Sunday, 31 January 2010

Mila hates probing Uranus

The Fourth Kind
Cartman gets probed
The town of Nome, Alaska has allegedly been home to numerous unexplained deaths and disappearances over the years, far more than any other relatively similar town in the USA. Local residents are having trouble sleeping and under hypnosis they are seeing owls at their windows and then going all spasmy as they recount nasty things coming in to their rooms for a spot of anal probing ala Cartman in South Park. Okay…I made up that bit about anal probing. Right then, sounds like a case for Mulder and Scully. Or maybe Dr Bishop and Agent Dunham, or Torchwood, or…

Nope. We just get local psychiatrist and widowed mother of two Dr Abigail Tyler played by the lovely Mila Jovovich and some other weird looking unnamed actress pretending to be the real Dr Tyler in recordings inter-cut with the dramatisations of ‘actual’ events.

Now, I like this genre of movie. I enjoy the faked mockumentaries – especially when they are really good ones like Rec., Blair Witch, Cloverfield and the brilliant Paranormal Activity. So I was really hoping this would be something of equal stature. The idea of doing the same thing only with alien abduction is cool. It's a phenom that has pervaded our modern culture now for the past several decades, even if it is still mostly a joke to most or at best just a fun episode of The X Files. To the few who claim it really does happen to them, then I’d imagine it would be a very real and terrifying thing. The problem is science does have explanations for this phenomenon. There are many forms of sleep disorders and psychological problems that can produce the same effect in people. It is the same sort of thing that has been seen in so-called demonic possession over the centuries. Modern pop culture through films, books and TV has transformed many of these demons and monsters of old in to probing aliens and interdimensional entities and government conspiracies. Humans are weird and complicated creatures.

Anyway, this film pretends to be based on actual events and real people and their testimony. It creates a genuinely creepy idea of some kind of alien interference and experimentation on us poor earthlings – especially in Nome, Alaska. And I have no problem with that for a story. It’s a fun and spooky idea and for the most part the film creates a decent sense of confusion and helpless dread. My main problem is that the filmmakers go to such lengths to pretend this is all real, but then they go and make the scripting and acting and direction of the inter-cut ‘real’ footage so utterly unconvincing. It also gets downright annoying at times. From the very start I knew this was all one big lie. But when having to continually share split screen footage of bollocks on the left next to more bollocks on the right, I was fast losing patience. No. Stop it. You ain’t fooling anyone.

Afterwards, I poked around online just to confirm that it was indeed all bollocks. And, yes, to quote Arnie in Predator…”It’s all bulllshit. All of it.”

There is no Dr Tyler. Nome, Alaska has no more strange disappearances and occurrences than anywhere else in the US. In fact Nome has made complaints to Universal Pictures for trivialising real disappearances and real events (unrelated to aliens) that have affected their community. Still, I don’t really care about that. It’s dramatic licence to tell a story. I know the people of Barrow, Alaska got a bit upset about how their town was portrayed in the 30 Days of Night books and film. Suck it up, guys! I only care if it results in a good and effective film. And I say The Fourth Kind would have been better if they’d either just done a fully dramatised film of the story or made a proper mockumentary with ‘real’ footage ala Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and Rec. If done properly that could be a really freaky and powerful film. Instead we get an unconvincing and often annoying mishmash that, while often reasonably atmospheric in the dramatised bits, left me feeling rather cheated and distinctly unmoved by the whole affair.

However, in the movie's defence I really liked the inclusion of the whole ancient Sumerian angle. The idea of the aliens - or whatever they are - telling us how they are God, alluding to the fact that they may have actually created the human race for whatever reason, is cool. Not original at all, but cool. Maybe we are all just one big science experiment in a galactic high school somewhere. Of course there is always the angle to the story that Dr Tyler is basically nuts and has been doing something to the patients she puts under hypnosis. There is a bit of a mystery about how her husband actually died which gives a hint that she might not be all there. But this is only toyed with and the film expects us to accept the alien abduction theory as fact. Personally, I’d have preferred some more ambiguity. A conflict of people’s perception ala the excellent The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

The main cast is mostly okay. Mila is a solid actress and as lovely as ever and Elias Koteas is equally solid as her colleague and friend. But poor Will Patton as the local Sheriff just wanders through it all looking confused and angry – the Mark Wahlberg syndrome.

The basis is here for a much better film. It could have had the balls to delve a little deeper in to the phenomenon and its ambiguity in the way The Exorcism of Emily Rose did with the similar demonic possession thing. Or it could have just pulled back and pared down to a more basic and gruelling horror story such as The Exorcist or Paranormal Activity. Instead what we get is an ultimately unfulfilling messy hybrid. Forgettable fluff.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Pucker up, baby!

The Princess and the Frog

Traditional 2D animation is back courtesy of the rejuvenated Disney Animation Studios. The original hand drawn art form, which created Disney and made it what it is, makes a welcome and long overdue return after the virtual standardisation of filmed animation as 3D CGI. It is perhaps ironic then that the people who were arguably responsible for that trumping by 3D are the ones who have brought the original 2D style back to us. And so Disney Animation, under the overall stewardship of John Lasseter and the wizards at Pixar, gives us The Princess and the Frog, a movie that takes its audience back to Disney basics with a charming, funny, magical, musical fairytale adventure in the best traditions of the genre.

It’s New Orleans in the 1920’s and Tiana is a young woman who wants to follow her father's dream by opening her very own restaurant. She works hard, two jobs, non-stop, giving up any sort of fun or chance of a wider life by being solely focussed on achieving her one and only goal. Love and romance is the furthest thing from her mind. It’s interesting that Tiana is a very modern and career driven ‘realist’ Disney 'princess' – which makes her rather different from her previous Disney kin. Anyway, Tiana gets mixed up with visiting Prince Naveen who’s financially broke and in New Orleans looking for a rich bride to marry for her money. Except that when Tiana meets him, Naveen has been turned in to a frog by the wonderfully sinister voodoo sorcerer Dr. Facilier as part of his evil plan to gain control of the city and appease the dark forces from ‘the other side’ whom he owes bigtime. Frog Prince Naveen, mistaking Tiana for a real princess at a fancy dress ball, asks her to kiss him to break the spell (as in the old fairytale). Tiana is repulsed, but, seeing an opportunity, she makes a deal with the frog prince: if she agrees and he returns to human form he’ll then help her to get her restaurant. Naveen agrees. And so she lays a smacker on him…with unexpected results for them both. The frog pair then head off together on an adventure in to the bayou to find a way to break the spell and return them both to human form. Along the way they make some new friends, get in to various amusing scrapes with hunters and wildlife, and learn more about each other, themselves and what it is they both really need from life, which is likely different to what it is they each might want. As with all Disney fairytales The Princess and the Frog is full of strong and positive messages for kids with the prime one here being about being open to life and all its possibilities, to take time to look around and see what you might be missing. To keep an open mind and embrace new things that might come along. Basically to chase your dreams but make sure you live life while you do.

Technically The Princess and the Frog is top notch. The film looks beautiful. There is something about hand drawn animation and painted backdrops even the best CG can’t quite capture. There is a soulful, human feel to it. And the design and animation on show here is top quality. The depiction of New Orleans and the surrounding countryside looks and feels wonderful and very atmospheric with the film using many of the city’s real locations including Bourbon Street and the creepy and evocative Lafayette Cemetery. Of course, being Disney, it is a heightened and overall ‘nicer’ representation of the real city and the time period (racism doesn’t seem to exist here.) But for this film that approach feels right and can be forgiven. The character designs are mostly realistic with humans looking human and not particularly stylised or with exaggerated features. The designers have more fun with the non-human characters such as Louie the trumpet playing Alligator and Reggie the Cajun firefly.

Now, being a New Orleans set musical, jazz is gonna have to play a major part. And it does. The jazz styles of the time pervade almost every aspect of the film and virtually every tune, which range from big band and trumpet driven numbers to more soulful southern ballads. The songs by Randy Newman are all very good and help tell the story and sell the characters while making for some uncontrollable toe tapping. Then there’s the voice cast. They are all spot on. I especially loved Jennifer Cody as grown up Charlotte, Tiana’s rich, flighty, shallow yet kindly friend since childhood. She has a wonderfully funny scene with her daddy in the café Tiana works in where she’s not letting her ‘big daddy’ get a word in edgeways. Then there’s Ritchie Montgomery as Reggie the Cajun firefly who longs for his one true love Evangeline. He is also great and helps provide Reggie with the films’ most heartfelt storyline, which forms part of the motif for the entire film and also harkens back to a previous Disney classic of old. And a special shout out goes to the great Keith David as Dr Facilier, the downright creepy and evil voodoo dude. He looks like Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die and gives the film a really cool, dark and scary edge. He even conjures up some shadow demons from the other side to hunt down our froggy heroes. I could see some young kids being kinda freaked out at these nasties as well as by some of the other weird and scary imagery on show here. And that’s great. Just what a proper fairytale should be.

