Monday, 30 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - 7/10

(some medium-sized spoilers)

This was another video-store-guy recommendation. I remember seeing the trailers for this one and thinking that it looked, frankly, rubbish. Apes become intelligent, rampage, take over the world, lots of CGI and not much else. Right? Wrong.

Although I enjoyed the Cloverfield recommendation more, I was glad I watched this one, if just to prove that you can’t always judge a film by its trailer. Often trailers show all the best bits, heightening anticipation for a movie that in reality flops like a dying fish. This was the opposite; the trailers I saw showed only the rampaging apes scenes, giving the impression of a standard-fare disaster movie propping itself up with the Planet of the Apes name. In reality, the rampaging apes were one tiny bit at the end of a more thoughtful and complex film that was actually ridiculously emotional (I blame James Franco’s puppy face).

The film was surprisingly slow-paced, building the main plot up slowly and taking time to actually make the audience like the little ape and his carer. This was done well. Really well, actually. I’m not an ape person; for example, I’m constantly astonished by people who manage to find monkeys cute (yes yes I know a monkey isn’t technically an ape). That means that this film really had to convince me to feel something for the main ape character, Caesar, which I would have felt automatically for, say, a kitten. But it did manage to. We saw Caesar grow up, we saw his wonderful child-like innocence and curiosity, we saw his love for his human carers, and we saw him begin to interact with the outside world. Then we saw his confusion, his slowly dawning realisation that he is not like others, trapped between the human and animal worlds, too intelligent to fit in. When he poignantly asks Will, his carer, if he is a pet, I actually felt myself go cold and my eyes begin to prick.

Then we saw Caesar’s dismay and his depression, and his agony as he was taken away from the only family he has ever known and put with a bunch of apes that he had no idea how to relate to. We also saw Will’s desperation to get him back. For him, Caesar was like an adopted child, wrenched cruelly away from him. This was all scripted, filmed, and acted so well that it was completely believable and extremely heartbreaking. The CGI used to craft Caesar’s face and his expression-filled eyes was perfect, and Andy Serkis’ acting was spot on. The other apes were also CGI-ed and acted to perfection, adding more pathos as well as a welcome touch of humour to the film. We also get to find out what Draco Malfoy does in his summers away from Hogwarts. Torture apes, apparently.

Although the general story and its twists and turns are nothing surprising – in fact, they are even slightly cliché for science fiction fans – everything plays out so well that this is easily forgiven. The film’s title is slightly misleading, as it does not actually show how the apes managed to take over the planet. This is only the very beginning, the event that slowly began to tip the scales, the summit of the slippery slope. What happens afterwards is only inferred by the existence of the original movie, and the audience must fill in the missing years for themselves. A nice little touch early on in this film references the main character in the original. A suggestion at the end perhaps explains how the intelligence-virus spread over the world, and how the apes managed to take advantage of depleted populations in order to gain control. Still, the details are left a mystery.

This is how to do a prequel. It doesn’t need to be set right before the original film; it doesn’t need to cram in as many character and cameo appearances from the original as it can; it doesn’t need to fill in every hole and explain every little thing, even the things no-one was asking about (midichlorians?); and it certainly doesn’t need to bleach all the mystery out of the original (Star Wars prequels I’m looking at you). A prequel should always add something to the original rather than attempt to take over from it. Well done Rise of the Planet of the Apes. You need to hire a better title-writer though.

No matter how much you think you won’t care about what, when it comes down to it, is actually a fairly overused and obvious story in sci-fi terms, you will probably find that you can’t help it. Caesar is just too sympathetic, the characters too charismatic, and James Franco’s eyes too puppy dog. I didn’t find it groundbreaking, and I wasn’t falling off my seat with excitement, but it was unexpectedly thoughtful and enjoyable. I was impressed.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Polluto - This issue's 'Editor's Choice'!

Congratulations to Gio Clairval and Erin Stocks for their mesmerising tale of witchcraft, witchtrials, demons, and the love of one rope for one woman...

‘Hempish Love’ is this issue’s ‘Editor’s Choice’ story! We were impressed and enchanted by this tale’s unique narrator and original idea, as well as the authors’ confident, rich and vivid storytelling. Here’s a sneak peek (full story can be read in Polluto #9 ¾: Witchfinders vs The Evil Red).

