R.I.P. Harry Harryhausen

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Harry Harryhausen, the master of spot-motion animation, died the day before yesterday aged 92.

I’m old enought to count the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts (released in 1963, two years before I was born) as one of the most seminal visual experiences of my youth. I can’t imagine how much this one scene has influenced my imagination and my life. I consider it brilliant in every way—that stunning, slow lead up, the sudden break into screaming violence, the frenetic music, the incredible personality that he managed to inject into those articulated puppets. Genius. Rest in peace sir, you inspired generations.


Insert Tedious Snow White Reference Here

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Hobbits

The first image of all the dwarves from the upcoming two-part film adaptation of The Hobbit has just been released. Click on the link to see close-up portraits of your favourite dwarves.


The Walking Dead

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Walking Dead

Wow. If you’re in any way a zombie fan, check out Series 1 of The Walking Dead. Episodes of this stunning series (based on the comics by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard) left me alternately jumping an inch off the couch in shock, holding back tears and gasping with relief or excitement.

Plot wise, there’s nothing particularly new here—man wakes up in hospital to discover the zombie apocalypse has arrived, survivors band together; the usual zombie tropes—but The Waking Dead cleverly concentrates on the characters and the human drama instead of the gore and the zombie-killing. Not to mention scenes that actually make you feel real sympathy for the zombies and the people they once were. It’s definitely gory however, and sensitive types (my girlfriend among them) should probably steer clear, but if they do they’ll be missing out on some extremely high quality acting, scriptwriting and production.

The Walking Dead does for zombies what the new Battlestar Galactica did for scifi. It’s a frustratingly short series of only 6 episodes, but a 13-episode second series is on the way later this year.


Garrow’s Law

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Garrows LawJust finished Season Two of the excellent BBC drama Garrow’s Law. My girlfriend and I have been obsessed with English history of late, and it has been gratifying to know a bit about the social situations and historical events that have come up in this excellent legal drama inspired by the life of pioneering 18th century barrister William Garrow. Since the trials are based on real cases that were heard at the Old Bailey, everything from Molly houses to criminal conversation has popped up in the eight episodes of the two seasons.

Andrew Buchan as the interestingly flawed William Garrow and Alun Armstrong as the faithful John Southouse do excellent work, and Lyndsey Marshal, who completely unimpressed in the boring second season of Being Human, is far more convincing here as Lady Sarah Hill.

Highly recommended for those who like to learn something as well as enjoy beautifully scripted, produced and acted drama.


Battlestar Galactica

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A friend sent me this fantastic promotional photo for Battlestar Galactica. Great stuff. Also note, Fantasy Flight Games have just released a Battlestar Galactica board game, which has been getting great reviews. It’s a co-operative game–that is, until, one or more players are revealed as Cylons …

Battlestar Galactica
[click image to enlarge]

PS: No spoilers please! I haven’t got hold of Season 4 yet.


Joss Whedon’s Dr Horrible

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Dr HorribleGo Joss!
Act OneAct Two


Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Indy IV

Warning: some spoilers!

Well folks, I finally got to see Indy IV—despite the fact my original plan to see it in luxury La Premiere style (comfy chairs, waiter service, bottle of wine) was scuppered by family visits and various other commitments. Instead, I took an afternoon off work, swallowed my pride and went alone to Hoyts where, as usual, you get treated like scum that they must begrudgingly provide with a minimal service in exchange for being fleeced (already it’s on the ‘put it in the loungeroom-sized cinema for those few losers who didn’t see it in the first two weekends’ list).

But this isn’t the place to enumerate my numerous complaints with the soul-sucking Hoyts chain of cinemas; that’s for a later post. This is about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the one film all us life-long Indiana Jones fans have been champing at the bit to see, the return of our beloved hero and his whip-cracking adventures. And the verdict?

Meh.

Oh, it’s OK. It’s light, predictable fun. I had a good time, walked out of the cinema, and promptly forgot all about it. Because you could beat yourself senseless agonising about all the things this film could have been. You could scream that that they should have left Indiana to ride off into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, that Harrison Ford is too old to play the character anymore, that there’s no magic, no Indiana Jonesness, to the whole exercise. Or you could just pay your money, have a laugh, and forget about it afterwards.

The question is, it the films themselves, or is it us? I watched the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull the other night, and it seemed clunky and slow, and in places (especially the Joan Baez songs) silly. When I saw it as a kid that film blew me away. It seems all our old popular culture memories are either being plundered and destroyed, or held up to a light far too bright for them to endure. Nobody has an “I remember that, that was fantastic” moment anymore, because we see all the old films and TV shows again when we buy the lavish DVD box sets, and replace the warm, special glow of childhood with the harsh glare of experienced adulthood.

So maybe I’m too experienced now. When Indiana flies to the Nazca lines in Peru, my ten-year-old self would have been wrapped up in the exotic mystery of such a place. But now I’m 42 and I’ve actually been there myself, and flown over them in a light plane. I know there’s no hill overlooking the spider symbol with an old Peruvian graveyard on the top. Of course suspension of disbelief is all part of the fun, but there are plot holes and unbelievable sequences here that reach out of the screen and slap me in the face.