Being a big kid I really enjoyed The Princess and the Frog. It knows exactly what it is and does what it sets out to do beautifully. The script is familiar and traditional yet always interesting and fun while providing a nice modernist edge to its heroine. As with the best of Disney it also gives us some wonderful and memorable supporting characters. The film looks lovely and the old style jazz inspired music is catchy and often infectious in its energy. The film may not have the same depth or emotional impact of Disney and/or Pixar’s absolute finest but The Princess and the Frog is still a darn good family film made with real care and love. It also reminds us of the wonderful artistry and atmosphere of traditional animation, of just how special that medium is and how it should never be lost to film. And to think it took the intervention of a 3D animation company to remind us. Nice one Pixar.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Keep away from men with sticks and rope...

Being Human: Episode 2.2

being human,geroge,mitchell,annie,vampire,werewolf,ghost,BBC
Bloody hell! How brilliant was this second episode of the second series of the sublime Being Human? Pretty bloody brilliant is what! Episode two gives us more great character stuff with the arrival of Mitchell’s old friend Carl who has done something awful to someone he loves and now needs Mitchell’s help to clear up the mess. New werewolf Nina is struggling with coming to terms with her changed life and is becoming more and more at odds with George and some of the decisions he now has to make. And poor Annie really knows how to pick her men as Saul turns out to be not what she or we expect.

In this episode the utterly terrifying view of death that this series presents makes a shocking return. It is no warm white light and happy hereafter here, just a dark horrible tunnel lined with men bearing rope and sticks…and something awful waiting for you at the end. Understandably, Annie wants nothing to do with it. She wants to stay on earth where everyone can now see her and she is almost entirely corporeal (though still having her ghost powers so as to teleport when needed.) She arguably has a better life now than when she was alive. There is an awesome scene both scary and tense as anything where Annie is being dragged screaming towards the open door in to the corridor of death that had me on the edge of my seat hoping against hope she wouldn’t be thrown through. “NO! NOT ANNIE!” I nearly cried out. “Hurry up George, get in the room and save her…” The episode ends with poor Annie having had a major relapse in her condition. I felt so sorry for her. The other storyline of Mitchell helping his old friend Carl is excellent too and not a very hopeful sign for our recovering bloodaholic regarding his future prospects for controlling his addiction. Here we get the return of Ivan too, this time sans wife Daisy, to lend a helping hand. Ivan is a fascinating character. He has a talk earlier with George where you think it might kick off…but he is just keen to find out what it felt like for George to kill Herrick as well as to have made whoopee with Daisy. It seems Ivan has a hard time ‘feeling’ emotional connections anymore. And yet he still loves Kate Bush…the music he plays in his car.

This was a seriously fabulous episode full of character development, character backstory, plot twists, deepening mysteries, horrific happenings, surreal story telling (loved Sir Terry Wogan as the voice of death), cracking dialogue and brilliant humour, all produced with very strong production values. This show looks great. Some of the photography was darkly lush and wonderfully moody. Yep, Being Human just gets better and better. I so love this show.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Lording it over the Rings: Part 3 – Kings, Rings and All Good Things

The Return of the King

We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.

Where do you begin with The Return of the King? There is so much going on here, so many disparate and complex threads to be drawn together, so many character journeys figuratively and literally coming to an end. So much huge scope, epic conflicts and intimate emotions. And yet Peter Jackson weaves it all together in to a spellbinding and effortless narrative filled with so many incredible moments, sights, images and instances that it is almost overwhelming. Any one story thread or battle would be enough for just the one movie but here we have five threads – Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Mordor, Gandalf and Pippin at Minas Tirith, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli at the Paths of the Dead and Theoden leading the Rohirrim. And within the Rohirrim there is the separate story of Eowyn and Merry. And everything is now coming to a head. Gollum’s plan to retake the ring and kill the hobbits almost succeeds by his successfully separating Sam from Frodo and then leading Frodo in to the lair of the horrific giant spider Shelob. But he didn’t count on the unswerving loyalty of Samwise the Brave. In many ways Sam is the heart and the real hero of this story. He has no real reason to be on this journey except that he is a good friend and he made a promise. And it is his strength and his determination and his good cheer that makes it possible for Frodo to do what he has to do.

At the same time the armies of men are gathering to go to the aid of Gondor as its capital Minas Tirith is being besieged by tens of thousands of orcs and other nasties from Mordor. But even the large army Theoden and the Rohirrim have managed to assemble won’t be enough for the awesome task at hand. And as usual in this tale all seems hopeless. And it is at this point that another of Tolkien’s eucatastrophies occurs. Lord Elrond arrives with the broken sword Narsil reforged as Andúril – the symbol of kingship for Aragorn and the final sign that he must now accept his destiny as Isildur's heir, the one true king of men. And Aragorn finally does. And to prove it to himself and to the world he goes in to the paths of the dead and does what only the true king of Gondor could do.

The Battle of Pelennor Fields is the great military showdown between the race of men and the forces of Mordor. And it is a huge, wonderful, terrible, thrilling war beginning with the siege of Minas Tirith and then its invasion, which is eventually halted by the arrival of the Rohirrim and their gobsmackingly amazing charge led by King Theoden. But just when the men of Rohan and Gondor think the day is won…the second, even more terrifying wave of enemy forces arrive with the charge of the enormous elephant-like mûmakil. The moment King Theoden first sees them and realises what is happening is fantastic. That almost ‘what the f***k?’ look he gives before he gathers his senses and orders a reformed charge. Pelennor Fields is a stunning battle that lasts for a good portion of the movie but is always broken down in to smaller fights and personal stories within the huge mayhem. The best and most important of these being Eowyn and Merry and their confrontation with the Witch King, the leader of the Nazgul. This comes after the Nazgul sweeps down and plucks Theoden from the ground hurling him through the air to be pinned beneath his dead horse. Eowyn, armoured and helmeted, dives in to protect her king and uncle from the approaching Witch King. They do battle, seemingly one sided and – again - hopeless. The Witch King taunts Eowyn with the old prophecy that: “…no man can kill me!” After Merry distracts the villain with a knife in the leg, Eowyn pulls off her helmet, says, “I am no man” and stabs him in the face, killing him. YEAH!!! That is simply one of THE greatest cheer and punch the air moments in cinema history. What a woman! Of course it is followed by sadness as Theoden dies in her arms but he fulfilled his destiny and did the right thing for his people and the world entire, completing a wonderful character journey in the noblest of ways.

There is so much to talk about and wonder over in this film that I can’t possibly do it all here. But in the end Frodo gets to Mount Doom. And through an act of faith in his hobbit friends, Aragorn leads a last ditch attempt at distracting Sauron in order to give Frodo a chance to succeed in destroying the ring. Aragorn marches an army to the Black Gates and openly challenges the Dark Lord. And as the dread forces of Sauron emerge and surround our smaller army of heroes, the whispered, tender words of Aragorn as he glances back at Gandalf before charging the enemy come forth. “For Frodo.” *Sniff* The distraction works…but not before Frodo finally succumbs to the ring and Gollum tries one last time to take it from him. Both ringbearers, driven mad by its power, wrestle over possession and then tumble over the edge. And Gollum falls to his death happy to be reunited with his precious once more. Eventually, after seeming to threaten not to, the ring finally sinks in the lava of the crack of doom and is destroyed once and for all.

This finale is incredibly powerful and so emotionally charged with all the pieces coming together – chiefly Gollum’s part in the story finally proving to be so crucial. Gandalf always said he had some part to play but didn’t know what. Now we do. For Gollum was fundamental to the ring being destroyed. It was his obsession and love for it that finally made it possible. Like Isildur before, Frodo also fails at the last step and is taken by the ring. And in the end it is both Gollum’s and now Frodo’s blind greed and obsession that leads to the rings end. A moral there if ever I saw one.

