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2011.54: Insidious (2010)**** November 27, 2011

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Dir. James Wan, 103 mins, DVD rental

Wow, whats this, a decent modern horror film? Shouldn’t this be tabloid news or something? Crikey. Sort of a modern take on Poltergeist (and it really, really owes a lot to that movie) with some Paranormal Activity thrown into the mix, this is a very reasonable horror film, with a few genuine jumps and scares and, wait for it, no gore at all- it’s pretty much the antipathy of modern horror films. I really enjoyed it (and the wife watched much of it hiding behind her fingers). It gets a bit silly at times -stretching incredulity to the limit at certain points- but the film rewards viewers with plenty of mood and suspense, several outright creepy moments and a few terrific jumps. As far as horror films go, this is a great, great ride. Alas in this day and age an Insidious 2, 3, 4… ad nauseum is no doubt inevitable and will dilute the original.  

One last thought- this film would have been great in black and white. It works fine in colour but I have the impression that a tonal, black and white palette would have heightened the mood and tension considerably. But yeah, I know, black and white in this day and age? Well, it worked for The Mist- shame the film-makers couldn’t have considered releasing it in both formats as The Mist was (Insidious was shot on digital so it’d be easy enough to achieve, I assume). Dare say they never even considered it.

2011.53: Serenity (2005) **** November 22, 2011

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Dir.Joss Whedon, 119 mins, Blu-ray

I’ll say this for Serenity- it’s exactly what the Star Wars prequels should have been. It’s a whole lot of fun, exciting and funny with plenty of spectacle but with characters too. Based on the troubled and short-lived tv series Firefly, which was itself a very Star Wars-like space western (sort of an unofficial The Adventures of the Millennium Falcon), Serenity was a very unlikely (miraculous, frankly) love-letter to Firefly’s fans. A fitting farewell to characters that fans had grown to love and a neat way of more or less giving closure to many of the tv series plot threads.

Therein lies the only real negative for Serenity; although it tries to be fairly easy to get up to speed with, viewers are missing much of its nuances if they aren’t already famiiar with the tv shows 14 episodes, so it kind of faltered on its cinema release which nixed future installments (I think Universal missed an opportunity there as Serenity deserved a few more movies- I mean, we’re hardly talking huge financial outlays/risks here). So anyway, fans of Firefly got the most out of the film and other viewers may have been a bit at a loss. But thats hardly a problem now. Having spent a few weeks going through the recent Blu-ray release of the Firefly series here in the UK, Serenity becomes a fair finale to the whole enterprise. Maybe it’s not perfect (it can never hope to match what might have been a three or five-year tv run for the Firefly show), but it’s something that fan’s wouldn’t have dared think possible when the show got cancelled. 

Frustratingly, while we’ll never know just how good two or three years of Firefly might have been, Serenity offers a tantalising gimpse of what the Star Wars prequel films could have been- fairly cheap, character-driven, fun, exciting, rewarding for kids and adults alike. Sort of the road-not-travelled really; maybe in some alternate universe Lucas went the Whedon Way, but in ours we’re stuck with lumbering cgi behomoths with all the fun bled out prior to release. Oh well. Sci-fi fans (and particularly OT Star Wars fans, as its right up their street) can’t do much better than the Firefly box-set and Serenity to finish it off- great fun.

2011.52: The Ward (2010) ** November 20, 2011

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Dir. John Carpenter, 88 mins, Blu-ray rental

Whatever happened to John Carpenter? Back when I was growing up, he was one of the hottest directors out there- his stock was pretty immense. He was never an insider, Hollywood-wise, he always seemed to be outside of the system, which only made his films seem even more cool. And they were very cool films- Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape From New York… taut, lean films, with sparse storylines and his custom, self-made music scores. Carpenters films had an umistakeable style all their own. What on Earth would happen when he finally broke into the Big Time? Well, we soon found out when he was given a sizable budget for The Thing and everything went wrong. Not with the film, you understand- today it easily ranks as his masterpiece, the quintessential Carpenter film. But at the time it derailed his career, deserted by the public and famously decried by critics citing Carpenter as a pornographer of violence. Carpenter would make good films after The Thing, but even his next film, mainstream action/comedy Big Trouble In Little China, a film I loved when I saw it at the cinema, misfired badly. He never really recovered, retreating to the sidelines, making little b-movies like They Live, Prince Of Darkness… still, fine films. But his possible brush with greatness never really came off. He could have been another, albeit somewhat darker, Steven Spielberg. It’s easy to imagine the great films he might have made had he been able to manage the big budgets and corporate responsibility they inferred. What might have been- a $100 million epic The Stars My Destination.

So here we are in 2011, and The Ward, Carpenter’s first ‘proper’ film since 2001’s frankly dismal Ghosts Of Mars and a decade in semi-retirement. I wish, as a clear apologist for, and fan of Carpenter, that I could say The Ward was a return to form. But it isn’t, and I have a dull wish that Carpenter had just sat back in the comfort of those royalty cheques from the many remakes of his films from the past decade or so (I’ve heard they are even remaking They Live now).

The Ward is not a bad film, it’s just a very average one, and one that does Carpenter no favours. It lacks his trademark style, even the music score that he used to craft for his own films. It’s overriding sin is that it doesn’t feel like a Carpenter film. And while Carpenter, other than The Thing, was never the gore-fiend his reputation suggests, The Ward is rather anaemic. It lacks any substance, any scares, any real tension. Amber Heard is pretty but hardly the calibre of Jamie Lee Curtis from Halloween, say, and the ghostly adversary, Alice, is a poor-man’s Michael Myers. Maybe Carpenter’s heart wasn’t in it- but if that’s the case, having done so little other than tv episodes of late, why bother with it at all if it didn’t raise much interest in him?