I never wanted to be an executioner. My maker twisted me with habile hands, and as though it weren't enough, he twisted me some more until I became the perfect tool for the cruellest tasks. Maybe, if a fair woman had caressed me, singing words of love, I would have grown into something peaceful, I would have held flowers or led white foals to the water. Instead, here I am, hanging from a hook in this windowless chamber, ready to imprison wrists and shake limbs until my victims confess imaginary deeds. After thirty years spent performing the strappado, I wish my body unravelled, but when I appear to be tired my master strokes me with beeswax to soothe me, and I am like new: the perfect rope to extort false confessions.
Oh, yes, I wanted to die, my dear Polletto, until I saw the female of my dreams. I spied her first this morning as I hung from my ring fixed to the ceiling: a Dominican friar called Guido burst into the forensic vicar's adjacent office, towing Gostanza behind him.
He said, "Vicar, this woman slaughtered a new-born babe!"
The magistrate looked up from his codex. "Do you have proof of this, Fra' Guido?"
The good Dominican bowed. "Early this morning, I was walking across the Piazzetta Del Casseto when Gostanza came out of a house, her hands overflowing with rue and vervain, baskets dangling from her forearms. The incense of moscata walnut and pumpkin clung to her hair unbound and flowing like a young girl's mane despite grey streaks. I offered aid, and she allowed me to relieve her of two baskets.
"'Was that Mona Astrea's abode?' I asked. As I balanced the baskets, bottles clinked together with ill-fated chimes. 'How went the birth?'
"'It went well.' But a frown creased Gostanza's features. At the moment, I did not understand why, but a suspicion gnawed at my heart. I yanked a bottle out and unstoppered it. I was right, vicar! Concoctions smelling like oil of bartram, crushed cloves, madreselva and betonica herbs . . . all ingredients used for unholy spells!
"Then the devilish woman flipped open the lid of the third basket. 'Accept this offer to quench your hunger,' she said in a sly tone. 'Duck baked with prunes in tuber oil.'
"The aroma of roast bird tickled my nostrils. No sooner had she placed a palatable morsel between my lips than my senses fled. When I regained consciousness, I was alone in a mossy alley, slumped against a wall. I stumbled back to Mona Astrea's house, following a worrisome inspiration.
"Astrea lounged upstairs, her belly slack with recent birth. The maga Gostanza, lips and hands stained red, leaned over a cradle. Inside it, a babe, pale and still. She had killed it!
"I suffered kicks and scratches," the friar concluded, "as I dragged Gostanza out of Astrea's abode and up the hill to this Palazzo."
The accused's eyes shone like little suns. Dried blood marred the corners of her mouth.
Upon hearing the friar's words, the soldiers who stood in the audience hall grimaced, whereas I died to taste such a woman—one of the evilest suspects ever. You see, Polletto, I've always wanted to torment an accused that had actually done something bad.
Guido bowed again, and from my vantage I noticed sweat beading on the friar's forehead. Now, the sweating could have been caused by the unseasonable heat, couldn't it?
The forensic vicar then sent for the inquisitor of Florence, Dionigi da Costacciaro. When the brown-robed Franciscan arrived, my master the executioner brought the accused before him, in this same chamber, my home. I was yanked from my perch, and laced twice around the witch's delicate wrist bones. My braided cords shivered in ecstasy. I wondered whether Guido's accusations were grounded indeed, for her skin had the texture of guilt.

Read more in this issue of Polluto.

Polluto - Blood, Sex and Witchcraft, and The Evil Red

Polluto issue 9 ¾: Witchfinders vs The Evil Red is now out! This was a particularly fun theme that has inspired all kinds of stories, with some completely unexpected interpretations. There is, of course, the Evil Red as communism, socialism, authoritarianism, secret police, and the welfare state. And, as usual, no Polluto author ever deals with a subject in familiar ways. A socialist paradise fuelled by severed pinkies? An alien drug that will end all war by instigating mass colour-blindness? There is guaranteed to be something new here to surprise any reader. There is witchcraft and magic, not to mention monsters and the undead. There is evil, fear, scapegoating, and denial. The Evil Red lurks in the darkest corners as well as boldly taking over the world.

Interestingly, one of the unifying ideas that connects many of these stories is the idea of powerful, and in particular sexually dominant, women. This is appropriate on several levels, as this is the ‘witchfinders’ issue (and what has scared men throughout the ages more than dominant women?) as well as the evil red (blood, sex, desire, passion). And our ‘witchy’ women are joined by a whole host of unexpected companions. Professor Dingleberry and his walking house, topped with its red coxcomb; vampiric ‘colour-eaters’ that feed on red; a man slowly disintegrating into numbers, thoughts and digital streams; a clay man rising from a river of blood; a libido-zapped librarian contemplating drawings found on Mars; and a bloodthirsty priestess controlled by her malevolent red chainsaw. And many more wait inside Polluto’s red-streaked pages.

Beginning with Cris O’Connor’s unique spin on the Wizard of Oz story, complete with Dorothy’s blood-soaked ruby slippers, and ending on Richard Thomas’ captivating and heartbreaking story of a haunted man in a broken world, Polluto issue 9 ¾ bewitches the reader from start to finish.

Next post... this issue’s ‘Editor’s Choice’ story!

Friday, 27 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Twilight: Breaking Dawn part 1, and a rant about Twilight in general

 I didn't get a chance to post yesterday's movie review last night, so I've made up for it with an extra long one today, containing bonus ranting about Twilight in general. Remember, all my comments are very subjective and I do know this, but if you disagree I will feed you to the vampire baby. Just saying. Think of all those little needle teeth, chomp chomping, little pudgy baby fingers curling round your thumb as it chomp chomps its way through your neck (which would probably take at least a week). Got nightmares yet? Good.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 - 4/10

(Beware: here be many, many spoilers for all the films, as well as some fairly big Buffy spoilers too. So if you haven’t watched Buffy, look away now – although, shame on you, you really should! In fact, go watch it now.)

This is part 4, part 1, of the Twilight franchise. Unfortunately movie makers seem to be obsessed with the idea of splitting books into two films at the moment, whether they really need it or not. Harry Potter ? – maybe... so they could do justice to the end of such a long-running movie phenomenon. Although when I think of the two films they do just blur together into one in my head. The Hobbit? – that remains to be seen, but I’m worried that what could have been one really amazing film will become two slightly dragged out and watered down films. Twilight: Breaking Dawn? Completely unnecessary, but hey, it does keep the cash cow’s milk a’flowing. And meanwhile, we get to enjoy Bella and Edward’s not-so-forbidden romance a little longer. Yay?

So, to get started, I’ll explain that I have somewhat different views from most about this generation’s marmite craze. People seem to either love Twilight to the point of terrifying obsession, or to hate it with a fiery passion, condemning it as the worst story in the history of stories ever. Really? It’s quite a mediocre little thing to inspire such heights of passion on either side. My view tends to rest pretty squarely along the lines of ‘meh.’ (With the exception of the first movie, which I still insist is unintentional comedy gold.)

Perhaps this is because I really like supernatural and vampire stories. To me, there’s nothing new at all about Twilight (well, ok, the glittering thing), and so nothing really new to hate or blame Stephanie Meyer for. Love affair between mortal and vampire – done so many times I can’t be bothered to reel off a list. And yes, it’s been done well and badly, and certainly worse than Twilight. Lovesick angsty vampires have always irritated me, but I’m hardly gonna blame Stephanie Meyer for that one am I? When others were swooning, I wanted Angel to die Die DIE a horrible fiery tormented death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (joy at the end of season 2! Depressed resignation in season 3). Spike, on the other hand, I liked. Well, all the other Buffy vamps are good, particularly Drusilla and Darla. Jerry from Fright Night is also a great vampire. Dracula, what can I say? Classic and terrifying. I even like most of Anne Rice’s creations.

