July 30 2009 at 7:16 am (Cinema reviews)

moon-poster-2In a typical summer filled with whiz-bang effects and louder-than-hell explosions, it’s comforting to know that Moon exists. Harking back to the heady days when serious sci-fi was young and hadn’t yet been tarnished by the garish CGI brush, it’s a film that makes you think and cry, rather than punch the air.

In the not-too-distant future, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works for Lunar Industries, which mines for Helium-3, a substance found on the moon’s surface which provides efficient and plentiful fuel for Earth. Nearing the end of his lonely three-year stint on a lunar space station with only computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company, Sam is eager to get home to his wife and child. But after an accident, he wakes to find that he is not alone and he begins to learn some ugly truths about himself.

Being the son of space child David Bowie seems to have inspired director Duncan Jones (born Zowie Bowie – even his adopted name is much more low key than you’d expect) and has given him a charmingly offbeat style. By setting the film almost entirely in a space station, with clinical white sets that have been dirtied by moon dust, Jones makes it look like an extended episode from series two of Red Dwarf, and that can only be a good thing. The exterior shots are done with models and the moon’s surface looks like it was built by a particularly talented Blue Peter presenter. CGI is inconspicuous and used sparingly. It is the rarest of things: a contemporary low-budget science fiction film.

Into this Michel Gondry-esque arena steps Sam Rockwell, in a double performance (surely it cannot be giving too much away to reveal that the mysterious stranger is himself) that should see him finally rise from propping up indie films to mainstream lead success. His fantastic performances once again mirror Red Dwarf: the first Sam is shabby but lovable just like Lister, while the second has Rimmer’s short-tempered, crossed-armed pomposity. Spacey, however, channels HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, his dulcet tones making GERTY both soothing and sinister.

While Moon wears its influences on its sleeve (shades of Alien and Silent Running are also apparent), what marks it as unique is as much its intelligent script and zippy dialogue as its fascinating plot. Today’s sci-fi seldom merges bleakness with a genuinely thought-provoking narrative, while remaining gripping. Apart from a couple of moments of light relief, Moon is a heartbreaking film that deals with identity and inconsolable loneliness. The saddest moment has Sam breaking down in a moon buggy, crying ‘I just want to go home’ before the camera pans up to the bright blue disc of Earth in front of him – tangible, yet beyond his reach.

Despite such seriousness, it’s a deceptively short film that feels longer because so much is packed in – a testament to Jones’ impressive pacing – just one of the reasons to keep an eye on him as an emerging talent.

Rating: 5/5


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Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

July 30 2009 at 7:15 am (Cinema reviews)

iceage_3_posterRemember when Toy Story first came out and everyone wanted to see it, even adults? Grown-ups packed into cinemas worldwide telling themselves that cartoons aren’t just for kids, and they were right. When Ice Age came out, that theory still held water, but there are many moments in this second sequel where you step outside yourself and realise that you and your mates are watching a kids film.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s a marked improvement on the utterly forgettable Ice Age: The Meltdown, for a start. After a long set-up in which sabre-toothed tiger Diego (voiced by Denis Leary) is bored and restless, mammoths Manny and Ellie (Ray Romano and Queen Latifah) are expecting a baby and sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) is lonely, we finally see what’s below the ice – a lost civilisation of dinosaurs. The fact that this doesn’t make any sense (the big scaly ones live below the surface of the ice and still manage to live in a sun-drenched world) is neither here nor there – it’s all about ridiculous spectacle rather than historical accuracy.

There’s plenty for the kids, of course – even the dinosaurs aren’t convincingly scary. In fact, it’s not until Simon Pegg’s adventurous one-eyed weasel Buck shows up, that anything remotely interesting happens – proof, if it were needed, that Gloucester’s finest export makes any film 64% better (or whatever percentage is cool these days), even if he’s only lending his voice. The story might be nonsense but there are enough spills and thrills to keep adults awake until the end credits. Watching it in 3D, however, is rather pointless. There’s nothing to warrant spending another an extra £2 to wear some oversized glasses that don’t improve the film.

Rating: 3/5

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Top ten sequels

July 30 2009 at 7:13 am (Top tens)

last crusadeWatching Evil Dead II made me think of my top ten sequels – a list that was surprisingly hard to compile and is not in any order because that’s even harder. There are probably plenty of omissions (I’ve only seen The Godfather Part II once and I don’t remember much of it so it would be a lie to include it) and inaccuracies (The Empire Strikes Back is ‘not a sequel, part of a trilogy, completely planned’ as Randy reminds us in Scream 2, but I don’t care). If I’ve forgotten anything glaring, or if you disagree vehemently, please let me know.

