Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Buried: Livin' in a Box, yeah, yeah...

Buried poster Pictures, Images and Photos

Okay, so that was nasty.

In Buried, Ryan Reynolds is Paul, a civilian contractor who drives trucks in Iraq ferrying kitchen supplies around. One day his convoy gets ambushed and he’s taken prisoner. A while later Paul wakes up in a coffin-like box apparently buried somewhere in the deserts of Iraq. He finds he has a mobile phone left with him with limited battery life, along with a small knife, a flashlight, a lighter and some chemical glow sticks.

And that’s your movie right there.

And it’s all you need.

Because what follows is ninety minutes of pure horrific tension and claustrophobia as Paul discovers who has him and what they want while desperately trying to get through to his corporate employers and the US and local authorities for help as well as his loved ones back home. All of this before his limited air and battery power finally runs out.

Three things to say about Buried:

1. Ryan Reynolds is brilliant. Already a strong actor with tons of charisma and great comedic ability, this just goes to prove beyond any doubt his heavyweight dramatic acting chops. The entire film from first to last second is just him in a box acting the genuine terror, confusion, desperation and rage of his situation as well as his bitter frustration - especially when dealing with faceless, useless bureaucrats over his slowly dying phone. Reynolds truly sells it. You believe every ghastly second of his harrowing plight right up to the nerve jangling and emotion filled conclusion.

2. The director does one hell of a job in making a tense, terrifying, and set piece filled movie with just a guy in a box. But tense set pieces there are, lots of ‘em. The film’s concept is simple and genius. You can’t help but instantly identify with Paul and feel every horrid moment along with him in what has to be one of the biggest universal fears for humans – being buried alive. Honestly, to truly scare the bejesus out of people you don’t need ghosts or monsters of even serial killers, you just need something so very simple, real and primal in its terror and to be able to have people identify and connect with whoever is suffering. And that’s exactly what happens here. I’m not especially claustrophobic but, for me, Buried is hands down the best horror film of 2010.

3. All you need to know about the pointless, futile and misguided lunacy of America and Britain’s adventures in Iraq and the greedy corporate big money behind it is right here in Buried. Forget the well made yet pointless Green Zone or any other preachy, indignant Iraq dramas, just sit and watch and identify with Paul and the situation he is in, a situation built on greed, lies, broken promises and betrayal. It is simple, intimate and utterly horrific. And, sadly, very human.

Buried is one of the simplest, probably cheapest, and certainly best films of the year. Along with Natalie Portman for Black Swan, I’d love to see Ryan Reynolds get an Oscar nod. He probably won’t but as of right now his is the best male performance I’ve seen this year. 5 (out of 5)

Monday, 27 December 2010

Black Swan Ruffled My Feathers



Black Swan tells the disturbing tale of Nina (Natalie Portman), a beautiful, talented but also reserved and immature ballerina who’s quickly reaching the age when the chance to become a Principal Dancer and a major star is starting to slip away from her. However her Ballet Company’s director (the great Vincent Cassel) sees something in Nina and gives her the lead in his upcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But this means Nina playing two distinct characters – the sweet, innocent, virginal Odette, a princess cursed by a sorcerer to live as a swan, and Odile, said sorcerers dark, duplicitous, passionate daughter who tricks Odette’s Prince in to betraying his one true love. And while Nina has no problem portraying the innocent, fragile Odette, she finds it impossible to capture the dark inner passion of Odile, to allow herself to become the Black Swan. Nina’s major problem is that despite her age (28) she is still effectively a little girl. She’s immature, not yet having become a woman with the experiences of life and of the world that most have gained by that age. The main experiences here being of sex and passion. Nina lives with her mother who has effectively isolated her from life, from growing up and maturing. She smothers Nina, giving her no privacy at home, treating her as if she were still 8 years old. But as Nina starts pushing herself to embrace what being the Black Swan means by exploring her own inner passions, by letting herself go, weird and scary things start to happen. She starts seeing physical transformations in herself – scratches and marks appearing on her body. And then, later on, feathers breaking through her skin and reflections of herself taking on a life of their own. At the same time she is also becoming more and more convinced that the new addition to the company, the flirtatious Lily (Mila Kunis), is out to get her. That she’s looking to replace her, just as Nina has unwittingly done to the now broken figure of the previous Lead Dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder).

Hmm…all sounds a bit odd and freaky I hear you say. Yep, that it is. But in the very best way possible.

I reckon that with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler, has done his best work to date. This is utterly brilliant stuff. It’s an exquisite, disturbing, intelligent and artful film. I especially love how he films the dancing with energetic close in cameras following the dancers as they move. And then there's his fantastic time and location transitions while tracking Nina’s face or following the back of her head. Everything we see is stylised and intimate with the entire story being shown from Nina’s perspective. It is the self-view of a fragile, immature, isolated, frightened, yet deeply committed and ambitious girl. All of the nightmarish imagery we see is through her eyes. It is how she sees others and herself – the injuries, the blood, the grotesquely beautiful transformations. With Black Swan, Aronofsky pretends to be ambiguous. Is this all actually happening for real, or is it all purely in Nina’s head? The truth is, though, that Black Swan really isn't ambiguous at all. Not if you’re a reasonably smart human being who can see at least some of what this film is really all about.

So, having now set myself up for a fall, here’s what I think Black Swan is all about.


