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Sam Reviews: Prometheus

by on Jun.09, 2012, under movies

avatarI should make something clear from the very start: Alien was my diving board into the world of science fiction in film. It wasn’t ET, or Star Wars, or Star Trek. For me these were not science. They weren’t real. They were fantasies, soap operas, adventure tales. They belonged with Black Beauty, Bonanza and Scooby Doo. Even back then, as a girl learning the OILRIG mnemonic for chemical reactions (Oxidation Is Loss, Reduction Is Gain), I felt that science fiction was something edgier and harder than I was finding on the television or the movie screen. It was something I was only finding in books, where the mechanics and the plausibility couldn’t be glossed over with a veneer of special effects and explosions.

In space no one can hear you scream.

1979 Alien poster

That was it. Right there. I was yet to experience the magnificent silence of Kubrick’s 2001. All I knew was that space is a vacuum, sound can’t travel in a vacuum because it is a compression wave, not a transverse wave, and Star Wars had given me far too many space lasers going “PEW PEW PIH-PEW-PEW-PEW!” followed by mega-explosions you could hear if you were standing on the moon.

No. Just no.

The gritty, industrial, supremely plausible sets of Alien, accompanied by the claustrophobic performances of the cast and, of course, the ultimate female action role model of Ripley (notable for not screaming), got me hooked on science fiction in film. As such, the film occupies a particularly well-kept pedestal in my mental gallery of things that have shaped my life.

You will understand, then, that I went to see Prometheus with something akin to a religious person going to witness some form of Holy Visitation, and I will save you the trouble of reading further, and exposing yourself to the ensuing spoilers, by telling you that the experience was rather like a Druid going on a trip to Stonehenge and discovering that it’s just a bunch of big rocks. Everyone around you is swooning over the mystic energies and the swirling chaos of Mother Earth reaching up and imparting visionary experiences of the Universe and Being At One With Existence and you’re thinking that it’s a shame it’s so close to the traffic and it’s not nearly as big as you thought it was going to be.

The film is extraordinarily pretty. It’s full of pretty. There is nothing in it that is not pretty. The scenery is pretty. The spaceship is pretty. The crew are all handsome or beautiful. Even old Weyland would have been good-looking, if they stripped off the cosmetics to reveal Guy Pearce (because, you know, there is a massive shortage of aging actors in the world who could have played that role — Ian Holm is still working and that would have been delicious). The Engineers are reasonably low on the ugly scale. Tall, built like rugby players, with a cupid’s bow lip (the male equivalent of the Jolie beestung pout). Charlize Theron is in fantastic shape, Fassbender’s grooming was lampshaded in the first section of the film — it’s all, you know, pretty.

Maybe that was part of the problem. I distrust pretty. Anything that pretty has to be distracting you from something and, when it comes to movies, it’s usually the story.

And, yes, there we go, the plot has so many holes in it you could use it to drain pasta. The characterisation of most of the characters bar the main four is so weak they might as well have been robots — there is little interaction, no badinage, nothing to distinguish them from NPCs at all. Plus, it makes the fatal mistake of a science fiction film: it gets the easy facts wrong.

Spoilers follow.

Prometheus Movie Poster

The trip to find their makers starts with archaeologists uncovering a cave painting on the Isle of Skye and dating it to a time so close to the last major glaciation that the idea of anyone being there to paint it stretches plausibility past the Young’s modulus. One should also note that the evidence is unclear as to whether modern humans (as opposed to genetically not-identical Neanderthals) were in the UK at all 35,000 years ago. That is just the first of the WTF moments that had me motorboating like 4hp Evinrude two-stroke on a bad oil/petrol mix. There was the instant carbon dating on an alien planet where the CO2 isotope ratio had not been characterised. There was the thing with the head and the electric re-animation — seriously, what was that all about? You cannot trick a head into thinking it’s alive by tickling the vagus nerve with a purple wand. Really, you can’t.

There were others. Oh yes, there were others. Like how the ship was equipped with an autodoc capable of performing any conceivable type of surgery, but which couldn’t deal with having a female patient. Because it was calibrated for a man. I know that was supposed to make the audience ask why it would be for a man when it was supposedly Vickers’s autodoc, but flagging the presence of someone on board we didn’t know about was better done by David’s conversation with Weyland over the neural link, rather than asking us to believe something so advanced couldn’t re-calibrate itself. It was one of the many foreshadowing points throughout the film, the most t-shirt worthy of which was Chekov’s Space Squid (I know it’s not strictly speaking a Chekov’s anything, as it was hardly an irrelevant detail, but Foreshadowing Space Squid is more of a band name than a t-shirt).

Scott’s film has won praise, and I’ve even seen people accuse those who don’t like it of being stupid, of failing to “get it”. Well, hands up. I failed to get it. Oh I got the whole “be careful what you wish for” fable, and I don’t have a problem with a religious scientist. I have a problem with a scientist who is not only an archaeologist but also a forensic xeno-pathologist, because the level of experience needed for that level of expertise in both is not realistically achievable in someone of Shaw’s age.

Vickers and Janeck

Did they really take their helmets off on an alien planet? Can they even SPELL biosecurity?