Twilight vampires certainly rest on the prissier side of this, but there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with that. I prefer my vampires bloodthirsty and evil, but of course there is always room for different interpretations in an overly-saturated genre (Nowadays, it’s gone the other way, and a bad vampire is actually a breath of fresh air). And teen fiction is certainly the place for it. Teen stories are full of forbidden love, growing up and finding yourself, exploring moral ambiguities, and, yes, angst. Angst may be teeth-grindingly annoying for an adult, but remember how moody you were when you were a teenager? It’s actually very important for at least some teen fiction to explore this. Teens also seem to respond well to stories that explore real world issues in fantasy or science fiction terms. The most asininely stupid criticism of Twilight that I’ve heard is that it’s just a love story with vampires thrown in. Er... of course it is. Plenty of writers do this. In fact, it’s what science fiction is all about. It shows us real world issues or situations through a different lens. Avatar is just Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves with aliens. Take space out of Star Wars and you’d probably have a World War II film. Almost every episode of Buffy is a very clever comment on some aspect of a teenager’s or young adult’s life, dressed up with vampires, witches and pointy stakes. Not all stories do this, but plenty do, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them.

And, to put the cherry on my playing-devil’s-advocate cake, the Twilight series is phenomenally successful with its intended audience. You can criticise all you like, but if you’re not a 13-18 year old girl then you have to remember that it’s not meant for you. By all means, rant about why you personally don’t like it (I know I intend to), but trying to paint it as the worst thing ever to be made is a little silly. 14 year old girls might think the same about a Batman movie, or Tron, or the Halo games, or Game of Thrones. Most of the world thinks the same about Warhammer books. But they sure are all popular with their audiences.

Good, now that’s out of the way I can give my personal view of the Twilight movies (the books, as always, are a separate case entirely). They’re really not great, but they’re not soul-destroyingly bad either. Come on now. In the first film, the acting was pretty poor, but this does seem to have improved as the series has gone on. The characters are all a little flat and annoying, and that doesn’t really change. It’s hard to get behind Edward and Bella when you spend the entire film wanting them to die horribly, I grant you. However, the music is spot on; it suits the mood perfectly and really complements the film. The camerawork is good, some of the shots of the scenery and locations are gorgeous, and it’s actually an inspiring example of how to use locations to really bring a story to life. The wildness of the scenery, so close to civilisation and yet like another world, the dense mystery of the forests, the mist hanging between the trees, the huge sweeping emptiness, so lonely but so heartbreakingly beautiful – could you actually ask for a better setting for this story? Of course, when all you can find to praise about a movie is the setting... yeah, not good.

Some viewers may have been disappointed by the lack of action in these films, but that would be to miss the point of what the films are actually about. In terms of actually telling the story they want to tell, the pacing is pretty much spot on. It has a very slow build, but romance stories generally do. This isn’t horror or action, people, it’s gothic romance. It needs to be slow and almost torturously moody. Of course, this is all let down by a pretty awful story. No arguing with that one. And I can’t deny that the Twilight phenomena as a whole is immensely fun to make fun of.

However, whereas the first film sits pretty comfortably in ‘so cheesy it’s hilarious’ (it’s the slow-mo that cracks me up. And the glittering of course. And the ‘you smell’ scene that is slightly unfortunately over-acted), the other films just skirt between cringeworthy and boring. I can quite happily add the first movie to my list of cheese-fests, but I would never sit through the others more than once. I’m afraid I have to say the same for Breaking Dawn Part 1. It was mildly interesting; it moved the story along; it had some more nice music and beautiful forests. It also slightly bizarrely and bemusingly jumped the vampire shark and introduced... wait for it, baby vampire! Awwww... wait, no. Ew!

Edward was his usual annoying self and Bella was her usual insipid self. Not so much a problem with the acting as with the characters. In fact, if there’s a prize for acting insipid and still managing to not be the most slap-able person in the room, Kristin Stewart should win it. (Hint - the 'most slap-able' trophy goes to Edward every time). There was also a moment of hope towards the end of the film that Bella would die, but we all know that’s never going to happen. There’s never any real danger or difficulties to deal with in the Twilight world. Fights are tame, no-one dies, Bella gets the guy, even when the guy leaves it’s because he’s just so in love with Bella that he can’t stand screwing up her life, and the aforementioned screwing up Bella’s life consists of making her super strong, super fast, immortal, and really really pretty. And now the one consequence of marrying a dead guy, that she will never be able to have kids, has also been thrown to the wind. Cos, you know, baby vampire! Why not (sigh). And this is my main problem with Twilight. It’s that there are never any real trials or consequences to deal with. It’s pure wish fulfilment, plain and simple. This is why Bella has been accused of being a Mary Sue, and I have to agree with this. Now, I do get the place for wish-fulfilment fantasy, but I just personally don’t like it. It’s not... meaty enough.  

In summary, then, was Breaking Dawn dreadful? No. Was it good? No. Final Assessment? Meh. It’s pretty simple actually. If you like Twilight, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t, don’t bother.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Cloverfield

Cloverfield - 7.5/10

(some spoilers, only small, but best avoided if you're not sure)

I somehow managed to miss all the hype for this one. I know I know, what barrel do I stick my head in all day? But I do think I was lucky there, as this is the sort of film you should go into knowing as little about as possible. That said, if you are reading this and haven’t seen Cloverfield but intend to, you might want to stop now.