The film then goes in to its most controversial stage – the multiple endings. I know these annoyed lots of people at the time. But they never did me. These scenes are crucial. We have invested hours and hours and - at the time of release - three years in this story and these people. We need…we deserve to see them through to their proper ends. Aragorn meets his destiny and is coronated as king and reunited with Arwen. The moment where he says to the hobbits “My friends…you bow to no one.” And then he and everyone else kneel before them just gets me every time. The arrival back in the Shire is important to the story as we have to be reminded what the hobbits have been fighting for, what Frodo ultimately sacrificed himself for. And then we go on to the Grey Havens where the last of the Elves, Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo will depart Middle Earth for good, sailing for Valinor, the eternal world across the sea. This is where Frodo informs Sam and Merry and Pippin that his life is now over with nothing left for him in this world anymore. It is sad and yet comforting in a way as Frodo hands his story i.e. life to Sam who gets to finish it, to live life as Frodo couldn’t. This is shown perfectly at films end, just as Tolkien did in the book, with Sam arriving back home, back to the unchanged and lovely Shire to be greeted by his wife Rosie and their little children. And it is right there in that perfect moment that this huge millennia spanning saga of good and evil, of war and sacrifice ends with the simplest of happy words from Master Samwise. “Well, I’m back.”

The Return of the King is a powerful, stunning and emotional film and a perfect crowning (pun intended) finale to this story. It is crammed full of incredible moments both huge and tiny. Of images and acts that make you want to cheer and with words and deeds and sacrifices that make you want to shed a tear. It is full of dread and terror and carnage yet also hope and light and love. All the characters shine and the ones we have come to care about get to complete their journeys in the most appropriate and fitting of ways. Technically it is a stupendous effort. The filmmaking talents involved were firing on all cylinders with a special shout out to Howard Shore for his gorgeous trilogy of music that culminated in a well-deserved Oscar. The scale of this production and of the story being told is massive with the siege of Minas Tirith and the Pelennor Fields battle being jaw dropping and ridiculously thrilling. But the telling is truly in the characters and through the timeless themes of friendship, loyalty, helping those in need and never giving in to despair. Of living with the natural world and not trying to control and dominate it, of being stewards of our (middle) earth and not its masters. Similar tales and themes and ideas are ingrained in our collective consciousness and told and retold throughout generations – most recently with Avatar. And as much as I love Avatar, the complexity, the emotional depth and the genius of character and storytelling shown in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is second to none. I can’t wait to see what Jackson and Del Toro give us with The Hobbit.

Here are just some of my favourite moments in this film in no particular order:

The lighting of the beacons - an epic rousing sequence consisting of only visuals and music that ends with Aragorn rushing to tell Theoden that Gondor calls for aid. And Theoden replying “And Rohan will answer.” YES!

Eowyn in disguise grabbing Merry to head to battle

Faramir’s hopeless charge to Osgilieth

Gandalf’s beautiful speech to Pippin about how death is not the end

The Witch King perching on Minas Morgul as the hordes of Sauron begin to march forth

Gandalf riding out to save the surviving Gondorian soldiers with his beacon of light

Aragorn taking Andúril from Elrond

Gimli nudging Legolas’ bow as he fires an arrow at the Corsairs - accidentally killing Peter Jackson

Theoden’s speech to his men and the charge of the Rohirrim – one of the greatest sequences in movie history

Sam vs. Shelob

Theoden sees the second wave approaching

Eowyn vs. the Witch King “I AM NO MAN!”

Faramir’s loving gaze at Eowyn

“For Frodo.”

The surviving Fellowship coming in to Frodo’s room and Frodo’s look as Sam comes in last

“My friends, you bow to no one.”

“We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved - but not for me.”

“Well, I’m back.”


The beautiful drawings under the end credits and Annie Lennox’s equally beautiful and fitting closing song ‘In to the West’

tengwar,elvish,writing,lord of the rings

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Lording it over the Rings: Part 2 - Lots of Horses and a CGI Wretch

The Two Towers

The Two Towers was always my least favourite of the three films. Not because I didn’t think it was great or that I didn’t love it, I did. I think I just missed the simple linear story and the more magical feel of The Fellowship of the Ring. Plus it had one storyline that, frankly, just rather bored me.

The Two Towers is that tricky middle act of a story where you can almost feel as if you are treading water until the big stuff happens later on. This is something Lucas managed to avoid with The Empire Strikes Back, making that the best film of the Star Wars saga. It is something Peter Jackson almost avoids with The Two Towers. What these middle films can do is devote more time to character building and moving story elements in to new and often darker places. And this is what happens here. Basically The Two Towers is a war film. It is a grim story of an attempted genocide against an entire people, the people of Rohan by the industrialised forces of Isengard. It is a story of the destruction of nature in an attempt to dominate the world with iron. This war against nature is shown through the third of three separate story threads, the destruction of Fangorn Forest and the awakening of the Ents, tree-like beings who live in the forest, and their eventual furious rise against Isengard and the now evil wizard Saruman. It has to be said that the whole Ent plot is my least favourite thing about this film. To be honest I don’t much care for Treebeard or the story of Merry and Pippin who are with him and the other Ents. I know it is important thematically and plotwise for the story, but I just get rather bored by slow moving, talking trees. Every time they cut to Merry and Pippin and Treebeard I just want to be back with Aragorn and the Rohirrim or with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. It is in those two stories that The Two Towers shines.

Firstly, the people of Rohan, the Rohirrim. They are a marvellous creation by Tolkien and brought to the screen wonderfully by Peter Jackson and co. They are basically a throwback to the Anglo Saxons if they had developed a horse-based culture and a history not interrupted by the Norman invasion. The realisation of their capital, Edoras, a city of wood and thatch built around a huge jagged hill with the great hall of Meduseld crowning its top, is fabulous. From the moment we get there the culture feels real and old and authentic. The people of Rohan are great with some wonderful characters and actors bringing them to life – none more so than Bernard Hill as King Theoden. Theoden is possibly my favourite character in these films. Hill gives him such world-weary depth. He is full of sadness and doubt over his role and ability as king, yet he is also filled with such bravery, sense of honour and genuine love for his lost son and for his lovely niece Eowyn. His story is fantastic. From first seeing him as the puppet of Saruman, controlled by the vile Wormtongue (a splendid Brad Dourif) then to grieving father, to doubt ridden king, to fearless and noble leader who accepts his fate as a part of how things should be, he is truly captivating. This is my favourite character journey in the films. I just adore Theoden’s simple, quiet and forlorn line to Aragorn, as the forces of Isengard are about to overrun his keep: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” This is so simple and so true and sadly relates so well to our world today. What indeed can we do? And then there is Eowyn. Ah, lovely Eowyn. She was always my favourite female character in the films…not that there are many to choose from. And she is probably my second favourite character after Theoden in terms of character journey. She encompasses everything that is good and true while being desperate to actually fight for what she loves and believes in. She is resilient and brave – emotionally as well as in battle. Her handling of her affection for Aragorn is heartfelt and mature, never letting it consume her. Her defiance of tradition and her belief in anyone being able to fight for what they love is beautiful stuff. And of course it pays off handsomely in The Return of the King in one of the best moments of the entire trilogy. Miranda Otto is perfect in the role. She has a fragile porcelain beauty about her, yet also a tough indomitable spirit. She’s lovely and she kicks some major ass. Watching her again as Eowyn I fell in love a little bit.

The war story comes to a head with the siege and battle of Helms Deep, the mountain fortress the Rohirrim go to in times of need. And the battle is spectacular in a grim, horrific, dirty and violent way. The action is built up slowly and purposefully; plenty of dread and hopelessness abounds as the people of Rohan await the awesome and horrific might of ten thousand orcs and uruk-hai. This is wonderfully shown in the tension between Aragorn and Legolas over the hopelessness of the cause and Aragorn teaching a young boy how to wield his sword and - more importantly - about hope, which is a major theme of The Lord of the Rings. Hope is always there no matter what. Never give up. Never lie down and die for you have no idea what may be waiting around the next corner, something that may arrive unexpected to turn your ill fortunes to good. Tolkien termed this concept the eucatastrophe, the opposite of catastrophe. And this eucatastrophe happens twice at Helms Deep, although one is invented by the filmmakers (the arrival of the elves) with the other being Gandalf and Eomer’s arrival out of the rising sun in the east to save the day. This is brilliant, elegant and deeply stirring stuff. The charge of the Rohirrim led by Gandalf down the steep hill with the sun blazing behind them is truly magnificent.