There’s an automatic defensive reaction from writers who have honed their craft to people suggesting writing is just something you can do; that anyone who can string a few words together deserves to be published. I understand. When you’ve worked at your craft that effort should be recognised. But I have a huge beef with writers inventing characters who are polymaths in specialisations. It cheapens the work and effort of scientists who have spent decades achieving that expertise. It’s almost as bad as when people think their opinion on a scientific topic is as valid as an expert’s because they’ve seen a Horizon documentary about it or read the wikipedia article. I could have understood David being the one to examine the head, just as Ash had been the one to conduct the examination in Alien, but why get Shaw to do it? Why was their medical officer less skilled than their archaeologist?

Why would a bunch of scientists head 4 years into space to an unknown planet without finding out why they were going and what part of their expertise would be required? Why was any one of the other individuals picked? We didn’t ever get to find out enough about them to know, or even to care about their eventual fate. Was their biologist picked for his stupidity? What sort of biologist was he anyway? What sort of geologist was Fifield? Or was he picked for his hair-trigger temper and his tattoos? When the biologist and the geologist said they were going back to the ship, how come they ended up wandering around in the tunnels? The entire crew seemed to have been chosen according to the criteria of a reality-TV show rather than a science expedition, which makes me wonder if the big secret was that Weyland had also sold rights to a television company.

This was a science-fiction film that didn’t pay attention to the science.

the Prometheus

Let's calculate the fuel payload for something that big

How did they happen across the place where the plot was scant minutes after entering the atmosphere? How did a ship that shape and size carry enough fuel to manage landing and take-off? How did the Space Squid get so big with nothing to eat? The original Alien got big by nomming upon the crew of the Nostromo. There’s a conservation of mass issue, there, unless the Space Squid ate the autodoc. How did Shaw manage to belay the robot down a cliff with nothing holding her lower abdomen together bar a few staples on the outside?

There were many other questions.

Prometheus was billed as a film that would make the audience question, and I did. What it didn’t do was make me ponder the big questions of who we are as a species and how we came to be here. It didn’t make me feel like re-reading Chariots of the Gods (although, to be fair, there’s not much that would because it’s drivel). I suspect that the questions we were supposed to focus on were those to do with our evolution. How come the Engineers’ DNA matched ours exactly when our DNA differs from a chimp’s by 1% and a gorilla’s by 2%? Did they seed all life on earth and we failed to evolve? Or was Scott implying that we somehow evolved from a squiggly strand of denatured alien DNA to match those aliens in every genetic detail (but not in looks, though, because we don’t live in Space Heaven and there’s that whole nature-nurture thing) and that was why they were coming to wipe us out? Were we too much like them? Did they see us as competition? Did they think that one species like them in the Universe was already too much? Was this a film about hubris? Arrogance?

I think it was. And, in a way, it was successful at that, because there is an arrogance in the implication we are supposed not to notice or care about the basic errors and implausibilities. I don’t mean things like the technology or the idea that we could travel so far in such a short time: I’m talking about the little things, the things that should not have been wrong, that could have been right with a little more thought or care.

To get back to where I started this, it was when I started comparing this film to Alien that I began to grok what bothered me so much about it. Shaw’s painfully extended battle with her unwanted pregnancy did not come across as plot but as fanservice. Ripley, arguably Hollywood’s most significant strong female character, died “giving birth” to an Alien Queen. Shaw cut the Space Squid out with a device meant for a man and killed the Engineer with it. Take that! Shaw’s sterility wasn’t really a vital part of her character motivation, because other than a brief, weepy argument with Holloway it didn’t have any effect on her behaviour. Rather it seemed to reflect Ripley’s forced state of childlessness caused by decades lost in hypersleep and the loss of Newt. David wasn’t a Data-like prototype but a fully-fledged, functioning robot who seemed far in advance of either Ash or Bishop; and who possessed a self-awareness that allowed him to distinguish himself from humans — and consider himself superior. Shades of Alien: Resurrection there. Prometheus riffed so hard on the franchise that the story, the characters and the setting came across like fan-fiction written by someone who thought the original stuff was so brilliant it didn’t matter if this new story was full of holes left by jamming his favourite elements together in a big pot and not cooking them properly.

I thought Theron and Fassbender were great, Rapace did what she could with a character that needed to be much better written, Marshall-Green was left treading water with a character that lacked any believable sense of conviction and Elba managed to put more character into 3 lines of dialogue than the other NPCs had between them. The opening sequence was breathtaking, and my fangirl hard-science squee was jumping up and down in excitement at the vapour curling over the lip of the giant flying saucer. I just wish the rest of the film had followed through on that promise.

prometheus saucer

You may feel differently, but I like a bit more science in my science fiction.

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Sam reviews: Eden Log

by on Apr.08, 2011, under movies, Reviews

avatarSome of you may remember (or not) that I had flu at the end of last year. Proper baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells flu. Well, said flu damaged my lungs a bit and so when I caught a cold last week it went straight to my chest and stayed there.

Seriously. My training is thoroughly jinxed this year.

However, there was a bright side. Just as I have a rule about taking a punt on music, I have a rule about taking a punt on DVDs, and a few months ago Amazon sent me one of their “You’ve shopped for these things and so we thought you’d like this” emails, in which the items on offer were cult science-fiction world cinema.

Yeah. Niche.

Anyway, one of the DVDs I picked up at that time, what with them all being less than a fiver, was an odd little number called Eden Log. Frood and I started watching it but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t Frood’s sort of thing so I put it away for a time when I could watch it myself. Being stuck at home ill was an ideal opportunity.