I have to admit, I was sceptical about this one. The guy in the video shop recommended it, and he had a hard sell, because I strongly dislike found-footage movies. Shaky shaky, sick-making, ohmygodwe’reallgonnadie, more shaky, view of someone’s feet running, crash and boom in the background, people screaming, something interesting must be happening but all I’m seeing is these damn feet running, shaky shaky, uncomfortably zoomed in close-up, more shaky, etc. Not a fan of handheld camera in general, as in most cases I think it’s misused, put in to look cool or arty, or to add unnecessary ‘realism’, especially in fight scenes (and especially when it’s been beautifully choreographed but then for some reason they film it all in handheld technique and you can’t see anything for all the shaking), and found-footage tends to take this to new extremes. Yes, I know the point is that events are being filmed by ordinary people on ordinary cameras, and yes, that’s a great concept, but in reality, it’s just lots of shaking... argh! There’s a reason we admire beautiful camerawork; there’s a reason cameramen are well trained and cinematographers are paid a lot of money; there’s a reason we don’t put poorly shot amateur movies on cinema screens.

I find this easier to explain with a writing analogy. So here we go. Let’s say I want to add realism to my story, so I decide to write a conversation as it would happen in real life:
“Hey” said John.
“Hey” Victoria replied.
“How was your day?”
“Err... it was okay, you?”
“Mmm... yeah okay.”
There was a pause.
“So... ummm, what do you want for dinner?” asked John.
“Errr... Dunno, what do you want?”
“Ummm, not sure. What do you want?”
“I just asked you that.”
There was another pause.
“We’ve got some chicken that needs using.”
“Stir-fry maybe?”
“Errr... maybe. Wait, no, we don’t have any spring onions left.”
“You could go get some.”
“I could make a chicken casserole, but we’d be eating late.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“Errr... I might just order pizza.”
“But the chicken needs using.”
“Oh... right.”

And so on. Yes, realistic. Yes, it makes sense for the characters and the situation. But it’s boring as heck and doesn’t move the plot forwards. It doesn’t add to characterisation because it’s just a meaningless conversation. It’s annoying to read. There are too many pauses, and too much umming and erring. The writing is bad; there’s no skill there, nothing to keep the reader interested. Good writers know not to do this. They know that if they want to make a conversation seem realistic, they can do it artfully. Put the odd ‘err’ and ‘umm’ in, but don’t overload the conversation with them. Add pauses by describing what is happening in the room, or by observing a character’s nervous fidgeting. This has the advantage of adding potential characterisation as well as a little colour. There are other techniques too, but the point is that making something seem realistic, when it is actually being carefully and artistically constructed, is how to succeed. Simply recording a real conversation exactly as it happens, or sticking a cheap camcorder in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, is not.

Now to Cloverfield. This film was different from other found-footage films I’ve seen, and now I am seriously having to reassess my opinion of the genre. I actually liked it. No, I really liked it. Despite my negative bias, this film won me over, made me actually feel anxious for the characters. The actors did a great job of running around looking constantly scared – found-footage movies must be so draining for actors – and the concept was, while a little standard, very engaging. There were some problems; the plot occasionally dragged, the characters made the obligatory insanely stupid decisions they always do (many facepalms), and it seemed a little weird that the best bit of the whole film was in the subway tunnels where the actual giant monster couldn’t get to them. The monster was in danger of having the film stolen from him by the little critter thingies. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve played too much Fallout 3 and consequently subway tunnels are TERRIFYING to me.

But overall, the film was good, and perhaps the best thing about it was the camerawork. Yes, amazing isn’t it, given the vehemence of the rant above? Here’s why. What this film actually managed to do was present the camerawork as realistic, while at the same time constructing it as carefully as possible to be aesthetically appealing to the viewer. Yes, there was plenty of running and screaming, and yes, there were some of those shoe shots that are so irritating, but amid this were some genuinely inspired camera angles and framing, shots where the background was just as interesting as the crying face in the foreground. And you know what, even the constant shaking didn’t bother me. Perhaps because the actual substance of the film took over and made me forget it, or perhaps because the shaking was incorporated so well that it felt natural rather than annoying. Of course, watching it at home instead of on a giant cinema screen probably helps! I may be revising my opinion of found-footage movies, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing them on the big screen any time soon.

So does Cloverfield live up to the hype? I think so. And I’m glad I was persuaded to see it. Enthusiastic Blockbuster employee, +1. Cloverfield, 7.5/10. Me, don’t judge things before I’ve see them!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers - 6/10

(some spoilers!)

First off, the film isn’t faithful to the book, even though the basic plot elements are there. I don’t see anything wrong with this; The Three Musketeers has been done so many times, it’s nice to see something new in an interpretation of it. So don’t expect it to be the book!

Now, I feel that I liked this one, sort of... against my better judgement. It’s a silly one. Very, very silly. You could play a drinking game of spot the clichés. Almost all the characters manage to be annoying at one point or another. There’s a slightly steampunk element to the giant zeppelin airships, a hint of heist movies, a Mission Impossible style sequence involving Milla Jovovich, as well as a bit of an A-team style special ops feel to it. It’s so many madcap genres rolled into one. And then there’s Orlando Bloom’s hair. Did I mention the silly?

But, come on, doesn’t that sound fun?

It was. Right from the opening sequence, in which the characters are introduced A-Team style, with an action sequence and freeze-frame while their name triumphantly whizzes on screen, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Stupid and corny, yes, but with such a wink at the audience I felt sure this film was going to be fun – and completely nuts. It reminded me a little of the freshness of A Knight’s Tale, reviving a slightly tired genre, and I felt myself being on this film’s side, willing it to win out in the end.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hold on to the tongue-in-cheek energy it started with. Parts of it were ridiculously entertaining, but the bits in between, winding down to the slightly lacklustre ending, were, I hate to say it, a bit forgettable. The love story was lame, and, in the face of Orlando Bloom’s superior villainy (yes, I was surprised too), I’d lost interest in the ‘diabolic’ nature of Cardinal Richelieu’s plot by the end. At points the film also managed to descend into being too silly, turning it into some kind of farcical parody that was a little baffling.