The other story strand of the film is of course Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor. This is where they hook up with Gollum who offers to lead them to Mordor through secret ways. Gollum is amazing. The CGI still looks fantastic even after the likes of Avatar. But it is the performance by Andy Serkis that really sells him. He is utterly believable and truly a wretched thing yet also pitiable. You can’t help but dislike Sam for always having a go despite knowing full well that Sam is right. When Frodo and Sam meet up with Faramir, Boromir’s brother, things get even more interesting. Faramir is the younger brother living in his older brother’s shadow, always seeking to please his dismissive father. So when the opportunity to do what Boromir failed to do – take the one ring to Gondor - comes his way he goes with it. This leads to the siege of Osgiliath and Faramir’s realisation that to really be strong and be right he must let Frodo go and resist the rings’ temptation. Which is what he does. And the film ends with Sam, Frodo and Gollum making their way closer to Mordor with Gollum secretly deciding to lead them to their deaths and reclaim the ring for himself.

The Two Towers is fantastic and plays a lot better than I remembered it. Even the Treebeard stuff, which I still don’t much like, I can cope with better now. But it is the wonderful Rohirrim and Theoden and Eowyn, the grim and brutal Helms Deep battle and the brilliance of Gollum that makes this stand out as the classic it is. The extended edition also gives us the fate if Saruman too. Any excuse to see the always-awesome Christopher Lee is fine by me.

The story concludes…

Lording it over the Rings: Part 1 - Hairy Feet and Fiery Demons


Being on leave this week and with plenty of time to fill I decided it was time to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages: re-watch the entirety of the extended editions of The Lord of the Rings back to back…or as close to as possible. All twelve hours of it. I haven’t watched any of these movies all the way through for several years just having caught bits and pieces of them when they’ve been on tv (those being the regular and shorter cinema cuts.) This has partly been due to it being a major time investment to do so as the extended cuts are the definitive versions and the only ones I ever want to watch in their entirety. And you really need to watch them in order and then all together as it is one big story and one huge film. To call these extended editions is rather unfair really. They are actually entirely new editions of the films using different takes, added scenes, extended scenes, re-editing of the narrative, new music etc. to totally re-forge the story.

On Wednesday I broke out the lovely green and gold box of The Fellowship of the Ring. I popped disc 1 (of 2) in to my upscaler bluray player, turned on my 42” widescreen telly, adjusted the home cinema settings for digital 5.1, cranked up the volume and let rip. On Thursday I finished The Return of the King and have just finished re-watching the hours of wonderful documentaries that accompanied those discs.

And I gotta say that once again I was totally blown away.

These three films – especially in their superior extended cuts – are simply three of the finest films ever made. They are huge yet intimate, sweeping yet subtle, quietly emotional yet rousing. They are epics that tell a timeless mythic tale which, despite the magic and monsters and fantasy, always remains grounded in a historical reality that is utterly believable. They also contain so many of the best moments in modern filmmaking that it is almost ridiculous to behold. Though The Fellowship of the Ring remains my personal favourite of the three, The Return of the King is crammed full of so many gobsmacking scenes and moments with more glorious money shots than a dozen other films combined. In this marathon exercise I also gained a much stronger love for The Two Towers, always my least favourite of the three. So, without further ado…

The Fellowship of the Ring

I love, love, love this film - especially in its extended edition. The opening whispered Elvish words bleeding in to Cate Blanchett’s wonderful narration over the spectacular history of Isildur’s defeat of Sauron and his subsequent fall from grace, through the journey of the ring to the Shire, really sets the scene and lets you know this is gonna be something special. The extended stuff of Bilbo’s party is wonderful, as is the journey of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin to Bree. The Black Riders/Ring Wraiths/Nazgul are introduced in this section and are the main threat for the first half of the film. And they are scary and freaky as anything. Truly the stuff of nightmares. It’s with the Nazgul that Peter Jackson’s horror movie roots shine. The knives in the dark sequence where the Nazgul try to kill the Hobbits at Bree is a dark, malevolent powerhouse of film making using brilliant imagery, music and cross cutting to put the audience in real fear for our heroes. And then comes the confrontation at Weathertop, which is equally stunning and nightmarish. This is then followed by the thrilling and tense ride of Arwen to Rivendell to save Frodo while closely pursued by the Black Riders. Upon reaching the river they snarl, “Give up the halfling, she-elf!” Arwen defiantly replies, “If you want him, come and claim him,” while unsheathing her sword. Awesome!

After the Council of Elrond where the Fellowship is formed, our band of heroes start out for Mordor. And there comes the journey through Moria and the confrontation with Goblins, a cave Troll and – of course – the Balrog. The Moria sequence all the way up to the Bridge at Kazahdum, Gandalf’s “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” and “Fly you fools!” followed by its end on Frodo’s heartbroken face is probably my favourite sequence in this entire trilogy and one of my favourite ever in film. I remember when seeing The Fellowship of the Ring at the cinema for the first time and the Balrog turned up I lost my freaking mind. It roared that hot, gravely, rumbling roar…and the cinema shook. I felt my seat vibrating. Jesus H. Christ! That moment goes down as probably my single favourite movie going moment ever. Of course from then on this film can’t top that on a visceral and gobsmacking level. But it manages it on a purely emotional and story telling level with the realisation by Frodo that he must abandon his friends and go on alone to his likely doom. You have the sacrifice of Borimir, the flawed yet ultimately heroic warrior of Gondor. There’s also the oath of Strider, Gimli and Legolas to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs. And of course there is the selfless, unwavering loyalty of Samwise the Brave, which ends the film on a hopeful and reasonably positive note. Glorious!

Everything about this film is perfect. The performances are all very strong with Ian McKellen as Gandalf being the standout. I especially love Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. She brings a real otherworldly beauty yet also scariness to her role. And John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the Dwarf is wonderful fun too. His rivalry and burgeoning friendship with elf Legolas is a great thing to watch especially as it grows stronger throughout The Two Towers. A landmark in filmmaking, The Fellowship of the Ring is a truly brilliant film on every level.

The story continues…

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Geek Happenings: Comics (with a vamp theme)

The Complete Dracula
Dracula 1
The Complete Dracula is an excellently written (by Leah Moore and John Reppion) and beautifully drawn adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic tale. I haven’t read the novel for many years but I am a fan and own all the major film and TV adaptations including the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi, the 1958 Hammer version with Christopher Lee, the 1977 BBC series with Louis Jordan, the 1979 film with Frank Langella and the 1992 Coppola film with Gary Oldman. And of course…the 2000 TV episode Buffy vs. Dracula. I love it. The Dracula is actually very good and Xander makes for a hilarious Renfield. But the 92 Coppola version is my fave. It is so lush, visually creative and theatrical and Oldman is awesome!

However, none of these adaptations are especially faithful to the novel with the Hammer version and the 1979 Langella film doing almost an entirely new story (based on the original stage adaptation of the book.) Even the BBC show and the Coppola film, by far the closest to the book, change things, amalgamate characters, invent new story points or miss things out altogether. This comic book adaptation is - from memory of the book and the notes in the back of each issue – 99.9% faithful. A couple of lines here and there have been slightly altered to make character motivations clearer but all Stoker’s characters, their relationships, the geography of the story (something none of the films gets right) and the timeline is spot on. They have even included the book’s original opening chapter ‘Dracula’s Guest’ which was excised upon publication due to length issues.

This is a wonderful adaptation of a beloved work of classic fiction. A great deal of research, love and care has gone in to its making including the writers and artists having worked closely with respected Dracula scholars to make sure everything they were doing was correct or at least in keeping with Stoker’s intentions. A collected edition will be out soon. If you like Dracula or just excellent graphic novels then you need this.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8
Buffy Season 8 - issue 31
Bet you guessed this one, huh? Yep, the Bufster lives on in comic books. This is the official Joss Whedon continuation of his TV show that ended in 2003 when Buffy defeated The First Evil, destroyed Sunnydale, and, using the magic of wicca witch Willow and a sacred Slayer artefact, turned all the worlds thousands of potential slayers in to full slayers.

“From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, can stand up, will stand up. Slayers... every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

Dark Horse Comic’s Buffy Season 8 has been running now since 2007 with issue 31 new out this week. It has been a big critical and commercial hit. So what's going on in Slayerland?