Eden Log posterEden Log is the 2007 directorial debut of Franck Vestiel. He also wrote the screenplay. If I had to summarise it, I’d say it was a cross between Pandorum and Silent Running with a bit of Logan’s Run thrown in for good measure. In reverse, if you can possibly imagine such a thing.

The film opens in the pitch black, and I mean pitch black. There is very little lighting and the lead character, impressively played by Clovis Cornillac and at this point nameless, is obviously freezing. The goosepimples on his arms look hard and prominent enough to grate ginger and the breath misting from his mouth has a realism that I don’t think could be achieved by CGI. Even his guttural grunts suggest the sort of forced vocalisation that anyone who has ever tried to exert physical effort while that bloody cold will remember all too clearly.

In what I think is a move that is either very brave or very French, the lighting remains intermittent, the colour scheme almost monochromatic, and the camera intimate for a considerable period while our protagonist finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated facility where he is greeted by an automatic message directed at newcomers. It talks of workers gaining citizenship by sacrifice and it is obvious, immediately, that there is some whitewashing going on here. It is pitched perfectly to alert the viewer to the desperation of the anonymous incomer: you know that whoever heard this for real would be so relieved to make it this far that he wouldn’t look for the small print.

As the film goes on it becomes clear that the “Eden” of the title is not achievable to those who approach from down here in the dark, and that, other than the ones running the place, those who derive the most benefit are kept in equal, if metaphorical, dark about what exactly is needed to sustain their quality of life, while those down below take mortal risks to provide it.

It is Yggrdrassil gone bad, a study in absurdo of what might happen if, in harnessing Nature, man should choose to use a martingale and the dregs of society as mulch.

Like many takes on this subject, including Hollywood budget-busters, as Man’s Disrespect for Mother Nature is a well-worn trail in storytelling, it over-simplifies and hand-waves the science and in places gets the science so wrong it becomes unintelligible. Couple this with the lack of exposition and reliance on metaphor and the film is, at times, horrendously confusing. But the performances of the two lead actors — the aforementioned Cornillac is particularly good, although Vimala Pons does as much as anyone could with the limited material available — are excellent and Vestiel’s determination to see what he started through to the end without mollycoddling his audience is admirable. I can’t even complain about the treatment of the female lead: there is one scene of rape that is so carefully done I could only quibble if I ignored the context entirely, and as this is a story entirely centred on Cornillac’s character I refuse to be upset about Pons getting less screen time. What she does get she puts to excellent use.

I confess I wasn’t entirely sure I’d grasped all of the story when it came to the end — like Valhalla Rising it left the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about exactly how what happened actually happened. And, like Valhalla Rising, I looked it up afterwards because it was intriguing enough for me to want to know what other people had thought.

If you like your science fiction straightforward and your horror gory, leave this be. There’s no blasting off and nuking the place from orbit. There is no man vs monster. In this man is the monster, both figuratively and literally. There is scant dialogue and some viewers may find that there are sections where the use of hand-held cameras becomes a little nauseating, although it is not done for effect (it’s by far less irritating than it was in Cloverfield).

It’s not what I’d call a great film but it is an interesting one. The cast and crew cared about this, and it shows, despite the lack of resources available. It’s not as good as Moon but it’s many times better than most of the science-fiction films I have seen over the past few years. It’s a proper story, actually trying to say something, rather than a buffet of special effects and sexy actors pretending to kick ass in implausible scenarios.

Eden Log has the spirit of Aeon Flux the original series rather than Aeon Flux the movie.

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Sam reviews: Sherlock Holmes

by on May.30, 2010, under movies, Reviews

avatar I’m coming to this party late, as per usual — I should review Iron Man 2, if I want to be current, but I haven’t decided what to make of it yet. So, in lieu of that I shall review another Robert Downey Jr flick: Sherlock Holmes.

This is a fairly standard pseudo-occult, looks-like-magic-but-isn’t Holmesian adventure that those familiar with the character will recognise instantly. Conan Doyle is famous as a debunker of charlatans: his Fortean interests ranged from table-rapping and Spiritualism to the Cottingley Fairies, the latter of which he ardently supported and hoped would encourage a wider acceptance of paranormal phenomena:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I’ve always thought it either ironic or tragic that someone who wanted so much to be convinced about the objective reality of mysticism had his most famous character so frequently unmask the apparently supernatural as no more than a midget with filed teeth (or a dog covered in phosphorus) in a dénouement that has since been dumbed down into Scooby Doo’s janitorial miscreants.

The Baker’s Street Irregulars as pesky kids, indeed.

Assuming storytelling can be seen as a writer’s way of living out his fantasies, I wonder what Holmes’s debunking of the occult said about Conan Doyle’s feelings about what he had gained from Spiritualism.

Sherlock Holmes movie poster

RDJ was pretty good, though

But back to the film before I ramble off on some convoluted discussion of Thesophy and the history of British Occult practises. I’ll end up on Elizabeth St. George and voodoo lemons if I’m not careful.

The settings are reminiscent of From Hell, in a manner that manages to be slightly less grubby despite the apparent squalor in which this Holmes seems to live — I suspect that this dirt and untidiness is supposed to indicate Holmes’s preferred bachelor state of existence, or a focus on ‘higher’ things.

