air - a horror film for adults featuring adults, one with thematic depth and something to say that still manages to cram in more suspense, drama, and really horrific moments than most of the genre pretenders out there that settle for gore and loud sounds. The best horror films are ultimately about people, and this is something Darabont gets absolutely right (as does King). The concept may sound uninspired, but the film shakes off the notion that it's just another cliched horror film very early on. I loved it, and can't recommend it highly enough!