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Our gal Buffy Summers has been training an army of slayers who are now (for various reasons) the worlds public enemy number one. As such Buffy and her people are being hunted down by the masked bad guy Twilight (a dig maybe at another vamp thing?) and his US military cohorts along with other nefarious types including Amy and Warren, baddies from the TV show. The current plot has Buffy, her friends and the band of slayers hiding in remote Tibet fighting off Twilight’s forces and accidentally/on purpose releasing a trinity of ancient goddesses who are about to wreak havoc on the world. This new issue titled Turbulence is written by Joss himself. And it is excellent, filled with loads of his trademark witty, creative dialogue and character beats while moving the overall story along in to intriguing new places. The reveal of the identity of Twilight is about to happen in the books but has already leaked online. And I gotta say it is an odd one. But I go with Joss…after all Joss is Boss!

Anyway, Buffy Season 8 has been awesome from the start. Its been awesome for spinning some top notch stories, bringing back some great writers from the TV show, courting controversy (Buffy had a brief gay fling much to the horror of some fans and some of the media…twats!) But mostly its been awesome for just bringing back some much loved characters and giving them their proper voices courtesy of the god who be Whedon. Season 8 still has a while left to go and Season 9 is already being sketched out. Buffy Lives!

Angel issue 29
The only other series I currently get every issue of is the IDW produced Angel, the official continuation of the Buffy spin-off TV series of the same name.

For those not in the know Angel was Buffy’s vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend from seasons 1,2 & 3 before he got his own show, relocating to LA where he gathered a team around him to fight evil and “help the helpless.” Angel the series was cancelled at the end of season 5 (not through poor ratings, just to save money so the network could make cheaper reality shows instead) and it finished on a cliffhanger in the brilliant episode Not Fade Away. At series end the evil demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart, the main villains of the show, had been defeated. Unfortunately that defeat led to all hell being literally unleashed on earth…well…Los Angeles anyway. The last we saw of Angel and his few surviving teammates they were in a rain soaked alley, swords and axes in hand, about to face down a huge demonic horde. There was even a giant dragon. Hopeless odds surely. But Team Angel was up for the fight with Angel’s last words on screen being the immortal, “Let’s go to work!” as he charged the enemy with sword raised high.

This comic series, also starting in 2007 and originally titled Angel: After the Fall but now simply Angel, picked up several months after that fight in the alley. A fight Team Angel didn’t exactly win nor lose. LA is still hell with demon lords running various sectors and Angel (sans team) still at large, fighting the good fight, trying to help and protect the surviving humans. The series has been good and fun to read…mostly. Its problem is that Joss Whedon hasn’t been directly involved ala Buffy Season 8, only commenting on overall story lines and offering advice. Nor have any of the shows original writers been involved. So, to me, it has lacked the wit and smarts and the charm that Season 8 has had by the bucketload. But having said that it is still a good read and they did bring in one of my fave authors Kelley Armstrong a while back to script several issues, which was great. Plus it has Spike as a regular character. And Spike was and is my favourite character in the entire Buffyverse and one of my favourite characters in fiction ever. That platinum punk vamp kicks so much ass.

Geek Happenings: Books

The Good Fairies of New York

good,fairies,new york,martin,millar

This week I finished reading Martin Millar’s comic/fantasy The Good Fairies of New York, an earlier novel by the Scottish author of Lonely Werewolf Girl. This one was first published in 1992 and is a lot shorter in length and less accomplished in its prose and overall story. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a lot of weird, subversive, punk fun while being an easy and funny read. It’s just not as well written or smartly plotted or vibrant as LWG.

Two Scottish thimble fairies called Heather and Morag accidentally end up across the pond in New York. The pair are both wannabe punks rebelling against the ancient traditions of their fairy clans by dying their hair and starting a fairy punk band adapting traditional fairy music to a punk style. After accidentally causing havoc in Scotland Heather and Morag flee their home and somehow end up in New York where they meet a couple of humans they deem in need of their special fairy help (they are ‘good’ fairies after all.) One of the humans is Dinnie, an overweight and antisocial young guy who is secretly in love with his neighbour, the sweet, artsy, new age beauty Kerry…who happens to be the other human in need of fairy help. Kerry is desperate to win a local arts fair with her flower alphabet, but she is also secretly very ill with Crohn’s Disease. At the same time Heather and Morag are being tracked by suspicious local Italian and Chinese fairies plus by other Scottish fairies sent to bring them home to face the (traditional) music. And we also have a rebellion brewing by English fairies in Cornwall against the enforced industrialisation of their fairydom by the cruel and despotic Cornish fairy king Tala. Add in the ghost of Johnny Thunders, the dead lead singer of the New York Dolls who has come back to look for his original guitar, and you get one truly bizarre tale. Needless to say all these crazy threads come together as the story goes on. And it is mostly rewarding and a right old laugh.

This is the oddest, most bizarre story about fairies I’ve ever read (although, granted, I haven't read many), being as it is full of punk music, bloody fights, fairy sex, human pornography, colostomy bags plus lots more equally freaky stuff. But, as with Lonely Werewolf Girl, Martin Millar writes great characters and has a wonderful knack for offbeat, surreal humour. I laughed out loud a fair bit reading this, though not as much as with Lonely Werewolf Girl. A fun and freaky book but it just has a few too many different story strands to keep track of and the prose is rather more basic than that of Lonely Werewolf Girl. Good but not great.

A Little Princess

Having recently rewatched the wonderful 1995 film of A Little Princess I’ve gone and bought a new edition of the original novel. It is a classic and I’m really curious how it works as a book in contrast to the brilliant but altered Alfonso Cuaron film that I adore. As I type I'm about ten pages in to chapter one and it is beautifully written taking its time to set up the character of Sara who is currently on her way to the school with her father.

I have a few other books on the pile to read too, including another Martin Millar one called Lux the Poet. And I really have to get around to reading I Am Legend, don't I Dawn?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The (not so) Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon


I read the book last year. Though not the best written of works it does have a huge visceral and emotional impact and its themes are strong and affecting. Strangely, apart from a few individual scenes and moments, this film adaptation lacks in both impact and thematic resonance.

Peter Jackson's film of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones has been somewhat sanitised for movie audiences and seems happy to just fall back on sentimentality and overblown FX. What should have been an uncomfortable, heartbreaking, uplifting but – important this – a subtle story comes across as a well produced yet rather hollow melodrama with decent actors and lots of very expensive CGI.

To be honest I’m not really sure what the film of The Lovely Bones was really about or what the point of it was. I suppose it plays best as a coming of age tale as it does retain elements of the coming of age story in the book, based around young Susie Salmon’s yearning for her first boyfriend and her need to grow up, even after her cruel death. In the book she had a first kiss but it never progressed further. After her death she yearned to make love to the boy she loved – especially as in the book (but not in the film) she is horribly violated before being murdered. And that hideous act can’t be her one and only experience of sex. Basically she needed to grow up to be able to move on. But in the film this is over simplified to be all about that one first kiss. The emotional journey of Susie is completed using the same method as in the book only it is now lacking in any real weight and feels kind of rushed and rather awkward. And the characters it happens to in the film are not developed at all so we have no real sense of who they are or of their relationship to each other and of the importance to them of what Susie is doing through them. By ‘the characters’ I mean Ruth Connors, the rather odd, outsider girl from Susie’s school who loves art and poetry and has the ability to sense and sometimes see the dead, and Ray Singh, the handsome Indian/English boy who was Susie’s should-have-been boyfriend. In the book, Ruth and Ray come together and form a close and complex friendship based around Susie’s memory – even though Ruth never knew her very well. In the film this coming together and relationship isn’t developed at all. They chat briefly…and that’s it. Ruth especially is a major character from the book and yet she has only a few brief lines here.

The other major theme of the book is about family. How families can come together and also fall apart. But ultimately how life goes on, and, despite the terrible things that can happen, wonderful things will happen too. In the book a lot of time and attention is paid to the dynamics of the Salmon family and how Susie’s murder affects them all, how it starts to pull the family unit apart but also how her memory ultimately brings them back together with new happiness and love. In the film this theme is skimmed over at best with the positives being reduced to a few shots at the end over Susie’s last voiceover. Basically lip service is paid to the main themes of the book leaving the film feeling rather hollow and lacking. I know that in adapting a book to a film you need to cut away lots of stuff and move stuff around and focus your story more. But when doing that removes much of the point of the story then why bother? So in Peter Jackson’s film we get the pared down, straightforward story of fourteen year old Susie (Saoirse Ronan) being murdered, who then goes to ‘the in-between’ and runs around CGI hills and beaches, yearning for her aborted first kiss with Ray Singh while also watching her dad Jack (Mark Wahlberg) smash up his ships in bottles and obsess about finding her killer. Yep, bare bones of the book and rather unfulfilling. It is odd that Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh together with Phillipa Boyens who between them did such a grand and masterful job adapting the huge Lord of the Rings seem to have dropped the ball with a smaller more intimate tale.