But this is Lock, Stock and Elementary, My Dear Watson, full of explosions and witty one-liners and fake homoerotic tension. We’re encouraged to infer that Holmes is threatened by a woman who wants to take Watson away from him and his own feelings for the American adventuress and criminal who is dangled as the poisoned bait throughout.

Robert Downey Jr does an excellent job playing Robert Downey Jr with an English accent, demonstrating that it’s not only Tony Stark he can make behave like an arrogant asshat. I found Jude Law to be engaging in a way that, for me, is unusual. Rachel McAdams was competent enough as the beautiful but dangerously able Irene Adler, even if she did end up having to be rescued by the men (there’s a suppressed rant in there) and Kelly Reilly was sadly forgettable, although I don’t think that was her fault. Mark Strong appeared to be asleep — I know he can do better and if he’s playing Sinestro in the new Green Lantern he’d better or he’ll upset the fanboys. Eddie Marsan gave the sort of understated, underused and quietly plausible performance I’m used to seeing from British character actors…

It’s not really very Holmes, though, is it?

I had watched Shore and Attanasio’s House for some time before Frood pointed out the obvious. What amused me the most about Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was that he resembled House more than he did Holmes. The effect was a rather like taking a sample of text, running it through Google’s translation engine to turn it into Icelandic and then reversing the process.

The recognition of the existence of material Jolt twentieth century note with great ruts in the mud and their will to make it recognize that it is a glamor and mystery of life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to recognize the spiritual message supported by physical incident that has already been submitted to him.

It’s still recognisable but it’s possible to see traces of the process.

Sherlock Holmes is a film based on a series of stories and books by a Scot of Irish descent writing about an Englishman, flavoured strongly by a TV series based in principle on the same tales in which an American is played by an Englishman, and which itself stars an American playing an Englishman.

There’s something delightfully silly about this.

Having said all that, Guy Ritchie’s take on the titular character is not one that necessarily invites any level of analysis. It is possible to take him as he is presented: Holmes meets Tyler Durdan; a man with the mental aptitude of a genius and the personal inclinations of a street thug, his refined aesthetics reduced to tuneless plucking of an abused violin and passing sartorial judgement on his best friend’s choice of waistcoats. The fiendish plots and inductive reasoning originally used to demonstrate the genius is here replaced by the false Chekhov’s Gun that is showing Holmes calculating entire sequences of fight moves followed by performance of the same, and a tan line upon a lady’s finger. The exotic and esoteric machinations of the evil-doers become misdirected unrequited love and a widget with a superfluous arc generator that doesn’t even spark.

House relies on an esoteric knowledge that we, the audience, can’t possibly hope to match. Ritchie’s Holmes relies on flash-forwards and withholding basic information until it’s time for it to be explained to us as if we were blind children.

I wonder what Conan Doyle would have to say about that.

If you want a good re-imagining of Holmes, I can do no better than recommend —highly— The List of Seven by Mark Frost. Yes, that Mark Frost.

I’m re-reading it myself right now.

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Sam reviews Pandorum

by on Mar.22, 2010, under movies, Reviews

The other film I watched this week was Pandorum, on loan from my mum. I had wanted to see it at the cinema, but Frood and I tend to be a little disorganised about going to the cinema unless it’s something that I’m desperate to see, so we missed it.

Pandorum, for those of you who were not paying attention to the adverts, is supposedly about… Let me just copy what it says on the box:

Two astronauts (Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster) awaken in a hyper-sleep chamber aboard a seemingly abandoned spacecraft. It’s pitch black, they are disoriented, and the only sound is a low rumble and creak from the belly of the ship. They have no memory of who they are or what their mission is, but one thing they do realise very quickly is that they are not alone.

This is pretty much utter rubbish. Do not pay attention to what the blurb on the back says. This is Alien meets 28 Days Later meets Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and don’t let anyone try to persuade you of anything different. You do not need to know anything more than that. This is the story in a nutshell, and if you have seen both this and Mad Max III, please do not tell me that the bit with the dude and his pictorial creation myth was not ripped straight off the kiddies and their Captain Walker story and expect me to believe you.

We had huge issues with the lighting. For the first third of the film I could barely see what was going on. Then the strobes started and I couldn’t watch at all. I could see glimmers of a really good film in there, and spent the entirety of it waiting for them to turn into something more substantial.

Oh, and oh! Seriously. Girlie has been surviving on her own for months, and yet as soon as our hero turns up she becomes incapable of even climbing out of a hole by herself? What is it with movies? A woman who has been independent and has the skills and ability to look after herself does not become weak and useless the moment a guy makes an appearance. She should have been looking after him, not the other way around. She had the skills and the experience, he simply had junk in his pants.

While I’m at it, the Earth just vanishing? Was that for real or did I lose interest before they explained that this is impossible and hadn’t really happened it was just the space madness and/or the mutagenic food cubes?

Oh, the science rawked, dude! I haven’t seen drivel like that since Sunshine!

OK. Enough. I wanted to like this film, I really did. But at first I watched but couldn’t see, then I couldn’t watch, and when I could watch what I saw was derivative and disappointing.

There’s a particular sort of disappointment that comes from seeing a good idea poorly executed. That’s the flavour of Pandorum.

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Sam reviews Hannibal Rising

by on Mar.22, 2010, under movies, Reviews

First off, I know that I’m way, way, way behind. I do have my reasons.