I see Black Swan as an allegory for the female journey to full-on womanhood with all the physical and emotional issues, problems and insecurities that journey entails - not to mention the various (and not always helpful) male and female attitudes and peer pressures. It’s also about what roles/personas girls might adopt throughout that journey, or might be forced upon them as they mature. Some of those roles/personas are shown in the characters of Nina, the immature, innocent child looking to grow up; Lily, the sexually confident and worldly young woman; Beth, the spurned older woman who is feeling unattractive, unwanted and redundant. And then there’s Nina’s mother, who is just that – the ‘mother’, the only thing that defines her. These female personas are all potential aspects of Nina’s own character. And she fears them. But she must confront them throughout the film so as to banish her fear and take control, to try and become the ‘perfect’ woman and deliver the ‘perfect’ performance as both Odette and Odile. And what better backdrop to this artistic female allegory than that of ballet, a world built upon female competition, continual striving for physical perfection, delicate beauty and fleeting youth. The world of ballet is a world full of women who’s ability to perform is in large part down to their age and the intense physical sacrifice, pain and punishment their art demands of them. It is a world where they have to become something that others determine and to continually adopt roles and personas. It is a world where there is always a younger, hungrier version snapping at the heels and where obsolescence is something that happens quickly and is especially cruel.

Specifically, though, Black Swan is about immature Nina's breakdown - or break through if you will.

For it is only by taking on the dual role of Odette and Odile (The White and Black Swan) that she finally forces herself to make the transformation in to a fully sexually mature woman. And maturing sexually is key here - complete with seduction, arousal, gay fantasies and masturbation. Indeed, the final shot of Nina dressed in virginal white and lying flat on her back in a dreamily satisfied state with blood on her lower body is a blatant allegorical image of the final transformation in to being a woman. The film shows us that this process of maturing sexually and emotionally, of growing up and dealing with all the trials and tribulations of becoming someone else, becoming someone more, is often painful and deeply troubling. These are age-old themes that have been told and retold throughout time in various folk tales and in classic and popular fiction. From my own pop culture bias the entire second season of Buffy is pretty much about the same thing – a young woman’s sexual awakening and painful transformation in to womanhood. As a film, Black Swan makes for a fine companion piece to Neil Jordan’s lush and dreamlike The Company of Wolves and John Fawcett’s excellent Ginger Snaps, being that they all share the same main theme.

Anyway, that’s what I reckon. But I could very well be wrong.

Whew! Almost done. But I can’t finish without a major shout out to Natalie Portman.

Unfortunately the flat acting of the Star Wars prequels along with various other stuff she’s done over recent years had lulled me in to thinking that Natalie as an actress was actually nothing that special. As far as I was concerned her stunning turn in Leon (aka The Professional) when she was only 12 was by far her best work.

Until now.

Yes, the entire Black Swan cast are great (yay for Ksenia Solo). But make no mistake this is Natalie’s film all the way. And she is quite astonishing. She captures perfectly the frailty and immaturity of Nina as well as her internal yearning to become what she needs to become. But there is also an intense fear beneath everything that she does - fear of failure, of letting go, of growing up, of becoming like Beth, or her mother. And when Nina eventually starts freaking out, when she is struggling with the emerging Black Swan, Natalie is ethereally frightening with her dramatic weight loss, wide-eyed paranoia, and violent outbursts. Purely on a physical level she is incredible, being totally convincing as an experienced ballerina, a job that requires huge physical stamina, ability and precision. The dancing Natalie does is beautiful as is all of the dancing on show. I don’t know that much about ballet, although I do have an appreciation for it, but I do know that it is enormously hard work that takes years of dedicated and painful practice, making what Natalie achieves here all the more impressive. If she doesn’t at least get Oscar nominated then the world has gone truly insane.

In closing, Black Swan is an excellent film and one of the very best of the year. It requires its audience to think about theme and allegory and emotion rather than to simply follow a plot. Most will consider it an art house film, some a horror film, some a psychological drama. And Black Swan is partly all of that. And more. It is a weird, disturbing, yet also beautiful and poetic film that should under no circumstances be missed. Ms Portman, I’m sorry I ever doubted you. 5+ (out of 5)


Sunday, 26 December 2010

What the Dickens? Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

And so it came to pass that Steven (The Moff) Moffat did make the most Christmassy Doctor Who ever…and he was not ashamed one bit.

Moffat’s A Christmas Carol is a gloriously bonkers, clever, weird, hilarious, magical and sweetly sentimental affair that instantly adds itself to the collection of best interpretations of Dickens classic - my personal favourite still being the Muppets untouchable 1992 film.

We are all familiar with the basics of this timeless tale so I won’t go in to any great detail of the plot. Suffice to say The Doctor takes on the role of ghost of Christmas past by attempting to change the ways of a miserly old Scrooge-like figure (Michael Gambon) in order to save four thousand people (including Amy and Rory) on a doomed ship about to crash in to a planet. A planet that looks a lot like a Victorian steampunk London. Along the way we get fish in fog, scary sharks, frozen people, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, a beautiful welsh singer who actually can act, and lots and lots of Moffat’s favourite timey wimey cleverness all bound together in to a tender love story and classic moral fable.

Look, I don’t care what anyone says, Matt Smith as The Doctor is just so damn good. He owns the role completely. Doubters be gone. His impishly eccentric yet also playfully subtle childlike/old man portrayal is pure genius. Somehow he never seems to take it too far as I felt Tennant sometimes could. And as for Katherine Jenkins as Abigail… Well, the term angelic doesn’t quite do her justice. I’ve never really seen much of her before apart from in brief interviews and photos. Of course she is incredibly beautiful and when I did see her in interviews she always came across as a genuine and sweet natured person. And thankfully that comes across on screen in her acting. And then some. Sure, she wasn’t exactly being stretched in the acting stakes here, but what she had to do as Abigail she did incredibly well. A lovely and luminous presence. And so what of Michael Gambon? Well, what can you say? The man is a legend and is, of course, brilliant in every scene.