Now, having been rather harsh, this is still a Peter Jackson film. And as a Peter Jackson film The Lovely Bones is technically very well made with certain sequences, scenes and moments being excellent and hitting their targets bang on. The entirety of the sequence in the cornfield with Susie being enticed by George Harvey and then meeting her end at his hands (which we don’t thankfully see) is beautifully directed and acted. You sit there watching it, knowing what is coming, saying to yourself ‘Please…just turn around and run home, Susie.’ Apart from the rape, which doesn’t happen anyway in the movie, and the murder itself, this sequence looks and feels just like how it was described in the book. Then there is Susie’s dad smashing up his ships in bottles and then seeing the strange candlelight reflection in the window. That was genuinely moving. As was the afterlife sequence where Susie realises the true horror of Harvey’s crimes. The sequence where Susie’s little sister Lindsey breaks in to Harvey’s house is also straight from the book and is handled very well. It is supremely tense and creepy.

And so what of the cast? Casting the central role of young Susie Salmon was pivotal to this film. You have to get from Susie innocence combined with genuine rage and sadness for everything she has lost and will never have. She is smart but not especially so. Sister Lindsey is the really bright one who excels at school and at sports. Susie is just a normal teenage girl full of conflicting emotions and bubbling hormones, trying to become a woman and yet still childlike in many of her ways. As Susie, Saoirse Ronan is good. She is not great – but then she is not given especially great material to work with and has probably been directed in an ill-advised manner on occasion. The main culprit for this is in the over sickly and breathy voiceovers. They should have sounded more subtle, mature and wise in their speaking. Instead they are rather overwrought and theatrical. But she is certainly a good actress and with her long limbs and huge emotive blue eyes she looks striking and sells her scenes well enough. Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s dad Jack is good too. It is a low key and understated performance. He is not required to do much except be a nice, quiet chap before later on getting bleary eyed and quietly heartbroken. And Marky Mark does fine. He is believable as a father who has lost the brightest thing in his life. His steady, low-key, unyielding obsession over finding Susie’s killer is played nicely. Rachel Wiesz as Susie’s mum Abigail sadly makes no impact at all. She plays a tiny role in the film and disappears for a large section. Her entire backstory and subplot has been removed. Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn is good fun as the comic relief – even more so here than in the book. And then there is Stanley Tucci as George Harvey, the Salmon’s neighbour and the killer of Susie. He is the standout in the film and is very good indeed. Perhaps too good. Tucci is instantly creepy and repulsive as the loner, dollhouse building Harvey. But to be fair that was the character from the book. Almost everyone in the book thought Harvey was odd and creepy with that being the main factor why Jack and his daughter Lindsey suspected him of Susie’s death. And Tucci is certainly good at being bad. Harvey is a genuine monster whose monstrous deeds and compulsions become further revealed towards films end. His manner is reptilian and his methods disgustingly well thought out and planned. You really hope he gets what’s coming to him. Nobody else in the film makes any impact. Ruth and Ray who should have been main characters are sidelined. The actors look the part and say their few lines well enough. But that’s it.

In the end The Lovely Bones is rather a disappointment for me. It is far from a bad film, though. Peter Jackson just seems to have missed much of the point of the story. And while certain parts are handled beautifully and will give your tear ducts a good testing, he has also misjudged or simply missed out things that would give this story the genuine overall impact that it deserves. To my mind the film he made is too overblown, sanitised and over-reliant on flashy CGI. It feels oddly hollow at its core and is lacking in an overall emotional connection while appearing rather muddled in what it is trying to do and/or say. And yet, despite its shortcomings, I still kinda like it…mainly for the scenes and moments Jackson gets dead right. For example Ray telling Susie, “You are beautiful, Susie Salmon.” Grandma Lynn telling Susie about first kisses, saying, “Just have fun, kid.” Ruth seeing Susie’s spirit rush past her in the night. The candle’s ghostly flickering in Susie’s dad’s window. The reveal of the extent of Harvey’s monstrous crimes and the following sad-yet-happy realisation by Susie that she is not alone. And the lovely final words and good wishes Susie gives to us the audience before the screen grows dark. A good film in parts then, but not really one that works as a whole. This is no Heavenly Creatures and certainly no Lord of the Rings. And that’s a real shame.


Monday, 11 January 2010

Being Human, Being Brilliant!

werewolf,vampire,ghost,BBC,Bristol,Being Human

Being Human: Series 2

The awesome supernatural house-share drama and my favourite TV show of last year returned for series 2 last night. A vampire called Mitchell, a ghost called Annie and a werewolf called George all live together in a shared rented house in Bristol and together gain mutual support in circumventing their supernatural natures so as to live like normal regular everyday people, to just be…well…human.

After the battle against the vampire revolution and the defeat of vampire leader Herrick at the end of the last series, only a short time has now passed. About a month to be precise. And there is fallout to deal with including the exact lycanthropic status of werewolf George’s girlfriend Nina and the power vacuum amongst the remaining vampires after Herrick’s death. Plus there is a group of humans doing nasty secret experiments on supernaturals, one of which results in the particularly gruesome death of a werewolf in a hyperbolic chamber. And then there's the arrival of two new vampires in town with their own weird agendas. They are a married couple of which the husband seems to want to taunt and torture Mitchell and George for Herrick’s death while his wife apparently just wants to make dirty vampire/werewolf sex with George while also looking to kill off any living remnants from her human past. Yep, the stage seems set for a very interesting and hopefully bizarre new series of Being Human.

This first episode was great. It did a very good job reintroducing the characters and setting up ideas and threats for the new series. The main focus of the story was about Nina, George’s spiky nurse girlfriend who he accidentally scratched in the last episode of series one. It was about her fear that she is now a werewolf too and how she'd deal if she is one, and how George would deal with being the one to have cursed her. The episode was also about the three main characters looking for new meaning and purpose in their lives. Annie the ghost has become more confident and less afraid. As such she’s now visible to everyone and almost 100% corporeal when she wants to be. So much so that she goes and gets herself a job as a barmaid in a local pub. It’s a crazy idea - a ghost getting a job. But it is very funny and Lenora Crichlow as Annie is so sweet and charming that you just go with it. Her excitement over finding a new lease of life in death is infectious. Meanwhile Mitchell the vampire makes a connection with a new female member of staff at the hospital where he works in a cute scene involving pet goldfish. And then there is George the werewolf. Previously, George was very ordered and reticent about life in general as well as hateful of the monster he'd been turned in to. But now he seems to have embraced his werewolf nature despite still protesting how much he hates it. Those protestations sounded a little hollow with his temperament appearing rather arrogant, cold and aggressive. He even went and got jiggy with the naughty vampire lady…something he’d never have done before. But then I guess it was the night before the full moon.

Writer/creator Toby Whithouse provided another great character based/led script that was as rich in human themes as it was in fantasy plot and horrific incident. The characters were all great and the dialogue funny, sharp and meaningful. Toby can write great lines just as well as any top US writer. I especially loved his little nod to Buffy when Annie, trying to console Nina over her fears of being a werewolf, said: “There was a werewolf in Buffy called Nina.” Nina replied that she never watched it. Annie then said: “Yeah, well, I stopped watching it when I started living it.” Great! Although being a Buffy geek I have to point out that Nina the werewolf was actually in season five of Angel and not in Buffy at all. But appreciated all the same Toby :D

And talking of werewolves…the beasties in series 2 look even better than they did last year with the transformations still up to the same high standards. Very creepy in An American Werewolf in London style. Wicked!

All in all a great start to (hopefully) a great second series. Bring on episode 2 already.

Two strangers arrive…

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A Little Princess is a little gem

a little princess
You might think this is an odd film for a bloke in his late thirties who's a horror and sci fi geek to love. But it isn’t. At heart I’m a big softy who also loves films and stories in general that can make an emotional connection – as long as the themes and ideas strike a chord. And they most certainly do in this film.