You see, back in the day I read Red Dragon and fell in love with the character of Will Graham, a man whose ability to get inside the mind of monsters was so profound the FBI thought he might be psychic. The question of whether he was or not remained unanswered by the end of the book, and I liked that it was left up to the reader to decide whether Graham’s power came from something unexplained by science or his own tamed monster. Red Dragon was the first book I read to suggest that the state of being monstrous was not necessarily something to be shunned; neither was it something that could necessarily be seen or explained.

I liked the original film, too, and got on okay with Silence of the Lambs in both formats. The problem was that it was the character of Hannibal Lecter that attracted all the attention — he was the more obvious monster, but a charming and handsome one, which made it fine to indulge in the thrill of having a secret crush on him.

So then we had Hannibal, which, for all its Mediaeval Memory Palace references and culture, for all the attention it gave to the titular monster, didn’t really become monstrous until the end. I’m not talking about the part where he serves up Krendler’s brain as an appetiser, either. The truly monstrous part was the romantic interlude, and they left that out of the movie.

I found it an incredibly strange decision however I think it was because Lecter’s popularity was fuelled by the same romantic notions that have led to sparkly vampires and werewolves that don’t smell of wet dog. Lecter being in love with Starling from a distance was romantic. Lecter actually making Starling his beloved companion, who shared his sense of aesthetics as well as his life… Well. That’s a bit like Dracula marrying Mina Harker and undying happily ever after. Serial killers don’t get happy endings. That would be amoral. Most people don’t like amoral romance to find fulfilment.

People don’t like amoral.

But, see, that’s the point. That was the thing I always liked about Lecter: the idea that he arrived fully formed, monstrous only because his moral stance was at odds with that of society: a man whose sense of aesthetics was impeccable and who set the highest of standards. For everyone.

Lecter as played by Brian Cox was cunning and intelligent but obviously insane, prone to petulance and self-absorption. Lecter as played by Hopkins was an educated sociopath and aesthete making the most of enforced asceticism. He also understood the nature of passion.

Hannibal Rising purported to tell the story of what made Lecter what he was: a childhood experience so dreadful that his heart died, taking his soul with it, and leaving a monster in its place. The entire film is about making him somehow lovable, about making him intelligible, about putting the viewer in a position where he feels he might understand how it is possible for Lecter to exist as he does.

For me that ruins it. Never mind the ridiculous and completely unwarranted martial arts training shoe-horned in there —presumably we need the “martial arts give you superpowers” trope because a fine sense of aesthetics and a predatory drive can’t possibly explain keen senses and reactions, oh no— I don’t need or even want to feel that Lecter exists because of something that could happen to anybody. That, to put it bluntly, is pretty much what this film says. Rather than Lecter being, in his own way, a unique and exquisite piece of art, he is just some poor kid whose sister was eaten by soldiers and who vowed to take revenge.

The Lecter of Hannibal Rising resembles Creepy Thin Man from the Charlie’s Angels franchise more than he does the Lecter who could and would take a woman apart and put her back together again so he would have someone fit to sit at his side while attending the National Opera.

When I first encountered the work of Thomas Harris it was Graham who interested me. More accurately, it was the monster that might live inside him that interested me. It was the monster in Lecter that I came to admire, living by his own rules and his own standards, which were, despite his capacity and tendency towards murder, so much higher than those of the population at large. He killed a viola player to improve the sound of an orchestra — and I can assure you, as a one-time orchestral viola player myself, that there are plenty of violinists who could understand that sentiment.

Lecter as explained by this prequel is no more than a disturbed child who went and got himself a good education. He’s no longer a one of a kind, never-to-be-repeated flash of lightning in a clear sky.

We don’t always need reasons. Some things are the more beautiful for their absence.

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Sam reviews… The Wolfman (2010)

by on Feb.12, 2010, under movies, Reviews

The Wolfman movie posterHaving something of a thing for vampires is common enough. Stoker and the many monsters he has spawned, from the rabbit-toothed Nosferatu to the sparkly Edward Cullen, has a fanbase of people from academics to Whitby goths.

Me, I’ve never been a vampire person. They don’t interest me all that much. Dracula always struck me as the Victorian way of writing a story about rape and it was possessed of a boolean morality I found off-putting. Modern vampires are even worse: they’re pretty much super-powered people who don’t die and would be equally at home in the Marvel Universe, inexplicable attractivenes and everything. The only vampire who interests me at the moment is Being Human with a ghost and a werewolf in Bristol.

Werewolves. Now they’re another matter entirely. Werewolves are the vampire’s poor cousin, and that’s not entirely the fault of White Wolf and Vampire: the Masquerade, although I have a history of ranting about how the RPGs are responsible for so much misinformation out there.

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to werewolves, presumably because they don’t result in young women swooning over the thought of being swept off their feet. Vampires are sophisticated, elegant, mesmeric — much like one supposes Mesmer himself was — or at least capable of behaving that way by virtue of the experience conferred upon them by their immortality. Vampires hit the mature, experienced man button that many women find attractive.

Werewolves, on the other hand, tend to be disturbed, slightly unhinged individuals who, once a month, turn hairy and smell of wet dog. In mainstream movies only The Howling ever really looked at the erotic side of lycanthropy, spawning a plethora of sequels that were absolutely appalling and might as well have ended up as Emmanuelle In Fur. Only Wolf has done the romantic side of lycanthropy, with both Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer turning in surprisingly good performances. I don’t count Ladyhawke in this field because it’s not really a werewolf movie, although it is one of my favourite films of all time.