The behind the camera team are on top form here as well. Major kudos must go to director Toby Haynes and to the design, art direction and photography - all wonderfully evocative and atmospheric - especially the design and execution of the Victorian steam punk city. Also, added kudos too to Murray Gold for his sterling musical work. The really quite beautiful end song he wrote and that Katherine sang (see YouTube clip above) was so goose pimple-raising good it deserves to be released by the BBC, ideally for charity.

Anyway, I absolutely loved A Christmas Carol. Sure, you can pick holes in the plot and ask questions of logic and science. And almost none of it will likely add up. But then that’s kind of missing the point. For this is a fable, a tall tale with a distinct moral at its core. It’s not about logic or science, it’s about emotion and magic, just like Dickens timeless classic. This is a Christmas fairy tale that perfectly captures the spirit of the original story and also of new Who, making it by far the best of all the Doctor’s Christmas specials. Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be warmed. Bravo! 4.5 (out of 5)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Tron: Legacy aka there's nothing creepier than CGI Jeff

She’s not creepy. She’s lovely.

Okay, so I'm a Tron geek. Have been since the original movie came out in 1982.

Back then, when I was twelve, I fell in love with light cycles, identity discs, game grids, IO towers, Space Paranoids...all of it. I had the books, the toys, the posters, the soundtrack. As soon as the 20th anniversary DVD came out in 2002 I bought it. Tron was and still remains one of the most original and distinctive looking films of all time. Sure, the script is pretty basic and unoriginal in its storytelling, but what the script provided was a framework, a context to show us something quite unlike anything we'd ever seen before or since. Though nowadays it's beloved by a small proportion of geeks, Tron was at best only a modest success upon its original release and was widely ignored by moviegoers and critics alike. Even the Academy snubbed it for a best visual fx nom due to it using computers which back then was considered as cheating. My, how times have changed. At the time, almost everyone failed to see Tron for what it was: a major evolutionary step in filmmaking. Over the years the cult of Tron has remained fairly small but always alive with its original followers having grown up and infiltrated the filmmaking establishment. So much so that for the past ten years Disney have been actively considering a sequel. And after a couple of aborted attempts they've finally gone and done it with the result being TRON: LEGACY.

Set in real time circa 28 years after the first film, TRON: LEGACY follows Sam Flynn, grown up son of Kevin Flynn, hero of TRON who suddenly vanished in 1989, as he receives s mysterious message from his missing father and sets out to find him. Said message leads Sam to his dad's old arcade and the hidden lab beneath it where Kevin was secretly building a new computer system, one he believed could change the course of humanity. Pretty soon, Sam presses a wrong button and ends up zapped by a laser…only to wake up inside his father's computer system. Faced with this weird alien world, Sam is soon confronted by its deadly overlord, Clu, a digital copy of his father originally created to help build the perfect system. Like in the original film, Sam then has to fight through various deadly video games including upgraded disc fights and light cycle races before escaping out in to the wider system where he will try and find the answers he seeks as well as a way back home.

Look, TRON: LEGACY is not a perfect movie. Far from it. The pacing is off in places with the film virtually grinding to a halt for a long stretch in the middle. The script is often clunky and is hugely exposition heavy; it keeps telling us stuff instead of showing us stuff. Talk, talk, and talk. Far too much talk that often veers from the corny and cheesy to the overly pompous. Also, some of the scripts many ideas and themes become a tad muddled at times with the entire movie trying to be a lot smarter than it really is, or actually needs to be.

But where TRON: LEGACY succeeds it does so big time.

Apart from one major issue hinted at in this review’s title, quite simply this is one of the most awesome looking films I've ever seen. For pure on screen beauty and imagery and spectacular use of 3D this is living in AVATAR territory. Director Joseph Kosinski is a genuine visual artist. Every frame is exquisitely designed, lit and shot to maximize its impact on your eyeballs. The first sight of The Grid is gob smacking in all its vast dark cyber-stormy glory. Sam being outfitted in his new duds is gorgeous (and the girls aren't half-bad either) with the exciting and inventive disc fight that follows being gleefully giggle-tastic. And by the time the light cycle chase/battle came around my inner twelve year old was jumping for pure adolescent joy. And the spectacle never lets up. Even when the story grinds to a halt mid-way through, the film is still something to behold courtesy of Kosinski's sharp eye for exquisite shot composition, the great sound fx editing and an instantly classic score by Daft Punk, a score that’s so cool and effective it keeps your neck hairs constantly raised.

So, apart from the obvious, what is TRON: LEGACY actually all about? We’re talking themes and subtext here.

Well, its been said that it is a story about fathers and sons. And that's true. It is. But its also about parenting in general and about children's relationships with their primary role models i.e. their parents. Both Sam and Clu are essentially Kevin Flynn's children. Both feel betrayed and abandoned by him. Both feel he broke a sacred promise he made to them. But whereas Sam’s held on to the positive memory of his father and finding out the truth frees him to be the man he needs to be, Clu has basically thrown the mother of all spoiled brat tantrums that only seems to get worse as time goes on. But possibly the film’s strongest theme is the obvious one reflected in its title: what we leave behind us, what effect we’ve had on the world, and primarily how we've raised our children who will, after all, become our ultimate 'Legacy'.