Toy Story 2

Terminator 2

Back to the Future Part III (not Part II)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (not the Temple of Doom, and definitely not that crystal skull nonsense)

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Die Hard with a Vengeance (still never seen Die Hard 2)

Evil Dead II

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (they’re all awesome but I’ve always preferred the final part)

Spider-Man 2

Aliens (I’ve only seen it once and that was years ago but I do remember that it was great)

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20-26 July 2009

July 30 2009 at 7:10 am (The list)

evil_dead_ii_poster1Evil Dead II (1987)

In 2008, Empire magazine’s readers voted Evil Dead II the 49th best film of all time. While this may not be true, it’s certainly an improvement on the original. Writer-director Sam Raimi was unable to secure the rights to use scenes from the first film as a recap so he just re-shot it and stuffed it into the first ten minutes. This being the case, Evil Dead II is much faster than its predecessor. It’s also as much a slapstick comedy as it is a horror – when Ash’s (Bruce Campbell) hand becomes possessed and throws him around the room, Raimi reveals his love of the Three Stooges. The documentary that accompanies the film on the DVD shows how creative Raimi and his cast and crew were with a restricted budget. It’s certainly more inventive than most of the horror comedies that are made today. Groovy.

Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 1,203

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Overdue cinema review #3: The Hangover

July 26 2009 at 9:14 pm (Cinema reviews)

hangover-posterOccupying the middle ground between Very Bad Things and Dude, Where’s My Car?, The Hangover offers little in the way of comedic invention. Four friends go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party, get so wasted that they cannot remember the events of the previous night and spend the rest of the trip trying to find the groom who has gone missing.

It’s done quite well with the framing device of a phone call kickstarting the flashback. Their groggy detective work also gets good mileage out of a variety of increasingly preposterous situations from getting tasered by children to stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger.

Having said that, the characters are weary stereotypes – the good looking, laid back leader, the uptight guy (who even wears glasses) and the funny but dim-witted fat guy. The film has been surprisingly well received despite being very generic – it’s no more unique than, say, Road Trip or Sex Drive.

Rating: 3/5

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Overdue cinema review #2: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

July 26 2009 at 9:11 pm (Cinema reviews)

wolverine_1Of all the characters in contemporary fiction to warrant the now popular ‘prequel’ treatment, Wolverine doesn’t sound like an obvious choice – I had learnt by the end of X2 as much about the character as felt necessary. What’s next? Dobby the House Elf: The Early Years? The three X-Men films felt like Wolverine’s anyway (most of the other characters seemed secondary) so why Wolvie should get his own movie is anyone’s guess, particularly when it’s so toothless.

Logan (Hugh Jackman, growly, seething) and his half-brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber, growly, occasionally looks like the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz) are inexplicably indestructible and really quite cross. In a prologue we see a young Logan kill his father (who turns out not to be his father at all) and the brothers kick bottom in the last 200 years of warfare only to become bitter rivals by the time they reach the 1980s.

With the cumbersomely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (that dastardly colon threatening more to come), there are no peripheral characters to steal focus from the mutton-chopped cigar-chomping badass, so it ends up as little more than a snarl-off between Logan and Creed. It’s hilariously macho and has some unashamedly clichéd action scenes (roaring with rage at the sky over the death of a loved one, nonchalantly strolling toward the camera away from an explosion). The script and acting are appalling, and there is an inevitable over-reliance on CGI, which is also substandard. Even when you do get to see some long overdue X-Men like Bolt, Gambit and Deadpool, their appearance is far too brief.

Watch X2 instead. Hell, watch X-Men: The Last Stand instead.

Rating: 2/5

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Overdue cinema review #1: Coraline

July 26 2009 at 9:09 pm (Cinema reviews)

coralineProof that kids are much more resilient than most adults think, Coraline is the kind of cautionary tale that appeals to little ones purely because it is so weird and creepy.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is left to her own devices by her workaholic parents when they move to a new home. Bored and restless, but imaginative and adventurous, Coraline finds a secret passageway in the house that leads her to a magical alternative world in which her parents (who have buttons for eyes) dote on her and want her to stay, but at considerable cost.

Director Henry Selick adapts Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel to the screen with wonderful visual flair using a mixture of stop motion and computer generated animation. The real world is drab and washed out, while the alternative world is colourful and vibrant, and both realities are populated by a madcap cast of characters including neighbours Russian circus giant Mr Bobinsky (voiced by Ian McShane) and retired burlesque actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voiced by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders).