This brings me to my next question, has it all been done before? Have we seen all the good ideas in cinema, and especially in the ‘wisecracking adventurer’ genre? There’s nothing about the plot in Indy IV that surprised me or that seemed clever or new. There were no memorable lines that people will repeat to each other for decades to come (“snakes … why did it have to be snakes?”) There’s very little wit.

Of course, I have to lay some of the blame at the feet of George Lucas. He seems to see storytelling as a railroad track his characters follow against their will—a bit like Indy strapped to the rocket sled in a sequence at the start of the film. Anakin Skywalker never seemed to make one damned decision in the whole three of those odious Star Wars ‘prequels’. It gets worse here towards the end—Indy and his little Scooby gang go through the motions, not affecting anything around them. Indy doesn’t make a difference, do anything heroic, he just becomes a cardboard cut out following the scriptwriter’s dotted line. He doesn’t do any of what he so famously used to do—“make it up as he goes along”.

There was a lot of potential here. Indy could have been dragged successfully into the 50s, with its McCarthy paranoia, cold war conflict, 50s B-movie aliens. It just needed a script cleverer than this one, which makes perfunctory nods in the direction of these plot devices and then doesn’t go anywhere with them. Cate Blanchett brings a lot of charisma to her sexy Russian, but there’s no chemistry between her in Indy, and nothing is done with her character except fill the boots of bad guy. Shia LaBeouf is a good young actor and there could have been some great father-son stuff with Indy, but it never really happens. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) could have been Marion Ravenwood instead of the strangely two-dimensional character here. Steven Spielberg still knows how to direct an action sequence, but this time they feel pasted in, with no relevance to anything, and there’s none of that brilliant ratcheting up of the stakes that was done so well with sequences like the flying wing fight in Raiders.

Yep, it could have been a great film. But by some combination of lack of ideas, the feeling we’ve seen it all before, and the fact that I, and the filmmakers, and the actors, are all a lot older—well, it just never gets there.

But I’m still giving it three fedoras out of five. It’s an OK couple of hours, even though Indiana Jones should have been left to ride into the sunset.


Film review: Beowulf 3D

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Beowulf

You don’t go into the latest 3D animation spectacular with very high expectations for scriptwriting and direction, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised with Beowulf. While for the most part it’s the usual CGI bluff and bluster, there are a few moments here actually that make an emotional impact, and perhaps remind us that we really are in the early days when it comes to this kind of film-making, and that anything may happen yet. For the first time I could see that fully motion-captured acting and animation really does have potential.

The first surprise was a lovely long, long pull-back from the Danish mead hall that is the centre of the action back into the countryside. Not only is the shot almost meditative in its length, but the director was smart enough to let the sound design do the work without cluttering up the atmosphere with music–the result is a truly stunning shot.
There are a few other moments nearly as good, but most of Beowulf is taken up with rollicking violent action, and it’s hard not to think that 10th century storytellers of the original Old English epic poem might have approved, before generations of tweed-coated bespectacled Oxford linguistic professors made it all worthy and boring. This is the kind of special effects bash that would have gone down well around the fire after a hard day’s pillaging.

Of course, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary and director Robert Zemeckis have their way with the original poem and add several plotlines and motivations. The story is simple, with a cautionary edge that makes it a little interesting, and the famous Grendel is written as a sympathetic murdering psychotic monster instead of just a murdering psychotic monster. The film certainly feels more like a modern graphic novel that a timeless epic classic, which perhaps is a lost opportunity, but understandable.

The actors do a good job with their motion-capture work, though Windstone’s tough-guy London accent can get grating, especially when mixed with the hodge-podge of other accents that echo about this Danish melieu. Angelina Jolie is suitably seductive as Grendel’s mother, Anthony Hopkins has a great time playing the sodden King Hrothgar, and John Malkovitch, as usual, plays John Malkovich.

Despite exploring adult themes, the animation is hilariously coy in order to get the film’s PG-13 rating, often with the result of jarring you out of suspended disbelief. The convenient placing of mugs and candlesticks when Beowulf fights naked is unintentionally hilarious, and Grendel’s mother seducing Beowulf when she doesn’t even seem to have nipples, let alone working genitalia, takes the sexual tension right out of the whole exercise. It’s a shame they had to pander to the censors in this way.

On the whole however, I found Beowulf a fun ride. Make sure you see it in 3D for all the diving-straight-into-the-camera fun. You even get a bit of good scriptwriting and direction thrown in among all the action.

Three-and-a-half severed limbs out of five.


Film Review: Stardust

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Stardust

The Princess Bride was a funny, charming, irreverent film made back in 1987 that has become something of a classic, and it’s wonderful to see some of the same magic recaptured with Stardust. This lovely fable, based on Neil Gaiman’s second novel and directed by Matthew Vaugn, is an entertaining ride from start to finish–that is if you still have a soft spot in your heart for tales of ghosts and witches, kings and princesses. If you don’t–be off with you, hardened cynics with no imagination!