But the film also touches on several other themes. The hubris of man, knowledge versus wisdom, control versus freedom – specifically the freedom of information (very timely in these days of Wikileaks). Also the unpredictability of life and how perfection is a pointless and unattainable illusion. There’s also a fair amount about religion and spirituality and its role in the world. And the religious allegory is piled on rather thickly throughout. For example you could see Clu as Satan to Flynn's God with Sam as Jesus. Clu became bitter and angry over Flynn appearing to sway from the original plan of a perfect system, especially when the new life form, the ISO's, came in to being. Flynn saw them as a miracle to cherish and to learn from. Clu saw them as a dangerous aberration that needed to be destroyed. In the Bible it was God's love of man that made Satan angry and jealous and what started his revolt against Heaven. In TRON: LEGACY, Flynn's affection and wonder at the ISO's is what pushed Clu over the edge and in to rebellion. Clu has since been corrupting the other programs on The Grid (as Satan is supposed to corrupt people’s souls) turning them away from Flynn and the Users, making them in to an army which he intends to use to attack and take over ‘heaven’ i.e. the real world.

Yep, there is a lot going on under the surface of this film. Many will sell it short by saying it is all snazzy visuals and nothing much else. Yes, the subtext and allegory may get a tad muddled at times but it is still there and it is enough to keep the brain ticking over and for most people with half a brain to pick up at least the odd smidgen amidst all the CGI loveliness.

You’ll notice that so far I haven’t mentioned the cast, concentrating instead on the story and the visuals and the technical elements. That’s inevitable because TRON: LEGACY is primarily about the visuals and the techno thrill. But having said that the cast are all fine. To be honest they don’t have much to do as they are all pretty much archetypes with no real depth of character to explore. Jeff Bridges as Flynn is as good as you’d expect the Oscar winning pro to be. He can do this stuff in his sleep and it doesn’t tax him one jot. Garrett Hedlund as Sam is solid and does the job in running and jumping and fighting and delivering the odd dewy eyed moment with daddy as well as innumerable if rather flatly delivered one liners. Michael Sheen gets to have whale of a time camping it up something rotten as a gaudy club owner on The Grid. But of the main cast it is only really the gorgeous Olivia Wilde who gives something a bit more in her role. As Quorra, Wilde is ridiculously sexy and can convincingly kick ass and drive fancy vehicles to the max. But she is also wonderfully innocent, curious and vulnerable in a very childlike way. It is to the credit of the writers that she is never made the love interest for Sam, but is rather treated as a little sister who needs help and protection.

And a special mention must go to the great Bruce Boxleitner, Tron himself.

Bruce is back and plays an important role as Alan and is also very briefly glimpsed in flashback as Tron. Now I love Bruce. He has been two of my greatest on screen heroes ever: Tron and Captain John Sheridan in Babylon 5. Boxleitner’s an old school American TV actor and one time leading man. He’s a good dependable actor with genuine charisma and an always likable and appealing onscreen persona. I rarely see him anymore as he seems to have been consigned to the hell of cheap direct to cable/DVD exploitation movies from the likes of The Asylum. I think the last thing I saw him in was a short guest spot on Heroes a couple years back. And it’s a shame. Bruce deserves better. In fact, one of my major criticisms of TRON: LEGACY is that we don’t get to see more of him as Tron. After all, the film bears his name yet the Tron character stays faceless and seems uncomfortably shoehorned in to his own movie. Surely could have de-aged Bruce ala Jeff Bridges as Clu, couldn't they?

Okay, well, maybe not.

Which brings me on to my final point and probably my biggest problem with the film. Clu.

Jeff does a good job playing his evil alter ego.


He is let down by some of the worst and scariest CGI de-aging ever. Clu appears as Bridges circa 1989 and the likeness itself is very good. The problem is when he starts moving, speaking, looking at things. Clu is a lifeless plastic puppet with the deadeye syndrome times 100. He’s like an Auton from Doctor Who. His eyes are small and dull and dead. That whole part of the face around the eyes doesn’t move right. It doesn’t just look fake it looks downright creepy. Small kids might get nightmares. I know I had to look away a few times. When briefly he is shown in shadow or at an angle then it just about works. But as soon as he his required to act up close to camera (which is a lot) then it looks awful and the creepy shivers started running up and down my spine. Brrr. God knows how they dropped the ball on this. Why couldn’t they just have de-aged Jeff how they did Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in X-Men 3? That looked really good. But, no, they had to go and make a full on CGI creepy Jeff head. Yikes!

So, to sum up, I loved TRON: LEGACY despite its creepy CGI Jeff Bridges and its many shortfalls. Because all of that is more than made up for by the good solid story, interesting underlying themes and the astounding and eye popping visuals and equally eye-popping Olivia Wilde. And the sheer geek factor at seeing light cycles again and me giving a little silent cheer at the fab Bruce Boxleitner co-starring in a $200m blockbuster. But I have no idea how the film will play to mainstream audiences. I mean, this is nerdy, geeky stuff that despite the awesome 3D visuals will probably leave most people cold. It’s sci fi action, sure, but with a bizarre, slightly muddled concept and a strong and precise visual style that borders on the experimental/art house. I expect only middling box office returns as this is definitely not the big rousing crowd pleaser that AVATAR was last year. TRON: LEGACY is, frankly, just too odd and too nerdy to be a huge success, just like the first Tron was. How fitting. 4 (out of 5)


Sunday, 12 December 2010

The wisdom of Kenzi

Canada's current hit supernatural fantasy TV show Lost Girl is a pretty so so affair - kinda like Charmed but with more sex and skin. However Ksenia Solo as heroine Bo's streetwise sidekick Kenzi is great and single handidly makes it worth watching. Just give her her own show already. And it's not just me who thinks she's great either. Ksenia has a supporting role in Darren Aronofski's upcoming movie Black Swan alongside Natalie Portman.

In the meantime here's some of Kenzi's highlights...

Buffy: Season 2, Episode 4 ‘Inca Mummy Girl’

Willow's so snug.

Writer: Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer
Director: Ellen S Pressman

What's the sitch?