There have been notable exceptions to the “werewolf movies are rubbish” generalisation, although there are a few that are cited as being examples when they aren’t really. Brotherhood of the Wolf is an interesting film, based loosely on actual events that happened deep in the superstitious 18th century French countryside; however, for reasons I won’t disclose for fear of spoilers, it doesn’t really belong in a list of werewolf movies. Wolfen, although described as a werewolf movie and being a good film, is not about werewolves. You can take or leave the Underworld and Van Helsing contributions: they may, arguably, have been successful in what they were doing but I would argue that their depiction of werewolves suffers from the traits that make them, while potentially enjoyable action movies, bad werewolf movies.

American Werewolf In London is, of course, probably the best werewolf movie ever made, and I suspect you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees, despite the appalling sequel. In the Company of Wolves is an excellent, mythic take on the legend, melding proper, gory fairytale with some genuine folklore. Dog Soldiers brings some humour to the genre (and can thus be forgiven the standard werewolf model) but aside from those, you’re really struggling. There just isn’t much out there. Ginger Snaps, while critically acclaimed, didn’t do it for me as a werewolf movie because the metaphor was just too blatant and, in my opinion, stopped it being about werewolves at all.

One film that has always stuck in my mind is the only Hammer venture to tackle a werewolf as a titular character: The Curse of the Werewolf. It struck me for several reasons, not least of which is that it is one of the very few films — if not the only one — to depict someone who is a werewolf not from being bitten by another werewolf, but because he is the product of a rape. The usual method of becoming a werewolf implies that it was avoidable: if the victim hadn’t been there then it wouldn’t have happened and thus, in a way, it’s partially his own fault. “Don’t go out on the moors!” In The Curse, the protagonist could not have avoided it. The events that occurred to cause this happened in the act of his conception. This gives a different slant to the story, and perhaps thus permitted a different way of approaching the werewolf protagonist. In that film the disease, if that’s what it is, even goes into remission for a significant portion of the character’s life, when he has spent some time learning to control himself in a monastery, and is only resurrected by the stirring of animal passion as he becomes a man. Love is both his undoing and his saviour, albeit that the resolution is, as is apparently usual in lycanthropy cases, terminal.

I confess that I was a little confused when I sat down to watch The Wolfman, for I thought that it was a remake of The Curse, and was excited to see, at last, a good lycanthropy film made with modern effects. It’s not, of course: it’s a remake of the 1941 film with Claude Rains. The plot, briefly, is that estranged son Lawrence Talbot returns home after the death of his brother (by werewolf), gets bitten, falls in love with girl… You can guess the rest. Still, it started quite well, despite Anthony Hopkins portraying Talbot Sr as a Welsh Hannibal Lecter on sedatives. The period setting was nicely done, with shades of Hounds of the Baskervilles and plenty of moody lighting. The first encounter with the beast rendered him as possessed of shocking speed and power, running through his victims with all the brutal care of a steam train covered in samurai swords. Briefly, I thought this film might have given us a good werewolf.

Let me just qualify my position here. I have issues with the bipedal, man-with-big-teeth-and-hair style of werewolf. That’s not a wolf. Just because early movies lacked the capacity to do either animatronics or good creature effects, and had to make do with spirit gum and paint, it doesn’t mean we should be left stuck with werewolves that are basically men with fur and extravagant dentistry. Landis got it right, from every bone-cracking, pain-etched twitch and contortion of the transformation sequence to the massive, four-legged brute that ended up stalking the streets. I even preferred the approach of Wolf, which almost avoided the transformation altogether and had the character turn into an actual wolf. I detest the creatures that are more lemur than canine, and it is beyond me why we are still forced to suffer under the pretence that werewolves are men with fur. The clue is in the name.

The transformation sequence in The Wolfman borrows heavily from Landis, and so I was on the verge of being happy. Then it stopped, far short of where I thought those elongated feet were taking me, and there he was. More hair, bigger teeth, the yellow eyes, the big claws and the ruffled shirt.

Er. What? Ruffled shirt? Oh, right. This is the 21st century, where you can rip someone to shreds and eviscerate him in full, bloody detail but daren’t show a nipple for fear of censure. He has to be a well-dressed werewolf.

It went downhill after that. Benicio Del Toro, for whom I have a severe soft spot as a result of his performance in Fear and Loathing, couldn’t quite deliver the pain and torment of a man who has been cursed to slaughter by a ravening beast inside him. Even the scenes in the asylum, complete with the 19th century answer to waterboarding, failed to produce the sense of a man in agony. The occasional face-on shot of him charging at full speed on all fours provoked a giggle rather than a sense of awe. And, finally, the inevitable long big punch up. What is it with Hollywood and their constant desire to have werewolves fight like chimps? They are canids. Canids do not fight by chest-bumping. Apes do that. A transformed werewolf is no longer an ape. He is a canine. Can we please try to remember that? Wolves do not launch themselves through the air and bump chests. Why would werewolves?

OK. Werewolf-fanatic gripes aside, the performances were lacking in sparkle (nothing to do with the aforementioned Cullen). None of the actors, with the possible exceptions of Emily Blunt and Art Malik, seemed all that invested in what he was doing. Hugo Weaving’s performance was oddly off-key, almost as if he were in another movie with a different script reading lines that coincidentally made sense in this one. It was, overall, somewhat dull, and that’s a terrible thing to have to say about any film. I’d rather hate a film than find it tedious.