Still, being the fan of cheese-fests that I am (not to mention my love of shows such as Charmed and Xena), my silliness tolerance meter is probably higher than most. Air ships that have giant cannon fights with each other and still manage to stay in the sky... bring it on! Milla Jovovich sliding down a corridor on her back to avoid the hair-thin wires that trigger a series of traps, Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones stylee? No problem. Exotic weapons in 17th century France? Great! Orland Bloom’s hair? Teehee, snort. Love it.

Besides, when the camera sweeps out to reveal an entire fleet of airships loaded with cannons heading out to take over France, I think we know we’re safely in the realms of fantasy/alternative history. And why not? It’s actually a fantastic concept... just a shame it wasn’t pulled off as well as it could have been.

The film has its faults. Many faults, if I’m honest. Strangely though, if you can switch off your preconceptions and any feelings of protectiveness for the book, you may just find yourself having a good time.

Monday, 23 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Monsters

Monsters 0/10

(some fairly big spoilers)

Ugh. Where to start? Well, I genuinely thought I would never have cause to give a movie a zero rating. But here it is. There were literally no redeeming features in this movie for me. It’s just... overwhelmingly bad. Of course, this is massively subjective and I know some people loved it. But this is my review and I’ll whine if I want to! Settled? Good.

The epic badness of this film is so disappointing to me, because the premise is a good one. A scientific mission in space crash-landed somewhere in Mexico. Alien life forms emerged and settled in the area, quickly reproducing. Attempts to eradicate them by the military are still on-going, but have so far failed. A huge area of Mexico and South America has now been fenced off and quarantined, and is known as the Infected Zone. This does not seem to stop the aliens from encroaching on both sides of the zone, wrecking the lives of the people they come into contact with and causing the people there to live in constant fear.

A reporter has been tasked with finding his boss’s daughter, who is a tourist in Mexico, and returning her to safety in the USA. However, when her passport is stolen and the last ferry has departed for the States, they are forced to make their way through the dangerous Infected Zone, and then find a way past the giant wall built across the border of the USA.

I haven’t been providing synopses for the films in these reviews, but it is necessary here in order to demonstrate how much the movie completely fails. And not only fails, but completely wastes what is actually a very good idea for a film.

First, the story itself is excruciatingly slow to get started, and when it does, it’s a boring mess. Very little happens. This, of course, can work really well in some movies. For example, what really happens in Duel beyond a truck driving a bit too close to the back of a car? Yet Duel is an amazing movie, and that’s because of the atmosphere, the tension and the ever present sense of very real danger. The acting is also top notch in Duel. In Monsters, unfortunately, the acting was flat, with very little atmosphere. The two main characters are travelling through the Infected Zone, an area populated by colossal octopus-like monsters that could easily kill them, and that have killed many other humans, but they don’t seem even slightly scared. They just gawp at the jungle around them and make really stupid comments. There is no sense of threat, no sense of sadness at the ruined buildings and broken homes, and not even a particular feeling of wanting to get home. They’re like robots drifting along mindlessly and emotionlessly. And we’re supposed to believe that they fall in love with each other on the way?

The Monsters barely make an appearance. This might be cool, if they were kept mysterious and frightening, always on the edge of the characters’ journey, a constant threat. But instead they just plod through at one point, kill a bunch of people pretty mindlessly, and then plod off again. They’re more animal than monster, you see, just getting on with life heedless of the people they’re stepping on. Again, cool concept, poor execution.

They are seen once more at the end of the film, where they have some kind of alien glow-in-the-dark tentacle sex, then plod off again. No, I’m really not making this up. So when it becomes clear that we are supposed to feel sorry for the aliens, to marvel at their beauty and to reflect that they are just, like us, trying to get on with their lives, it all falls a bit flat. I don’t really give a damn about the monsters, except for hoping that they’re going to eat the main characters before the end of the film (no such luck).

You can tell what this film wanted to be. It wanted to be a touching and unusual love story, as well as a moral tale about humanity’s tendency to consider anything different a ‘monster.’ It also desperately wanted to be an analogy for how Americans treat Mexicans. I could have liked this if it had been done well. I really enjoyed District 9, which does pretty much the same kind of thing, using the aliens to create an analogy for apartheid. And no, I don’t need my films to be full of explosions or directed by Micahel Bay to enjoy them. I’m also not a fourteen year old boy. These seem to be the main insults directed at people who didn’t like Monsters. But really, how can anyone like this? It fails miserably. The romance is boring and unbelievable. The characters could literally be blocks of wood and I would like them better. The monsters are huge octopuses that plod around killing people – so why would I not consider them to be a bad thing? Am I supposed to feel bad that the military is trying to kill them? I guess if we just left them alone then they wouldn’t bother us either, right? Except that they seem to enjoy coming out of the Infected Zone and smashing innocent people’s homes, and there are even two octopuses plodding around on the other side of the giant wall, smashing things in the USA too. Why should I feel sorry for them? Because they have glow-in-the-dark sex? I’m genuinely baffled as to what the director and writers were thinking.

And were we really supposed to feel something about the wall, which is a metaphor so glaringly obvious it felt like the director was hitting me over the head with an ‘Americans are BIG MEANIES’ sign. The main characters are Americans who have lost their passports and are now desperately trying to get into the States from Mexico, but they come up against a big wall separating ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Yes, we get it already. You don’t need the characters to actually spell it out for us. Which they do. From on top of an Aztec pyramid in the middle of the jungle, staring out at the giant wall. (Aztec pyramids lying around in the jungle at the USA-Mexico border?) Obviously, this kind of heavy-handed lecturing is never a good thing in a movie. And to make it worse, the filmmakers do not even seem to really understand their own metaphor. The main couple stand for Mexican illegal immigrants right? They’re trying to get into the USA illegally, after all, and there is a giant wall stopping them. But the giant wall is to stop the monsters. So the monsters are Mexicans? So Mexicans are terrifying monsters who plod around killing people and having tentacle sex? No wonder the USA wants to keep them out! Yes, I know I’m taking this too literally, but it demonstrates how badly thought out the whole thing is.