Sunnydale High’s student foreign exchange program is up and running with some of our key players hosting students from foreign shores – including Buffy. Meanwhile at the local museum a cursed Incan mummy of a sacrificed princess gets accidentally reawakened. Said mummy, newly revitalised as a pretty young girl going by the name of Ampata, manages to fool Buffy and co. by masquerading as Buffy’s genuine exchange student who she killed. She immediately makes a big impact on Xander and the two soon become romantically involved. But Ampata still needs to kill regularly, taking people’s life forces in order to keep from returning to her yucky mummy form. At the same time, Buffy and the gang are trying to find out what is killing people in such hideous ways and what has happened to the original Incan mummy that disapeared from the museum, not realising that the truth is right under their very noses.

What's the sitch beneath the sitch?

This one is about fate, destiny, duty and also romantic relationships. Ampata’s plight is a mirror of Buffy’s. She too was a “Chosen one” by her people who had to give up a normal life and life altogether in order to serve a higher purpose. Although she is the villain of the week she is perhaps the most sympathetic of all Buffy’s villains. Like Buffy she was just a young teenage girl who, given no choice, was forced to be who she had to be. Now all she wants is a normal life - even if she has to kill to keep it. Plus she falls for Xander and he likewise for her, which complicates things even more. That’s part of the relationship angle, as is Willow overhearing Xander telling Buffy how he loves Willow but only as a friend. However, unbeknownst to Willow, it’s in this episode that she is first noticed by her first true love interest of the show, Oz.

Who's giving us the wiggins this week?

Ampata, the Inca Mummy Girl of the title.

Why it rocks

1. Curse of the Mummy. It’s a classic horror tale (a resurrected mummy) that’s given a fresh new spin by the Buffy writers. Instead of some vengeance-seeking monster, Ampata is an innocent who just wants, like Buffy, a simple, normal life. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but she will because she feels (justifiably) hard done by. In fact the episode works well as a romantic tragedy. You can’t help but feel so very sorry for poor Ampata at episode’s end.

2. Nicholas Brendon. He does some very good work as the smitten Xander. His quips and jokes remain, but he also invokes a tender sweetness that really sells his feelings for Ampata.

3. Beautiful mummy. Ara Celi as Ampata also does good work and makes for a suitably sympathetic and tragic character. Her underlying sadness and her attraction to Xander is well handled. Plus she’s a very beautiful girl.

4. A normal girl. One of the show’s main underlying themes is hammered home in this episode: Buffy’s eternal quest to be just a normal girl and to have a normal life. But this time it is mirrored in Ampata. The bedroom scene where Buffy hides crosses, stakes and crucifixes from Ampata, while Ampata hides a desiccated corpse in her trunk from Buffy could have come across as really silly and light hearted but is played with a genuine melancholy that is actually quite touching.

5. Oz. Yep, Oz (Seth Green) makes his debut in this episode. The intelligent, taciturn Oz is lead guitarist with Dingoes Ate My Baby, a local band that plays at the Bronze regularly. His noticing of Willow throughout the episode – especially when she is in her Eskimo costume at the Bronze - is really cute. And speaking of…

6. Eskimo Willow. At the fancy dress party at the Bronze, Willow goes as an Eskimo complete with furry hood and fishing spear. Xander, dressed as a Sergio Leone cowboy, comments that she looks “Snug.” What she looks is utterly adorable. No wonder Oz is smitten.

7. Sven and Cordy. Cordy ordering around her hulking Swedish exchange student throughout the episode is hilarious. The twist at the end only makes it funnier.

Why it sucks

1. Does Buffy really not know that her genuine exchange student is definitely a boy as well as what he looks like? Surely they’d have some contact info for his parents and have likely seen a photo. Even Joyce accepts female Ampata without question. No alarm bells ringing at all? No contact from real Ampata’s parents to confirm he arrived in one piece? Hmm.

2. The plotting relies a bit too much on coincidence and on the characters being dumber than they should be.

It's Buftastic

Willow dressed as a snug-looking Eskimo attempting to nonchalantly shrug when Xander asks her if she’s seen Ampata.

Dialogue to die for

Xander: “I think the exchange student program's cool. I do! It's a beautiful melding of two cultures.”
Buffy: “Have you ever done an exchange program?”
Xander: “My dad tried to sell me to some Armenians once. Does that count?”

Devon: “What does a girl have to do to impress you?”
Oz: “Well, it involves a feather boa and the theme to A Summer Place. I can't discuss it here.”

Buffy [to Giles]: “So, can I go?”
Giles: “I think not.”
Buffy: “How come?”
Giles: “Because you are the Chosen One.”
Buffy: “Mm, just this once I'd like to be the Overlooked One.”
Giles: “Yes well, I'm afraid that is not an option. You have responsibilities that other girls do not.”
Buffy: “Oh! I know this one. Slaying entails certain sacrifices, blah, blah, bitty blah, I'm so stuffy, gimme a scone.”
Giles: [sardonically] “It's as if you know me.”

And another thing

Along with Oz, nerdy Jonathan (Danny Strong) makes his series debut in this episode.

Ara Celi had a small role in Robert Rodruigez’s 2010 film Machete.

The Inca Mummy Girl of the title is actually based on a real female Incan mummy found in1995 in Peru frozen and extremely well preserved on Mount Ampato– hence the name Ampata.

How many stakes?

Xander wants his mummy. 3 (out of 5)

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Buffy: Season 2, Episode 3 ‘School Hard’

School Hard Pictures, Images and Photos
The baddest bad couple around.

Writer: David Greenwalt
Director: John Kretchmer

What's the sitch?