On the plus side, the film was nicely paced and mercifully restrained in terms of length (although the IMDB entry puts it at 125 minutes, it started at 21:35 and we were out at 23:15, leading me to wonder what they cut for the UK release). I enjoyed the depiction of an aristocratic family in ruins and the device of hallucinogenic flashbacks to reveal the surprise would have been a nice touch if I hadn’t spotted the twist some time before.

If you like werewolf movies, it’s worth watching, but don’t be upset if you miss it at the cinema. It won’t lose much for being seen on DVD, apart possibly from the hilarity of having the main character come barrelling towards you like an angry baboon who has just crashed through a haberdasher’s, larger than life and three times as ridiculous.

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Sam reviews…

by on Jun.07, 2009, under movies, Reviews

The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Movie posterFirst off, I know I’m late on this. Frankly I didn’t want to go to the cinema to see Keanu “Woah” Reeves reprise his Johnny Mnemonic performance — which I could tell he was doing by the simple fact he was going to be wearing a suit — and thus have to pay for the privilege. Nor was I going to buy the DVD, as I already own a copy of Johnny Mnemonic. Somewhere. So I had to wait until it came out on pay-per-view.

Bite me.

If you don’t know the plot by now, then you’ve been living under a rock in a swamp. Alien comes to Earth and says that unless mankind changes its destructive ways then powers immeasurably superior to ours will wipe the species from the face of the planet. Faced with complete destruction and massively superior technology, someone has to change his mind about humanity’s right to live. It has been many, many years since I last saw the original, so I’m not position to make anal comparisons between the two and watched it as a film for its own sake. Up to a point.

We started off up a mountain somewhere in 1928. In this scene KR played a bearded mountaineer who finds a strange glowing sphere in the ice, and proceeds to poke at it with his ice axe. I mean, really. If you found a strange glowing sphere encased in ice would you poke at it with your ice axe?

Yeah. I probably would too.

“Oooh! He’s going to get abducted! How exciting!” I exclaimed, already thinking this is a much more satisfying explanation for a human alien than them growing one.

But no. Bright flash of light then beardy is waking up slightly puzzled and the sphere is gone. Not a lipless cow to be seen anywhere, either.

Skip to the present day and we meet our heroine. Hollywood has banned action girls from the movies, for some reason. This leaves most girls with the fate-worse-than-death of being a soppy screamer who faints at the sight of a beetle. Here we have avoided this by making her a biologist specialising in the sorts of bacteria that get off on making scientists say “WTF is that doing growing THERE?” Her personal drama, because we can’t be without personal drama, is provided by being the widow of a man who died serving in the army, leaving her with the care of his son by his previous wife, who doesn’t like her very much and wants nothing more than his daddy to come back. Yada yada.

The action begins by having a bunch of feds turn up at her door while she’s trying to persuade the kid to get off WoW and come eat dinner while he reminds her, in that precious way movie children have, that she’s not his mother.

It’s all very Crichton, and here was where my niggles started blowing up into full irritation. I detest the idea that any government in this day and age doesn’t have a contingency plan in place for something like this, as ridiculous as it seems. In The Andromeda Strain, which had exactly the same multi-disciplinary mobilisation, the scientists were at least aware that they might be called upon. They were thus prepared to get straight to work and were much more effective and efficient, rather than spending valuable minutes — and minutes were valuable in this film — faffing around stressed because they didn’t know what was happening.

I started becoming genuinely uncomfortable when they went to meet the sphere in Central Park. I’d really like to think that we wouldn’t, as a species, turn up to greet our first verified alien visitor with howitzers, tanks, snipers and rocket launchers, but upon reflection I suspect that we probably would. And yeah, we probably would shoot him as well. That many nervous people with guns, accidents are bound to happen.

After that the whole thing just derailed and it became downright silly. The giant robot was the best thing in the film, and I’m going to ignore the painful way they shoehorned an acronym in there to explain his name. The alien arrived in a spacesuit made of placenta, which fell off and allowed KR to reprise his Matrix adult foetus role, after which he did his emotionless cool act, making him look like an escapee from Equilibrium. That was fine in context. We are talking about a portrayal of inevitability and implacability, after all.

The major premise of the film is summarised in the scene where the kid asks Klaatu whether they should run or fight and Klaatu responds “Neither… There is nothing you can do.”

I didn’t think enough was made of this. I can tell they tried, but other than some feeble attempts to destroy the giant robot, they didn’t do anything that really hammered home just how powerless people were. That’s the part that should have been really scary. Here we are currently facing potential environmental disaster and we still can do something about it, if we get our act together. We are, as the Professor (John Cleese) said in the film, “standing on the precipice”. Right now we can still step back. I wanted to be shown how abjectly hopeless it will make us as a species feel when there is nothing we can do about it any more. When it’s too late.

Unleashing a self-replicating mass of matter-eating artificial locusts just didn’t do it for me. Wasn’t exactly environmentally friendly, either.