I hadn’t watched A Little Princess for a long time. But today I was looking through my DVD’s and for some reason it just leapt out at me. I’m glad it did. I remembered it as being a very good film but had forgotten just how beautiful it is both thematically and artistically. It was originally recommended to me not long after it first came out in cinemas back in 1996, but back them I didn’t bother, dismissing it as just another boring kids film. It took me a while to finally see it, catching up with it on TV one Christmas. And I was instantly captivated. In the hands of Oscar nominated Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón who made Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, A Little Princess is a shining gem.

The story goes like this: It is 1914 and young Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews), an imaginative and kind-hearted girl, is brought from India to New York by Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham), her British Army officer father. She is enrolled in the same private boarding school her mother attended as a child. Her father then departs for Europe to rejoin the British Army to fight in the trenches of the First World War. Sara quickly becomes popular with her schoolmates, capturing their imaginations with colourful, magical tales of India and of its gods and goddesses. But tragedy eventually intervenes, which leaves Sara destitute and at the mercy of the schools nasty headmistress, Miss Minchen (a truly hissable Eleanor Bron.) To cope with her grief and her new station in life, Sara becomes a close friend of the schools child servant Becky. Along with Becky, Sara escapes her horrible new life by going further in to her world of stories and fantasy.

A Little Princess is adapted from the classic 1904 novel of the same name written by Frances Hodgson Burnett who also wrote The Secret Garden. This film version from 1995 changes several elements of the original novel including moving the school from England to America, moving the time period forward to the outbreak of the First World War and reinventing the entire resolution of Sara’s story. I haven’t read the book but the story as told here works perfectly. Thematically this film also works perfectly, at least for me. The exploration of childhood and what it means to be constrained as a child by often stupid seeming rules that quash an exhuberant and vivid imagination, a gift to be treasured and one that most of us will eventually lose once we've grown up. To allow imagination to soar is a wonderful thing as is encouraging freedom of expression and creativity for its own sake. The ability to imagine, to dream, to wonder…it is fundamental to who we are. And sometimes, for some of us, it can be our only means of escape, a way to freedom.

And then there is the look and the design of this film. It is simply gorgeous with detailed and lavish sets that were built almost entirely on a studio back lot in Burbank, California. The cinematography by Cuarón’s regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki is sumptuous and elegant. For the Indian/fantasy scenes it is dreamily colourful while being suitably crisp and grim for the reality of the dirty streets and alleys of New York.

The cast is excellent with young Liesel Matthews imbuing Sara with an inner strength, warm hearted kindness and an open honesty that never lets you think of her as being remotely spoiled or silly. Eleanor Bron is wonderfully cold and cruel as Miss Minchen. You can sense in her a real sadness and bitterness that comes out as a kind of jealousy towards poor Sara. All the young actresses playing the girls in the school are great especially the little one who plays Lottie, the ‘possessed’ girl with the screaming fits. She made me laugh.

A Little Princess is a carefully crafted, beautifully rendered piece of work coming from a top-notch filmmaker. Like the best films of Pixar it is too good to just label as a children's film, it trancends that. It is a film that deserves a place on the shelf of every family and of every genuine film lover.


A Little Princess 1995 (Trailer) - MyVideo

Saturday, 2 January 2010

When is a romcom not a romcom?

(500) Days of Summer is a quirky and amusing little romcom that is not a normal romcom, playing against most of the rules of that genre. Firstly, as the narrator tells us, this is NOT a love story. And then the film tells us this non-love story non-linear by dipping in and out at random within the 500 days that Tom and Summer are together to see where things went right and where they went wrong in their relationship.

James Gordon-Levitt is Tom, a pleasant and romantic young greetings card writer and wannabe architect. Zooey Deschanel is Summer, a fun filled girl who comes to work at Tom's place and who he immediately falls for. And Summer likes him too. Problem is she doesn't believe in love or relationships. And over the 500 days they are together we see how Tom's expectations and hopes start to come undone as he realises that the girl he believes is 'the one' might not share the same opinion about him. Or anyone. Or does she?

Both leads are very good. Gordon-Levitt is a good actor with an everyman charm about him that makes him easy to like and sympathise with and Deschanel is cute and sparky as the cynical but fun Summer. They are both good value to watch as are the supporting cast. The script is always amusing if never hilarious but it does have interesting insights in to the myth of love and romance. There is a great sequence where Tom has an angry rant at work about how movies and greetings cards and the world in general lies to us about love, selling us a product, not letting people say what they really feel. Poor dude is suffering but he has a good point.

Remarkably, though, (500) Days of Summer does have a fairly happy ending. It's just not the one you would expect from any normal romcom. And hooray for that.

My Favourite Films of 2009

Okay, so here is my much considered and pondered over list of favourite films of 2009.

Please note I say ‘favourite’ and not ‘best.’ I make no claim that any of these films are definitely better than other films released last year, only that I personally preferred them. And I make no apology for being populist in my tastes. I saw a fair bit of stuff last year, which included Oscar winners and indie/art house films. And while many of those were great I have to remain honest about what I loved most and what connected to me either emotionally, thematically or just on a pure unabashed entertainment level. Films that, for whatever reason, had an instant rewatchability factor. Or, better still, films that gave me the feeling while watching them of being totally transported away, of simply hoping for them never to end. That last feeling is one that doesn’t happen very often. Normally no matter how good a film is after a couple of hours have passed in a cinema I'm ready to go home. But sometimes movies come out that so captivate me that I become instantly lost in the world they create, so engrossed that I don’t ever want to leave that world. That happened twice last year with Let The Right One In and The Dark Knight and twice again this year with my top two choices. So, without further ado, here goes:

10. District 9
Peter Jackson produced, Neill Blomkamp directed sci fi tale of aliens as refugees in South Africa and the ensuing cultural and civil strife caused. A brilliant allegory for race relations and apartheid with excellent FX by WETA and an affecting and star making central performance by first time actor Sharlto Copley. Sci fi doing what sci fi does best – holding a mirror up to society and asking us who we are and why we do the things we do.

9. Zombieland
An inspired, zany, inventive zombie comedy (zomcom?) with a great script and a great cast headed up by the never better Woody Harrelson as nutty zombie killer 'Tallahassee.' Opposite him Jessie Eisenberg as the nerdy, insecure college kid ‘Columbus’ is just as good. And the movie is filled with tons of very funny sequences and lines of dialogue all brilliantly played and delivered by the spot on cast. This flick is a whole lot of crazy, clever fun that had me laughing hard while admiring the gruesome zombie mayhem, which wasn’t skimped on one bit with the blood and gore is still there, as you’d expect from this sub-genre.

8. Inglorious Basterds
Tarantino is back! Basterds is a gruesome WW2 fairytale, historical accuracy be damned. I loved the inventive cinematic style on show here. Basterds is gorgeously photographed and designed employing everything from captions, insertion of old film clips, narration, flashbacks and gloriously shot imagery - especially around the beautiful Melanie Laurent as Shosanna and her lovely old style cinema. The performances are all very good with two being great: Christophe Waltz as the Nazi Jew hunter Col. Landa and the aforementioned Laurent. Waltz is charming and brutal while Laurent is lovely and calmly compelling. Of the Basterds, Pitt is thuggish and funny and Til Schweiger as ex-German soldier turned Basterd Nazi killer is quietly psychotic. A great movie with QT back on top form.

7. Paranormal Activity
A genuinely scary, tense, creepy and unsettling mockumentary film where atmosphere and tone is everything. A young couple, Katie and Micah, have become isolated in their own home. Sleep deprived, paranoid, terrified, they are being persecuted by an unseen supernatural entity. Nobody will come and help them and they can't run, as it is Katie who is being haunted and not the house. There is something most unsettling about watching people sleeping through a locked off camera while you scan the screen tensely awaiting the next freaky incident - be it a moving door, ghostly footprints appearing, a moving bed sheet or a nasty sudden and violent attack. Yes, a couple things make you jump like any decent horror film should, but it is the hopelessness and the relatability of the situation that scares the most. Brrr!