It’s parent teacher evening at Sunnydale High which Buffy and fellow ‘troublesome’ student Sheila have been put in charge of organising by odious Principle Snyder. Snyder is looking forward to meeting Buffy’s mum so he can tell her all about how much trouble her daughter is to the school and how close she is to expulsion. So as well as arranging everything for the event and doing so with a largely absent Sheila, Buffy must also somehow keep her mum away from Snyder on the night itself. But that’s not all of her problems. For unknown to Buffy a certain badass platinum haired vamp has (literally) hit town for the first time and, along with his insane girlfriend, is looking to bag himself a third slayer scalp. Cue a vampire invasion of the school on parent teacher night and Buffy fighting back guerrilla style ala John McClane – hence the episode title.

What's the sitch beneath the sitch?
More high school is hell stuff along with the usual thing of Buffy trying to balance her school life, home life and slaying life which is made all that more harder by the odious Snyder.

Who's giving us the wiggins this week?

Who do you think?

Why it rocks

1. Vampire lovers. SPIKE AND DRU! SPIKE AND DRU! SPIKE AND DRU! The pair make their Buffy debut in this episode. The rest is history.

2. James and Juliet. James Marsters and Juliet Landau as the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen inspired vampire lovers make an instantly unforgettable impression and become a firm fan favourite. Marsters is all cocky English swagger and punk rock anarchy attitude while Landau is eerily demented and deceptively fragile. And their chemistry together is explosive.

3. This ep is a blatant but brilliant Die Hard homage with Buffy crawling through ventilation ducts and taking out individual vamps along the way then rescuing the trapped parents before having a final face off with Spike. A face off which ends in a way that could only happen in an episode of Buffy.

4. John Kretchmer who directed part 2 of the Buffy pilot does great work here. It’s tense, exciting, a smidgen scary and always tons of fun.

Why it sucks

It doesn’t. At all.

It's Buftastic

Two moments:

1. Spike’s iconic arrival in town by running over the Sunnydale sign

2. Buffy and Spike’s final battle with Joyce coming to her daughter’s rescue at the last moment.

Dialogue to die for

Spike: [to a rival vampire] "You were there? Oh, please! If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person, and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move."

Buffy: “Cordelia, I have at least three lives to contend with, none of which really mesh. It's kind of like oil and water and a... third unmeshable thing.”

Drusilla: [about her favourite doll Miss Edith] “Miss Edith speaks out of turn. She's a bad example and will have no cakes today.”

Joyce: [after braining Spike with an axe] "You get the hell away from my daughter!"

And another thing

Spike says that Angel was his sire but we later find out Spike was actually sired by Drusilla. Dru was the one sired by Angel/Angelus, thus making Angel Spike’s grandsire.

Spike and Dru were based upon Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen as confirmed by Joss.

Spike wasn’t for certain going to be English. Marsters did several accents before Joss and co settled on his English one.

In this episode we discover that the authorities are wise to the weird supernatural stuff that goes on in Sunnydale but are keeping it quiet. Mention is also made of The Mayor foreshadowing season 3.

Spike destroys the Sunnydale sign a second time in his one and only season 3 appearance ‘Lovers Walk’. Though that time it is an accident as he’s totally drunk.

Juliet Landau (Dru) is the daughter of Oscar winning actor Martin Landau and his ex-wife Barbara Bain and appeared with her dad in Tim Burton’s 1994 classic Ed Wood for which Martin Landau won his Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi.

How many stakes?

This time it’s 5 spikes (out of 5)

Friday, 10 December 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 2, Episode 2, ‘Some Assembly Required’

Some Assembly Required Pictures, Images and Photos
The moisturiser ain't working for him.

Writer: Ty King
Director: Bruce Seth Green

What's the sitch?
While on patrol, Buffy discovers the robbed grave of a recently deceased teenage girl. That same night, Cordelia and Angel discover discarded body parts of various other recently deceased girls. However some of the parts are missing leading the gang to believe that someone at Sunnydale High is pulling a Dr Frankenstein by trying to build a whole new girl from the dead parts of others. Meanwhile, misguided student Chris and his nasty science nerd friend Eric, who together are making this patchwork girl for Chris’s recently back from the dead brother Daryl, are looking for the perfect head for their Bride of Frankenstein. The only problem being said head can’t come from a corpse. It needs to be fresh. It needs to be taken from someone while they are still alive. And that someone looks like being Cordelia Chase...

What's the sitch beneath the sitch?
This is about relationships and about wanting to have someone to be with, to not be alone. Zombie Daryl wants a living dead girl of his own so that he won’t be alone. Meanwhile, Buffy is struggling with her relationship with Angel, Giles is trying to get together with Ms Calendar and Xander and Willow are complaining about being uncoupled and alone. The episode is also about the objectification of women, a theme that repeats throughout Buffy. Eric is a vile little critter who only sees women as objects to be used and abused as he sees fit. He gets off on it. He’s like a proto-Warren from seasons 5 and 6. Also present is what will be another recurring theme of the show: people dealing with loss and attempting to bring back loved ones that have died.

Who's giving us the wiggins this week?
Nasty Eric and zombiefied Daryl.

Why it rocks
1. Teenage Frankenstein. It’s a good, solid story and a fun and creepy riff on Frankenstein.
2. Someone to love. It works thematically being all about relationships and not wanting to be alone.
3. It’s gross! The concept and its execution is pretty yucky. And I mean that in a good way. The half-built dead girl glimpsed in portions along with some discarded body parts is rather unpleasant…just as it should be.
4. Giles and Jenny sitting in a tree… Giles’s jittery courtship of Ms Calendar is funny and cute and gives Xander and Buffy plenty of opportunity to poke fun at him.
5. Daryl and Chris’s mum, Mrs Epps, being so wrapped up in her obsessive grief about Daryl’s death is possibly the creepiest thing about this episode.