As it is, the film went something like this:

Jacob: Ure not mai mom. I hates U!
Dr Helen Benson: Put your computer DOWN and eat your dinner, FFS.
American Military: Dr Helen Benson U must cum with us and leev horribl child behind cos we say so and we has motorsickles with flashy lites.
Dr Helen Benson: Oh. OK.
American Military: Now U help us meets visitor from owter space.
Dr Helen Benson: Kewl.
American Military: Noes!!!!11!! Ebul alien cum to eats us! Shoot it! Now! Kwicks!
Klaatu: FFS. I’m not even out of my spacesuit yet. Quit it, Gort. Just… Give me a minute. FFS. We’re off to a great start already. Way to go making me think you guys have the potential to be nice.
Dr Helen Benson: Medic!
American Military: U R ebul alien cums to eat us. We am be interrugating U nows.
Klaatu: I think not. FFS. I just want to speak to the UN. What is it with you people?
American Military: Aieeee! He has used speshul ebul alien powahs to eats our branes thru the wiring!
Klaatu: I got the box. Damn straight. Now to get me to the UN. Aha! Here I have found what appears to be a transport hub. My word. How vicious and violent this race is. The sooner we’ve got rid of them the better. Oh. I appear to be bleeding and unwell.
Dr Helen Benson (answering phone): Yes? You have found the alien cough I mean my patient? I’ll be right there.
Klaatu:Your race is vicious and violent and destructive and must die. I am here to kill you all so that the bunny rabbits and the polar bears can live in peace. You must act as my chauffeur because, although I am excellent, I do not possess a driving licence.
Dr Helen Benson: Oh. OK. But we’re really not that bad. I shall introduce you to my professor, who is also excellent, and has a Nobel prize for being excellent, and he will show you how wrong you are by being excellent.
Professor: See my excellent maths! Listen to excellent Bach through my most excellent sound system.
Klaatu: Your math is promising and Bach is indeed most excellent.
Jacob: U is nasteh ebul alien and ai call army on U Bcoz that’s what Dad wud do and Dad was like JEBUS.
Klaatu: FFS. I thought we were getting somewhere. No, that’s it. You’re all going to die.
Giant robot (turning into artifical locust plague): DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY. LOL.
Dr Helen Benson: Noes! I has been kidnapped from the alien by the military in an ironic subversion of the alien abduction experience. No rly.
Jacob: I am be all alone in woods and am scared. Can U help me ebul alien who isn’t so ebul eny moar?
Klaatu: Kids, eh?
American Military: We gots nuthin. U try, Dr Helen Benson. Heer is Ur fone.
Jacob: I kno! We can meet at Dad’s grave and alien can bring him back to life with his alien powah, just like Jebus!
Klaatu: Look, kid. He’s not just dead, he’s worm food. He has been recycled, FFS.
Jacob: Waaaaah!
Dr Helen Benson: Oh, poor baby! Here I shall hug you and make you feel better.
Jacob: Mom! I luvs you!
Klaatu: It would appear I was mistaken about the nature of humanity. If this child can hug the woman who cares for him, then perhaps their world leaders will not blow the living shit out of each other with nukes and will cap carbon emissions to stop polar ice melt. I must stop my giant robot locust plague, all because this child embraced this woman.
Rest of world: Yay! Say it. Say it! SAY IT! WTF? He didn’t say it! Even Bruce Campbell said it in Army Of Darkness! We spent the last 100 minutes waiting for him to say it and all we get is a lousy EMP? FFS. The only real consequence is that we’ll need to reboot everything and our watches have stopped. What’s that supposed to teach us? Hey, Klaatu! You SUCK.

Still. Could have been worse. It was better than Sunshine. It didn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty nail.

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Sam reviews

by on Feb.13, 2009, under movies

Die Hard 4.0

I know. I’m late. But every so often I like to come out with a brief review of a film that we happened to watch the night before on DVD because there was nothing on the telly.

Bruce “action man in a vest” Willis’s post-hair, terrorist-fighting, survival caper is the sort of switch-your-brain-off and enjoy movie that I need once in a while. Either I ODed on throat sweets yesterday or the fever had come back, but with a deleriously willing suspension of disbelief I was along for the ride and enjoying every wisecracking second, including Silent Bob as the basement dwelling Ãœber-nerd, Warlock. Yarly. Not as good as the third one in terms of character interaction, but it has its moments.

Up until the oven ready gas. That kind of threw me back into engineering mode for a few minutes, as I scoffed at the preposterousness of having lit gas flooding through the supply pipes, not to mention the logistical and practical impossibility of being able to re-route all gas lines across the eastern seaboard to feed into a single power plant in West Virginia. Using a laptop. Unfortunately the truck vs STOVL fighter jet celebrity death match happened shortly after that, so I hadn’t settled back into going with the flow when the F-53 pilot unleashed his missiles on a busy highway. I can’t see anyone blithely accepting that sort of collateral damage in any circumstances.

However, the epic fail of plausibility kicked my brain back into idle, and I could enjoy watching McClane chasing down the bad guys with a catalogue of injuries that should have included every bone in his body being shattered (not to mention a number of internal organs — the liver behaves as a non-Newtonian fluid if you hit it hard enough, and I’m guessing McClane’s was hit more than hard enough), killing them all, and then showing just how much of a hardman he is by sitting in the back of the ambulance as if he’d done no more than bloodied his nose while his young sidekick was off his face on morphine to deal with a couple of flesh wounds.

Jumping the shark or crowning moment of awesome? McClane didn’t jump a shark. He jumped an F-53. After the pilot had ejected. While it was on fire.

What do you think?

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