6. Valkyrie
Bryan Singer makes a tense, old fashioned and highly skilful adaptation of the real life attempt by high-ranking German officers to assassinate Hitler in the hopes of preventing the destruction of the fatherland in the later days of WW2. This is great stuff with a solid and commanding central performance by Tom Cruise as Von Stauffenberg, the leader of the plot. Cruise is excellently supported by a top-notch cast including the always wonderful Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. But it is the true story itself and the meticulous telling of it along with the brilliant recreation of the period that impresses most. It was also shot on location using the real places where the events actually happened lending a genuine sense of grim reality to the whole thing. Excellent.

5. Drag Me To Hell
Or ‘When Sam Raimi stopped messing about with Spider-Man and dramas and went back to what he does best.’ Drag Me To Hell is a crazy, inventive, scary roller coaster of over the top horror. Sam pulled out all his favourite Evil Dead/Army of Darkness tricks and made a really loud, intense, scary spookablast of a film. It's ninety minutes of earsplittingly loud sound effects, yucky gloop, superjumptastic scares and tons of zany black comedy. Watching this I was jumping out of my skin one moment then laughing so hard my sides ached. Drag Me To Hell is huge fun and is one of those films that really does deserve to be seen in a theatre with an audience. It's a proper movie going experience. Screams and laughter all around. Popcorn flying. Great stuff!

4. Up
Once again Pixar knocked the ball way out of the park with Up, a gloriously entertaining adventure that’s also a bittersweet tale of life, love, loss and life again. Up has a wonderful, layered, intelligent script packed with so much depth, honesty and meaning. The entire film is brilliant but the first act transcends brilliant to become something quite special. It is genuinely moving in a way most films can never hope to be. The montage of Carl & Ellie’s life together is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling put on screen. But the emotional story never overshadows the humour. Up is consistently very funny in smart and inventive ways. All the characters are fab but I especially love Doug the Dog, "SQUIRREL!" Pixar is something to treasure. They are not driven by selling merchandise but rather by creating art that generations will come back to again and again long after the likes of the Ice Age’s and Monster’s vs. Aliens have been forgotten.

3. Watchmen

Director Zack (300) Snyder pulled off something pretty darn special here: an incredibly faithful film adaptation of beloved source material.

The story of Watchmen poses the question what would society be like if masked vigilante heroes really did exist as they do in comics? What would these heroes really be like and what would that choice to don a mask and ‘do good’ actually do to them - physically and mentally - as well as to the world around them? My overriding memory of the book is of Rorschach - the streetwise, moral absolute and unbalanced vigilante with the ink blot shifting mask who narrates a lot of the story by writing in "Rorschach's journal". It has to be said that Jackie Earl Haley who plays him in the film is perfect. The character has come direct from the page to the screen intact. The rest of the cast is also great - especially Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg played by Patrick Wilson. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake aka The Comedian is also very good. The character is a vile, misanthropic, murderous nutcase and Morgan plays him disturbingly well.

The whole film looks stunning and captures the feel of a nihilistic and hopeless time just counting down the hours until its own end. Watchmen is also extraordinarily violent with a lot to say about the often depressingly vile nature of humanity and our unending capacity for cruelty and (personal as well as global) self destruction shown by nuclear demigod Dr. Manhattan's gradual disconnection and eventual isolation from humanity. Towards the end of the film there is a small hopeful note of beauty amidst all the horror and chaos as the doomsday clock eventually hits midnight, but the story finishes on a final bleak note; a last truthful, moral absolute which could still destroy everything.

I loved the book and I thought this adaptation was note perfect. It is a great movie that looks fantastic and makes you think.

2. Star Trek

JJ Abrams movie is exactly what this franchise needed - a reboot/sequel that relieved it of the intolerable weight of over forty years of canon. Star Trek went back to the beginning and returned the idea to its original concept: Kirk, Spock and the USS Enterprise. Above all, though, it just made Star Trek fun again.

The new cast is perfect. I was initially concerned about Chris Pine as Kirk as I wasn’t familiar at all with him as an actor. And with Shatner as such an iconic presence in this role, how could anyone else capture the essence of James T. Kirk without just descending in to parody? But to his enormous credit Chris Pine doesn’t do that. He’s done his own thing as Kirk with just a few tiny classic Shatner/Kirkesque poses creeping in. Pine just exudes charisma like a young Harrison Ford and also has excellent comic timing. The sequence with Kirk charging around trying to convince everyone of the Romulan trap while McCoy is running after him and injecting him with various hyposprays is hilarious. In short Pine is amazing and delivers my favourite male performance of the year. A big time movie star was born right here. Karl Urban inhabits Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy completely. His take on the irascible doctor and extremely reluctant space traveller is awesome. It’s almost as if Deforest Kelley is back with us. Zachary Quinto is also very good as Spock, although he is quite a different Spock than I remember. He’s far more emotional and easy to rile. He’s even having a full on romantic relationship with a certain lovely young communications officer. And speaking of…
Zoe Saldana as Uhura. What a year she’s had starring in two of the biggest and best films of 2009 with her being one of the very best things about each. I love this girl. She is a damn good actress and just so natural, charismatic and likeable. She has real presence. Her Uhura is immensely intelligent, wise, emotionally sensitive and supportive. Another big time movie star was born right here.

To sum up, Star Trek is enormous ear to ear grin making fun, a wonderful adventure with a great cast who brim with charisma and talent. Star Trek manages to be both nostalgic and modern and is just tons of rip roaring, space faring fun.

1. Avatar

Nobody makes films like James Cameron. He makes very few, but when he does they are huge in scope and cost more money than the GDP of a small nation while always pushing forward new technologies and methods of filmmaking or just inventing entirely new ones. Every time the naysayers and doom mongers predict his latest film will be rubbish and unsuccessful. And (almost) every time they're wrong. Hugely wrong. Okay, so The Abyss was financially not so successful, however it was still a very good film. But apart from that (and Piranha 2) every film Cameron’s made has been either awesome or a classic and been embraced by audiences worldwide. His last, Titanic, was twelve years ago and is a great movie. If you haven’t seen it (how come?) then do so. Don’t believe the haters. Since Titanic rewrote the books on box office success it has taken JC a very long time indeed to get around to making his next film and to develop the technology to a point where he could make that film exactly how he wanted, to do it justice and to give audiences something special.

And, boy, did he ever.

I love Avatar. A lot. It may not be perfect or the most original story ever told but that really misses the point as similar stories to this have been told and retold for as long as people have told stories. They are just reinvented and retold in different ways. It is not what you do it is how you do it. And nobody has ever told this story like Cameron has with Avatar. He has created an entire world called Pandora with an eco system based on sound science and come up with great sci fi ideas within that eco system that bring to life many similar real life concepts here on Earth such as the Gaia hypothesis. But Cameron’s genius is to present it all in a quasi fantasy/pulp sci fi romantic adventure style that harkens back to the otherworldly tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Frank Herbert. Plus it has real emotional weight and is chock full of relevance to our current world. For instance the destruction of Home Tree is a fabulous and terrible sequence that carries a huge visceral and emotional wallop. It is awful to behold and reminds us of real life atrocities – none more so than 9/11. And Cameron has not lost his touch in directing action and spectacle either. The sweeping vistas of Pandora are stunning, as are the intense, violent and perfectly choreographed battles.

So the story is familiar but great and the world created is perfectly constructed and stunning. That brings me to the single best thing about the film. The Na’vi. They are simply amazing. The level of performance capture and CGI realism is far beyond anything previously managed. But the technical side of their creation would mean nothing without the performances of the actors playing them. And they all do great work but especially the fabulous Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. It astounds me. Neytiri is incredible, a wonder to behold every time she is onscreen. She lives and breathes. She is the single greatest synthespian character ever. Zoe’s gestures and movements - be it subtle look, a twitch of a cheek muscle, a trembling lip, a ferocious snarl, a tiny giggle - are all captured perfectly. Neytiri is a brilliant character and Saldana nails it perfectly.

It was a close run thing this year between Star Trek and Avatar for my fave movie and truth told there is not much in it at all. They could easily be swapped. But I think Avatar just edges it for the sheer scope and scale of James Cameron’s imagination and creation, for the utter mind boggle I get every time Neytiri is on screen, for the incredible use of 3D, for the emotional wallop I get when Home Tree falls. For the nerve jangling animal howl of rage and grief Neytiri gives as her father dies in her arms. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.

As I write this, Avatar has been a strong critical success and a huge financial success with it looking likely that James Cameron will end up being writer/director of the two biggest grossing films of all time. Nice going JC. So can we have Avatar 2 please? Just not in another twelve years.

I see you.