Why it sucks
1. Though creepy and icky, neither Chris, Eric or zombie Daryl pose too much of a threat to Buffy. And Chris never seems keen on what he’s doing anyway so you wonder how he got this far.
2. Cordy is in peril once again. Yawn! Plus she gets to act in that traditional horror movie girl in peril role i.e. doing stupid stuff and screaming a lot. Exactly the kind of thing Buffy was supposed to subvert.
3. It is a blatant use of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and despite some great dialogue and the solid thematic base it doesn’t really excite all that much.

It's Buftastic
Giles is in the library nervously practising his lines to ask Jenny out…and then Buffy and Xander make a sudden and embarrassing entrance.

Dialogue to die for
Buffy: (to Xander after he asks for hers and Willow’s help in digging up a grave) “Sorry, but I'm an old-fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and the women have the babies.”

Cordelia: (sarcastically) “Darn, I have cheerleader practice tonight. Boy, I wish I knew you were gonna be digging up dead people sooner. I would've cancelled.”

Buffy: “Love makes you do the wacky.”

Buffy: [giving Giles advice on his pick up lines] “You also might want to avoid words like 'amenable' and 'indecorous', you know? Speak English, not whatever they speak in, uh... “
Giles: “England?”
Buffy: “Yeah.”

And another thing
This episode sees the first use of the Buffy/Angel theme by Christophe Beck, a piece of music that will become known as ‘Close Your Eyes’ by seasons end.

How many stakes?
“SHE’S ALIVE! SHE’S ALIVE!” 3 (out of 5)

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Going postal in 60’s L.A.

post office Bukowski Pictures, Images and Photos

Based on the recommendation of a friend I’ve just finished reading the novel Post Office by American author and poet Charles Bukowski.

This was an interesting book for me as it was well out of my comfort zone and not the sort of thing I’d usually go for. For a start, there’s no real story, just a collection of fairly random events covering over a decade in the life of Bukowski’s close-to-home alter ego Henry Chinaski. Chinaski is an alcoholic, womanising, gambling low life who aimlessly lurches from one menial job to another before ending up working for the US Postal Service where he remains for eleven years stuck in the soul destroying limbo of brain dead and degrading work. According to Chinaski the Post Office is a place populated by all kinds of annoying, repulsive loudmouths, dictatorial jobs worth managers and other assorted broken and downtrodden characters. Chinaski survives the place and his years spent there through copious amounts of booze, women, and his extremely cynical view of the world. To note: the term going postal comes from the fact that in the past quite a few US postal workers have snapped and done the whole workplace murder spree thing. Reading this you can see how that could happen.

After a slow and wary start, and after putting it down for a few weeks due to not really feeling the vibe of the thing, I persisted and picked the book back up a couple of days ago. And for some reason I got in to it a lot more this time and finished off the remaining hundred or so pages pretty quickly (it’s only one hundred and sixty pages in total so is more of a novelette than a novel). And I gotta say...I enjoyed it a fair bit. It’s still not really my cup of tea but it is an interesting look in to a life totally alien and in to the world of sixties America - specifically Los Angeles when many of the riots were kicking off. But even though Chinaski’s sort of life is alien to me, I could still kind of identify with some aspects of it such as the sheer drudgery and boredom of menial work and the attitudes of some of those little Hitler types who when they get the slightest whiff of power just love to make others life hell. Luckily I haven’t had too much experience of that, but I have had some, just as many surely have. So you can’t help but smile and give a silent cheer when Chinaski, through his cynical wit, or a small act of defiance, gets one up on em and on the system.

Stylewise, Bukowski’s writing is refreshingly basic, unfussy and to the point. Description is brief and limited and mostly focuses around the size and shape of women or the things he particularly dislikes about a person or a place. Sentences are short and dialogue dominates. And that dialogue is usually dry, cynical and bleakly humorous. And it does make you laugh. Bukowski constructs short, punchy, (oft dark) comic set pieces throughout. The one about the two birds Chinaski’s wife keeps in a cage that keep him awake with their incessant chatter and then what he decides to do with them is particularly funny.

Post Office was Bukowski’s first novel. It was released in 1971 and is said to be an autobiographical account of the writers own experience working on and off for the US Postal Service. Bukowski was quite a fascinating character. He became a willing alcoholic from his early teens saying that it helped him overcome his chronic social ineptness and withdrawn nature. Arguably it also helped fuel his writing ability giving him that extra dimension through which to tell his low life tales and to impart his poetry. The alcohol did harm to him for sure (bleeding ulcers and other complaints) as well as hindering him socially as much as he thought it helped him. But the argument that says how drugs and booze have helped form some of the greatest art, literature and music through the ages could be applied. For without the booze, Bukowski would probably not have become the renowned and influential writer he did. He died in 1994 from Leukaemia aged 74.

I may go on and read some more of his stuff, the continuing saga of Henry Chinaski in the likes of Ham on Rye, Factotum and Women. But the relentless low life, cynical (though amusing) gloom might be too much to take in extended doses. So I think I’ll leave it for a while. As a total antithesis to Bukowski I’m currently reading the official 2009 sequel to the wonderful A Little Princess entitled Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay. Then it’ll be Stephen King’s Cell, all being interspersed by the odd Edgar Allan Poe poem and short story. Some nicely eclectic reading over the Christmas period.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Emma scores an Easy A from me

Easy A Pictures, Images and Photos

It’s official: Emma Stone rocks!