Like a cross between a modern day Alice in Wonderland and a child-friendly Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline is a visual wonder, even if it sometimes seems to say ‘look at me’ a bit too much, especially if you watch it in 3D. However, it’s praiseworthy for having a moral (appreciate what you’ve got because it could be a lot worse) without coming across as too preachy.

Rating: 4/5

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A new top ten

July 20 2009 at 8:02 am (Uncategorized)

I watch most of my films through the magic of DVD rental site Love Film. So that I can manage what I’m sent, I have a ‘top ten’ high priority list. In the past, I’ve populated this list with some of the more glaring gaps in my viewing history – the more obvious classics that I really should have seen by now. When I’ve watched everything in that top ten, I make a new one. I am at the end of my current top ten (the last one arrived the other day) so I started making a new top ten. After realising that most of the films I watch are American or British, and having recently been impressed with Amores Perros and Cinema Paradiso, I was going to do ten foreign films. I had the list all ready, when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and I realised something. Science fiction has always been my first love when it comes to film genres and there were a number of classics that I had never seen. So I decided to postpone the foreign films to focus on spaceships, silver suits, ray guns and robots. May the force be with me.

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Top ten multiple performances

July 20 2009 at 8:01 am (Top tens)

adaptation-3In honour of Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the best films I saw last week, as well as Sam Rockwell’s double header in Moon, I resurrect my weekly top tens with my favourite multiple performances.

1. Alec Guinness (x8), Kind Hearts and Coronets

2. Peter Sellers (x3), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

3. Michael Keaton (x4), Multiplicity (technically this is the same character four times, but each clone is so different that it is essentially four different performances)

4. John Cleese (x6), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (of course, all the Pythons played multiple characters in all their films, but Cleese had some great roles in The Holy Grail)

5. Eddie Murphy (x2), Bowfinger

6. Nicolas Cage (x2), Adaptation

7. Michael J Fox (x3 or 4 depending on whether you count middle aged Marty as a separate performance), Back to the Future Part II

8. Mike Myers (x2), So I Married an Axe Murderer (rather than in any of the Austin Powers films – this is not an oversight)

9. Meg Ryan (x3), Joe Versus the Volcano

10. Jack Nicholson (x2), Mars Attacks!

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13-19 July 2009

July 20 2009 at 7:58 am (The list)

kind hearts and coronetsKind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Generally regarded as one of Ealing’s best comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets is both subtle and audacious. In Edwardian England, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price, a picture of posh calm throughout) is upset about not taking his rightful place in the D’Ascoyne family when his mother, who married into the family, dies. Both to avenge her and to become the Duke of D’Ascoyne, Louis picks off the surviving members of the family one by one. They don’t make comedies like this anymore – subtle humour, well-crafted plot, killer dialogue and great performances, especially from Alec Guinness as all eight of the D’Ascoyne family.

Rating: 5/5

cinema_paradisoCinema Paradiso (1988)

In 1940s Sicily, young Salvatore ‘Toto’ Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) is a cheeky little scamp who spends all his free time at the town’s cinema and befriends father-figure projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). It is from Alfredo’s passion and teachings that Toto eventually leaves the town and becomes a famous film director. He returns to the town for the first time in 30 years to attend Alfredo’s funeral and remembers what he left behind. This tale of friendship, love, finding yourself and the magic of cinema is heart-warming and heartbreaking in equal measures. Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore soaks the film in wistful nostalgia with sweeping music and beautiful camerawork.

Rating: 5/5

Shame list total: 1,204

2001I recently bought the Stanley Kubrick box set – five films I have seen before, some not for a long time and one which didn’t make much of an impact on me on first viewing. I thought it fitting, what with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, to make a start this week with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which I watched for only the second time. I remember when I first saw it as a teenager I found it quite boring and painfully long. I’m starting to believe that when I was a teenager I was a moron. It is simply breathtaking. To encompass the evolution of human achievement in the space of two hours and twenty minutes is an ambitious project, but it was nothing that Kubrick couldn’t handle. Although a film of ideas and theories, about science and philosophy, 2001 is also uncomfortably tense. HAL 9000’s motionless red eye is chilling, and that voice manages to be both soothing and sinister. It whetted my appetite for going to see Duncan Jones’ 1970s-esque Moon, a review of which I’ll post shortly. Honest.

Original ‘idiolescent’ rating:  3/5 (I seem to recall)

Revised ‘mature, learned, moderately well-read, more culturally aware 29-year-old’ rating: 5/5

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