This movie was so joyless and preachy, I actually hate the fact that I spent time watching the damn thing. I don’t care if it was free, I want my time back! I can’t believe I watched the whole thing. I think I just kept waiting for it to get better, or at least for the Monsters to eat them. Or for something to happen! This was so boring. I would rather watch Conan. I would rather watch Immortals. Heck, I would a million times rather watch Twilight. I would genuinely rather watch the channel that just shows parliament talking to each other – at least it’s funny to watch them attempt to insult each other in their really British, upper-class way. So there you go. Zero stars. Not even glow-in-the-dark tentacle sex could save this one, and that’s really saying something.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Super 8

Super 8 - 6.5/10

(potential mild spoilers)

Another movie I went into without knowing anything about it, although I gather it was quite hyped up. Thankfully I missed that – I hate hyped up things, they rarely live up to it. So, without the hype, my judgement of this movie is ‘good.’ Not amazing, but by no means bad or even average. Not disappointing, as I had no expectations to begin with. I enjoyed it. But not quite as much as The Losers. So that’s why this is sitting at 6.5 instead of 7. Good, but not quite really good.

On the surface, Super 8 looks like a kind of ‘scarier E.T.’ A group of children are filming an amateur zombie movie at a railway station when a train crashes and something emerges from the wreckage. (The kids are filming on an old Super 8 camera which gives the film its name, but this is not a found-footage movie. As far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing, but there may be some folks out there who are disappointed, thinking this is ‘Cloverfield for Kids’.) The alien then proceeds to terrorise the small town, kidnapping people and taking bits of metal with it in order to rebuild its spaceship. Everyone is afraid of it, the army is hunting it, but the alien just wants to go home.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Tron Legacy, or Daft Punk: The Movie

Tron Legacy - 8/10

(potential small spoilers!)

I’ll start by saying that I haven’t seen the original 1982 film Tron, so I wasn’t going into this with any nostalgia or protective feelings. I know that a lot of fans of the original were left cold by this new one. I can’t comment on whether the original was better, but I thought this one was very enjoyable.

The first and most overwhelming thing that needs mentioning about Tron is the music. Holy crap, the soundtrack for this film is awesome! In fact, the music alone pushes it up a whole star rating for me. And I don’t normally pay attention to movie music. When other people are raving about how amazing the score for a particular film was, I’m the one who can’t even remember it. Unless it’s actually a musical, I tend to think of film music as something that adds atmosphere but remains largely in the background.

But all the way through this film I couldn’t stop noticing how amazing the music was. Combined with the visuals, the experience was intense. Those visuals were stunning, really creating a sense of a unique, computerised world evolving on its own terms. I loved how important light was; it seemed to power the whole world while also providing beautiful shots and a constant ethereal glow that matched the mood of the world so well. The design of the sets and costumes, the beautiful architecture of the world, and the general feel of it all was amazing. The synthesised music felt 80s and modern at the same time, and very computery, with heart-pumping beats that suited the electric, cyber-punk atmosphere perfectly. At the same time, there was a mysterious, haunting and almost religious quality to both music and visuals, connecting to the idea of the users as ‘gods.’ Bizarrely, the music and visuals reminded me so much of the Mass Effect series, I have to wonder if someone in the process was influenced by the games? Or perhaps the games were influenced by the original Tron, if that had a similar look and sound? Either way, it just added a whole new level of awesome to the movie for me.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t come anywhere close to matching the style of the film. It was pretty bog standard for an actiony-sci-fi. Hero falls into strange new world, has to find a way out while escaping the evil bad guy who’s trying to stop him. Evil bad guy is also trying to take over the world, and to exterminate a whole new race for good measure. There’s the obligatory love interest, the search for a missing father, growing up and accepting responsibility, etc. It felt a little lazy to be honest. Not bad, by any means, but it could have been better.

Having said that, however, there were some nice touches. There are some amazing action sequences and fight scenes, particularly in the games at the beginning of the film. The acting was good. The aforementioned obligatory love interest was really likeable, and the romance was kept to an absolute minimum. I’m not saying romance is bad, but it can all too often be the ruin of an otherwise-good action movie that it has no real place in. The bad guy was also surprisingly sympathetic. There were some ironic moments of real humanity in him when he revealed his feelings of betrayal, and Jeff Bridges acted both roles so brilliantly. CLU is not just Flynn’s flawed creation, he is Flynn, and embodies all of his mistakes and naivety. Flynn knows this, but there is nothing he can do to help him. CLU sees Flynn as a father figure, a friend and a creator who turned on him for doing the very thing he was created to do. This is a more complex villain than most action or sci-fi movies attempt to create. There are also some interesting religious overtones that work all the better for not being forced down the viewer’s throat.

In most cases, an average story will bring an otherwise good movie down. In this case, I think all the other elements brought it up. The music and visuals alone jumped it up an extra point for me. Don’t go into it expecting something mind-bending; it’s a sci-fi driven by concept, visuals and atmosphere more than by a unique story. But that is actually not a criticism. It works. More than anything, it’s very entertaining.

Friday, 20 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - The Losers

The Losers - 7/10

Another of your A Team style special ops movies, less publicised than others and easy to miss. But missing it would be a shame. This was a fun movie! True, the premise, plot and characters are all a bit cliché now. True, you could tell exactly what was going to happen throughout most of the film. But that doesn't really matter when it's this enjoyable.