You might remember pretty red head Emma from her supporting roles in The House Bunny, Superbad and Zombieland plus her various TV appearances. And she was uniformly excellent in all of them. Because what Emma has is an aura of sharp intelligence to her acting not to mention bags of natural charm to go with her impeccable comic instincts and timing. As a result, she’s been at the top of the list of the new generation of Hollywood up and comers to watch, in the same way that Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock were twenty or so years ago. Because just like those two, as well as having bags of talent, Emma also has that certain indefinable something that quite simply makes the camera and the audience love her. She has star quality.

In Easy A, written by Bert V Royal and directed by Will Gluck, Emma plays socially invisible high school student Olive. Mostly ignored by her fellow students, the whip smart, witty Olive tells a little lie to avoid going on a camping trip with her best friend and her best friends weird parents. Said little lie involves a fictitious date with a college freshman. Well, one thing leads to another and the little lie soon gets out of hand evolving in to a much bigger lie about Olive losing her virginity and engaging in all kinds of freaky sex games with the made-up boy. Unfortunately this bigger, badder lie soon spreads further afield than it was intended, mutating ever more as the school rumour mill goes in to overdrive. And before poor Olive can say ‘woman of easy virtue’ the entire school now thinks she’s a (insert derogatory word for a woman who has lots of sex with lots of different men.) Despite her protestations of innocence, the rumours still continue to grow and she very quickly becomes a social pariah and a target for the schools group of creepy Christian holier than though kids. Olive is so incensed by what’s happened that she decides if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So, taking payment in the form of cash/vouchers/coupons etc. she pretends to have had sex with several dopey boys in order to help them out of various social jams. All the while she starts dressing like a burlesque dancer and wearing a scarlet ‘A’ on her clothes mirroring the book her English class have been reading, Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, a story of adultery and hypocritical puritanical persecution in 17th Century America. Interwoven in to all of this is the fairly standard romantic story of the one boy Olive has really liked since they were both small and who can see through all of the lies about her.

So, essentially, Easy A is The Scarlet Letter transposed to a contemporary Californian High School in a similar way to how the great Clueless transposed Jane Austin’s Emma.

However, where Easy A differs is that it is not an adaptation but rather the Scarlet Letter is a touchstone for the story. Olive openly references The Scarlet Letter and identifies with its heroine Hester Prynne even going as far as wearing the same scarlet ‘A’ on her clothes to make a point and putting up with hypocritical religious persecution from her peers. But Easy A also openly refers to other more contemporary sources for inspiration – mostly 80’s teen movies by the likes of John Hughes. Olive makes the point that her story is not like any 80’s teen movie. She wishes it was and that she could get the same cool but pointless musical number ala Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (she does), or get Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club (she does…kinda), or get the same romantic John Cusack boom box moment from Say Anything (she gets that too…also kinda). So as well as being a modern take on an old literary classic, it is also an open love letter to some of the great teen angst/romance movies of the last twenty plus years.

But Easy A also happens to be very funny and very cool in its own right. The script is snappy, witty and sharp. The performances likewise with the quality of the cast being pretty darn impressive. For your money you get:

Emma Stone
Thomas Haden Church
Lisa Kudrow
Malcolm McDowell
Amanda Bynes
Patricia Clarkson
…and Stanley Tucci.

Clarkson and Tucci especially do some truly great work as Olive’s funny, loving, supportive yet rather offbeat parents. You can tell they were having a blast.

But, y’know what? The oddest thing occurred to me while watching Easy A.

The style of acting, of dialogue and delivery…I almost felt like I was watching a Shane Black film.

Or rather a Shane Black/Joss Whedon/John Hughes hybrid film.

It has that same cool, snarky, one liner, insult filled attitude of Shane Black mixed with the witty, pop culture/classic culture references, verbal word play and thematic layering of Whedon, plus the whole teen angst/wish fulfilment thing of Hughes. I was watching Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the other night and loving it. And watching Easy A reminded me (rather bizarrely) a whole heap of that film.

Sidebar: how bloody great is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? I adore it. Best Downey Jr role ever. Period. So why is Shane Black not making more movies? Answer: cuz judging by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang he pretty much hates Hollywood. End of sidebar.

Now, stay with me here.

Okay, so why does a violent, sweary comedy/action thriller from 2005 remind me of a teen high school comedy drama from 2010? Like I said above, Easy A shares with Black’s film that same style of clever, witty, smart-ass talk and ‘tude along with some great insults and put downs. Like KKBB, it also has the central character telling their story to the audience and narrating that story all the way through. Plus, both films main characters start out as total nobodies, rather hopeless cases. Though smart and sweet, they are both social outsiders who, through lies and some stupid decisions, become involved in a series of events that they then try to use to their advantage but which rapidly spiral out of control. There is also a childhood crush in both films who become part of the ongoing plots. Of course, there are no violent gun fights, fist fights or car chases in Easy A, just a swift, snappy, witty script and some top notch acting all round. Plus Emma Stone. And Emma Stone is great. She alone would make this film worth seeing. The script, style, and remaining cast make it pretty much unmissable. Sure, it all ends happily and the resolution is kinda formula and cheesy, but then Easy A is partly an ode to those kinds of films. And, anyway, the journey to the film's end has been an immensely fun one so I can forgive it.

So, yeah, Easy A. It’s a really good movie and a star making turn for Emma Stone who has the talent and the charisma to be big…Bullock and Roberts big.

In 2012 we’ll see Emma in the Spider-Man reboot as Gwen Stacey, Peter Parker’s love interest. Of course she’ll be great in it. We know that. I just hope she doesn’t get stuck in the girlfriend role too often and gets to have plenty more of her own leads. Cuz this lass certainly deserves 'em. Nice one, Emma. 4 (out of 5)