The story has simple faery (isn’t it wonderful how changing just one letter recaptures the magic the word ‘fairy’ has lost?) story roots, but a healthy mixture of inventiveness and a determination by the cast and crew not to take anything too seriously keeps the film fresh and fun throughout. Of course readers of the original novel may disagree, and say that Vaugn has been far too influenced by The Princess Bride. That may be–I have yet to read it–but as a film Stardust works. The cast throw themselves into the fantasy with relish, the Scottish and Icelandic locations are stunning, the effects are excellent and the directon is, for the most part, stylish and interesting.

In some reviews leads Charlie Cox and Claire Danes have been accused of being flat but I found them both charming, especially Danes who has a wonderfuly animated face and brings so much more to her role than would most characterless ‘pretty-actresses-of-the-month’. It’s also wonderful to see Michelle Pfeiffer back and stealing the show as nasty witch Lamia, desperately pursuing the prize of eternal youth in a role an actress more of a prima donna would balk at. All the players are obviously having fun and make the most of their parts, especially Mark Williams doing a hilarious turn as a goat turned into an innkeeper, David Kelly as the old man guarding the wall between England and Stormhold, Robert de Niro bringing a new dimension to pirates in a post-Pirates of the Caribbean world, and Julian Rhind-Tutt as one of the hilariously detached ghostly princes. Everytime the film is forced by the demands of the plot to dally dangerously near the pretentiousness that fantasy is sometimes prone to, a well-timed and frequently subtle joke brings it back on course. It’s a trick that looks easier than it is, and requires a good eye for avoiding the obvious and a desire to avoid treating your audience like fools.

If you have a little magic left in you, and are touched by fables that end with ‘and they lived happily ever after’, Stardust is for you. Four can-cans out of five.

PS Sorry about the dearth of entries lately. I’ll make an effort to update a little more frequently.


Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End

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Pirates 3

In keeping with my new pirate-themed masthead, I finally get around to reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End. Not that I should really bother, since you’ve probably long ago gone and seen it. Like the two films before it Pirates 3 has had its all-important opening weekend, raked in the cash, and once again Hollywood has successfully wrapped its greedy fingers around the throat of a once evocative and fascinating theme and shaken furiously until all trace of juice has been squeezed from it. Everybody’s sick to death of pirates–pirate films, pirate books, pirate toys, pirate fast food cross-promotions … and now pirates are doomed to join dinosaurs, Star Trek, mummies and Aliens in limbo until someone years down the track with some real creativity can resurrect the genre a la Batman Begins. Next! I hear it’s going to be more of the same in Arabia with Prince of Persia.

Of course they could have gone out with a bang and made a decent film, but At World’s End sure doesn’t cut the mustard. It feels as tired and messy as the actors in it look. Orlando Bloom continues to go for the crown of Most Forgettable On-Screen Hero by further honing his astonishing lack of charisma. Johnny Depp puts his Keith Richard-schtick on auto-pilot (and Keith Richard proves how much more amusing the caricature is than the man himself). Geoffrey Rush hams it up OK despite having nothing interesting to actually do. The only person really working hard for their pay cheque is Keira Knightly, who refuses to admit that everyone’s lost the plot and, no doubt charged with the energy of youth, does inject some life into the tired proceedings.

After watching a few ‘Making Of’ specials on DVD I can understand why they’re all so tired. After filming the last two back-to-back, enduring a couple of hurricanes and organising crews of several hundred million people, the overweening impression that comes across on the screen is that everyone wants to get this over with and go home. There are some truly bad scenes, and long sequences of padding where everyone stands around in clumps on board one ship or another and tries to look interested while someone works their way through another twenty chewy mouthfuls of exposition. No, we don’t understand what’s going on either folks! In a desperate attempt to mythologize the whole trilogy, Gore Verbinski and his writers lose sight of the reason the first–and to a lesser extend the second– films were enjoyable; they were fun! Not only has it all become grim and tedious and way too complex by this third film, but those opportunities created by the mythology are criminally wasted. Davy Jones himself looks rushed to screen–it’s now quite easy to see that he’s computer-generated, unlike last time–and is completely emasculated as a character. All film long we lead up to the reveal of Calypso and her relationship to DJ, and when we finally get there, any glimmer of pathos is swallowed up in a wave of computer-generated gumpf. The character of Jack Sparrow loses all his charisma by pretty much disclosing that he has in fact, a serious multiple personality disorder. I can hear the studio execs now–“everyone loves Jack Sparrow, let’s put ten of him on the screen at the same time!” At least Verbinski avoids the obvious happy ending, but the alternative is unsatisfying and leaves you with more questions than answers.

Once again, the blame lies with the script; and at the speed all concerned were expected to work by the studios, I’m not surprised. The lack of soul in At World’s End is the inevitable consquence of working creatives like galley slaves and rushing a film to the cinema in order to squeeze every last possible cent out of the public.

Truly this is a disappointing film. I went into the theatre expecting rip-roaring adventure, actor chemistry and several shiploads of pirate fun. I came out feeling like I’d been hit over the head with a dead salmon wrapped in a wet blanket for three hours.

One and a half wooden eyes out of five.


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