The action scenes were great, the story was satisfying, the characters were all good (with the possible exception of the obligatory mysterious woman, who got annoying at points), and the film was well paced. The latter is a problem for a lot of modern action films for some reason – everything seems to be based on the ‘first half is all exposition, second half is all action’ rule these days. This one, thankfully, avoided dying the boredom through too much or not enough action death. It also injected a lot of humour, particularly into action scenes, which really helped to lift it above its many competitors in the minefield of ‘special-ops-team-gone-rogue-because-of-corrupt-government’ movies. One scene in particular, involving ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and some well-timed sniping, is genius.

I have never read the comics – in fact, I didn’t even know that it was based on a comic before seeing it – but watching it, I can see the influence. There is a slight risqué edge to it (killing a helicopter load of children in the first ten minutes for example), a sense of fun familiarity with the characters, a heart and soul to it that something like ‘The Expendables’ couldn’t seem to conjure up, and most importantly, a slightly tongue-in-cheek attitude of playing with the viewer. We all know we’re not taking this one too seriously.

I’ve heard people say this is ‘the poor man’s A Team.’ Personally, I thought it was miles better than ‘The A Team.’ This is what ‘The A Team’ should have been.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Immortals: The Incredible Tale of Theseus' Ineptitude

Immortals - 4.5/10

(some spoilers!)

Almost as bad as Conan. The visuals and the fights saved it from that distinction. And the fact that it didn’t send me to sleep.

But the story was bad. Reeeeeally bad. Hyperion (not a Titan, despite having the same name as one of the main Titans in Greek mythology and this being a movie about Titans), is searching for the Shining Bow of Plot so that he can release the Titans. This is because he hates the gods for letting his family die. The usual, in other words. Where are all these ‘vendetta against the gods’ movies coming from? It was the same with Clash of the Titans. Apart from the fact that it’s getting old very quickly anyway, it is COMPLETELY out of place in a film about Greek myth. Go up against the gods? Get a lightning bolt in your face. It’s that simple.

There are so many real Greek myths where heroes fight monsters and each other, go on exciting quests, explore mazes and sail to strange islands, face witches and evil magic... why not do one of those stories? Of course, this all happens while the gods look on and treat them like playing pieces in an oversized game of chess. That’s what Greek gods are like. They’re bastards and they’re proud of it.

But apparently in modern films the Greek gods are kindly, righteous beings who have sworn not to interfere in the mortal world because... it would prevent humans from having free will. (sigh) I can’t think of any sentiment less likely to come out of a Greek god’s mouth. And it seems they will not even interfere when a mortal man actually has the Shining Bow of Plot that will release the Titans and risk destroying everything. So Theseus has to stop it.

Yes, Theseus. The guy who killed the minotaur. The Greek hero with arguably the most interesting and richest mythology, with many different stories attached to his name. Of course, the film does not follow any of these stories, choosing to make up its own nonsensical plot instead. To be honest, the whole film would have worked better if they’d pretended it was a fantasy instead of a retelling of Greek myth. Then they could set their own rules and I would have been happier to accept them. I don’t even care that much about accuracy in stories about the ancient world (heck, I’m a fan of Xena), as long as they keep the feel or the spirit of it. This was so far removed it seemed a bit pointless.

Henry Cavill plays Theseus – that’s the guy from the Tudors, or, as we named him when we first saw him in Tristan and Isolde: Pretty, Son of Rufus. He did the best he could with a bad script. By the end of the film it is clear that Theseus is about the worst hero ever to have graced a cinema screen. He actually managed to fail in every conceivable way. He was supposed to stop Hyperion from getting the Shining Bow of Plot at all costs. What he actually did was get beaten in a few fights, then find the bow and take it out of its very well hidden resting place, right into the jaws of Hyperion’s finder dog. He then failed to stop Hyperion using it, and didn’t even stick around to help the gods clean up the mess. He did manage to kill Hyperion in the end. When it was too late. When Hyperion actually wasn’t a threat in any way anymore. On top of this, he slept with a virgin oracle, causing her to lose her powers of prophecy and knocking her up in the process. In every way, the people in this film would have been better off without him. However, this did not stop the gods from accepting him into Mount Olympus at the end and making him a god. But then, the gods were pretty hopeless too, so perhaps ineptitude is what defines a deity in Immortals.

The story was dire, but the film had some saving graces. The visuals were good, reminiscent of 300, and the fight scenes were well thought out and executed. Parts of the film were enjoyable to watch, when I wasn’t banging my head against the wall at Theseus’ incompetence (Theseus and Peter Petrelli would make a terrifying team). The acting wasn’t bad, and I liked the visual representation of the gods (it was different, but it worked. Yes even the helmets). The bellowing bull method of execution was a nice nod to the history of Greek tyrants, if a bit misplaced in this story. Unfortunately, all the style in the world could not have saved this film. It wasn’t as awful as Conan, but that’s about all I can say for it. And, hey, at least it wasn’t ‘Monsters.’

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Fright Night!

Fright Night - 7.5/10


(some spoilers!)

I have watched the original Fright Night a couple of times when I was younger, but it was many years ago now and I can’t remember it that well. Nevertheless, I remember it being very good. That is a dangerous attitude to go into a remake with. That sense of not-quite-remembered nostalgia – you don’t really recall what happened in it, but you know damn sure that no remake is going to be as good. I tried to leave this dangerous attitude at the door. Misplaced nostalgia is not a good thing.

So, with that said, the remake of Fright Night stands very well on its own terms. It is a good movie. It’s fun, cheeky, and has an attitude. There haven’t been many vampire films with actual bite recently (excuse the really bad pun there), but this is one. This is what you show your teenage sister when she says she wants to watch a vampire film and expects Edward Cullen. Edward Cullen she will not get. What she will get is Colin Farrell giving a fantastic performance as Jerry (yes, Jerry the Vampire. Hey, it’s not as bad as Quincey!), the unapologetically evil vampire and dangerous charmer who’s moved in next door and begun preying on your neighbours.

Samantha Marx, Flickr
The acting in this film is very good; Colin Farrell gives Jerry the right amount of sexy menace and pure, sadistic evil. David Tenant is well cast as Peter Vincent, and the character of Charley is believable and likeable throughout. Even the girlfriend is surprisingly sympathetic. I thought she was going to be the typical ‘popular bitch’ of teen movies, but she actually refused to be pushed into any kind of stereotypical role. She wasn’t a piece of screaming meat that had to be constantly saved, but she wasn’t all-action-Buffy either (I happen to really like Buffy, but there is a time and place and this movie would not have been it). This was refreshing.

Fright Night isn’t scary – it’s far too camp for that – but it certainly doesn’t hold back on the blood, guts and horror. It reminds me of old 80s horrors, the ones that were more fun and tongue-in-cheek with their scares, slightly sending up their own genre while indulging in it at the same time. This is really fun stuff, and I think it does a good job of capturing the feel and intention of the original, even if the story has been reworked a little. Most of all, the film is exactly what is needed right now: a vampire story that does not take itself too seriously, and doesn’t portray the vamp as the good guy. Jerry isn’t angsty, tortured or lovesick, but he also isn’t ‘super-badass, blood-shall-rain-from-the-sky, ancient-prophecy-fulfilling’ evil either. He just really likes to drink people’s blood.

mugley, Flickr
However, there are bits where the film could have been better. I thought that it had some pacing issues, and a little too much running around being scared. I loved the claustrophobic feel of the first half of the film, which stayed in the neighbourhood and focussed on the increasing sense of menace closing in on Charley’s house. I would have liked it to stay here, bringing Peter Vincent to us rather than seeking him out. I seem to remember that this was the case with the original? I also seem to remember that Charley’s mother and girlfriend stayed in the dark longer about Jerry’s true nature. In fact, was his mother ever aware? This is where the aforementioned dangerous nostalgia begins to creep in. But, either way, whether it was true of the original or not, this film might have benefitted from a bit more of Charley having to combat Jerry on his own, desperately trying to convince everyone that Jerry is a monster. This is the premise, after all, and it’s a good one. There are enough ‘running away scared, trying to survive movies’ out there. However, I think the ‘running away scared’ in this movie was purely an excuse to visit Peter Vincent’s wacky house, and to fight off the vampires with some cool ancient weaponry. A nail from the cross, a wooden stake blessed by Saint Peter or whatever it was? A bit unnecessary perhaps, but I guess it adds something a bit new.

Still, these are minor points in a good movie, and they don’t stop it from being great fun! My advice? Don’t go into it expecting it to be the original. And definitely don’t go into it with your nostalgia goggles on. Watch it on its own terms, and have fun with it!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

2 Weeks of Movies - Conan the Barbarian and the Disappointing Lack of Camel Punching

I love talking about the things I love - get me on the subject and I'll analyse a game or movie for hours. My husband and I will sometimes get into geekilicious debates about the true nature of the Force, or exactly what the ending of Mass Effect 3 is all about, or why we really hate Duncan, then suddenly find that half the night has gone.

So, when I joined the local Blockbusters and was informed that I could now enjoy a free movie rental every day for two weeks, I thought reviewing them would be a great start for my blog. 14 free movies! A great opportunity to watch a bunch of things that look interesting, safe in the knowledge that if they fail miserably, at least I haven't lost anything except my time. And no movie is ever really a complete waste of time. Or that's what I thought, until I rented 'Monsters'. But more on that one later.

For now, on to the (not so) good stuff... my first film...

Conan the Barbarian - 3/10

(potential spoilers)

Yikes. Not a good start to my movie fortnight. This film was awful.

Where to begin? Well, Conan himself was all wrong. Sure, he looks like a barbarian. He’s got muscles. But that’s about it. He didn’t have the Conan charisma. And what was with the eyeliner? He felt more like a ‘pirate Conan’ than anything else, but a bit of a boring pirate if we’re honest. Many people seem to be saying that at least he looks a better Conan than Arnie did. Not necessarily true, as Conan comes from the land of Cimmeria, which would roughly be equivalent to our Britain or Ireland (Conan is an Irish name, and the Cimmerian gods also have Irish names. Conan’s creator said that the Cimmerians eventually became the Gaels, the ancestors of the Irish and Highland Scots). So he should really look like an ancient Briton, right? Jason Momoa has a great look for Khal Drogo, but not necessarily Conan. Still, that doesn’t really matter to me, if he’d fit into the role well. But he didn’t. And the character itself was badly written. A bit whiny and irritating, a little self-righteous... basically everything you get in the typical modern action hero, which is an antithesis to everything Conan should be.

So, Conan himself did not go down well with me. Neither did the story. It was lazy, boring at points, and often did not make much sense. In summary, evil bad guy and his daughter (Rose McGowan – it doesn’t help that she will always be Paige to me... I kept waiting for the leprechauns to pop out) are looking for a powerful mask that will make them unstoppable. They’re going to use it to resurrect their dead wife/mother, by putting her soul into some pure blood woman of an ancient race who tried to stop the wife/mother in the first place, or... something. When they did finally get the mask, however, it didn’t really seem to do anything. And for some reason they felt the need to get an army to drag a giant boat/battering ram through a forest to harass a bunch of scared girls and one really old and rather useless monk. That kind of overkill just makes villains look stupid, not scary. As do the camp costumes.

Ok, I’m afraid that I’m making this sound like a ‘so bad it’s good’ cheese-fest of a movie. It isn’t. It’s actually kinda boring. Which is not a good thing with a Conan movie. There were so many fight scenes that there was no time for characterisation or plot. I mean, I expect this to a certain extent. I am, after all, watching a Conan film. But this was beyond bad. You find yourself switching off while you watch it.

Nothing really pulled this one up. Not the acting, not the visuals, not the fights, not the music, nothing. It gets three points for being just-barely watchable, and for not making me want to physically throw up. And for not being ‘Monsters.’