There’s also more than a passing similarity to Sucker Punch. Likely non-intentional, but still, its very jarring, even down to using a fellow Mad Men actor (here Jared Harris, as opposed to Sucker Punch’s Jon Hamm) to play the doctor. The Ward could easliy be succinctly described as ‘Sucker Punch without the action sequences’.

It’s a dangerous thing, old heroes coming back into the limelight and being overshadowed by past glory. I have a nagging fear about Ridley’s Prometheus coming next year, and The Ward only makes me more nervous.

2011.51: Morning Glory (2010) ** November 15, 2011

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Dir.Roger Michel, 107 mins, Blu-ray rental

There’s a point near the end of Morning Glory, when the drama (such as it is) reaches it’s pivotal moment, it’s feel-good zenith, when Harrison Ford’s magnificent “third-worst person in the world” finally melts and utters the immortal word “fluffy” like it’s the most important statement you’ll see in a film this year. It signifies everything the film stands for and if that sounds like utterly painful, sugary American dross, then yes, you’d be right.

The weird thing is, Harrison Ford really is magnificent in this film and any fan of his owes it to themselves to see this film. His sour, grumpy old man routine is really quite special and demonstrates his remarkable natural gift for comic timing and understatement. The unfortunate thing is, thats all this film has going for it unless you enjoy this kind of silly nonsense.

The plot is as thin and silly as it sounds- Rachel McAdams plays a pretty career-focused tv exec who gets sacked and then wrangles a job producing a struggling breakfast show titled Daybreak. Will she somehow shape the doomed dead-end show into a success, resurrecting the careers of its presenters and staff, and find romantic bliss with the rich, young, gorgeous tv producer upstairs? Of course she will; it’s all telegraphed from the start, like movie comfort food, with a soundtrack of jolly songs, and humor and all the rest of the Sunday-afternoon matinee standards. It smacks of a tv-movie but has such A-list Hollywood talent (it’s got Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Jeff Goldblum and Patrick Wilson) it frankly boggles the mind.

In a way, it’s charming and painless and will no doubt have its fans who don’t realise its got more fantasy than The Wizard of Oz. For others it will signify much that is so wrong with modern films- it’s daft, its predictable, its almost insulting, and it no doubt cost millions to make. It also bears a more than passing similarity to a failed Kelsey Grammer/Patricia Heaton sitcom Back To You from a few years back.

So anyway, recommended for fans of Harrison Ford, but don’t expect much else going for it, and definitely, definitely rental-only territory. 

The Lure of the Familiar November 11, 2011

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My friend Andrew sometimes texts me at four or five in the morning to inform me he has just watched, or is watching, John Carpenter’s The Thing again. He has watched that film more times than can possibly be healthy.  It’s certainly not a bad film, I’ve watched it many times myself, but Andrews persistence with the film strikes me as more than just a bit OTT, especially when there’s so many ‘new’ films that he seems to have no interest in ever watching even once.

It has set me to considering if perhaps movie fans fixate too much on favourite films. Is it like an addiction or something? And why watch the same movie over and over?

I’m sure everyone has a favourite film that they have watched numerous times. In the near-thirty years since its release I have seen Blade Runner, in it’s various versions, well over a hundred times. So what pulls us back to some films over and over? What is the lure of the familiar, as opposed to something new? 

Perhaps nostalgia is a part of it, that watching a film takes us back to the days when we first saw it. I try not to watch Blade Runner too often these days, maybe two or three times a year, no more than that. Partly that’s an attempt to keep it fresh (odd as that might sound after watching it so many times over the years), but also because if I watch it at the right time, for the first time in awhile, when I’m really in the mood, I can feel like it’s September 1982 again, back when I first saw it. I can watch it and remember just how groundbreaking it was, how it blew me away and made me fall in love with it. No film, no matter how great it is, could ever surpass Blade Runner as my favourite movie. I know full well it isn’t the greatest film ever made, but it is my favourite.

I think part of it is that, for many of us, our favourite films, our favourite music, it’s usually stuff from our teenage years, from when we were growing up and getting our sense of self, of identity. What films and music we liked was like sorting out what clothes we liked to wear, what social groups and interests we had. Its all part of our formative years, and it has an irresistable pull as we grow older. Everything back then was more intense, more important. How many of us deride modern music and modern movies as simply being not as good as back in the day?

Perhaps part of it is escapism then, a sense of returning to days of our youth, when life was simpler? Days without mortgages, wives, jobs, corrupt politics and economic woes, bankers bonuses and the like?

Partly the reason so many of us Star Wars fans from the 1970s bitch so much about the Special Editions: the Star Wars:A New Hope on Blu-ray simply isn’t the film we saw back in 1977/1978. We can’t watch that film and reminisce about the Good Old Days, because it’s something else entirely, something dated 1997. Lucas doesn’t seem to understand, or perhaps more exactly, even care, that fans have a deep emotional involvement with not just the Star Wars brand but moreover the actual film that they saw back then, matte lines and dodgy fx and all, that is denied to us. I don’t really have the emotional connection watching Star Wars now as perhaps I should have, and don’t watch it much at all, maybe twice in the last decade.

So is it the emotional connection? An emphatic response (pardon the turn into PKD/Blade Runner metaphores)?

It occurs to me that most of my favourite films date back to the 1970s/1980s- I cannot honestly name many films from the 1990s onwards that I can consider as being amongst my favourite films. I don’t seem to have the same emotional connection with them. But then again, modern films aren’t really aimed at me anyway, they are intended for the modern, younger audience, an audience with different expectations and concerns. An audience more interested in simple, instant gratification from thrill-rides each more louder and faster than the last.

And maybe there are, afterall, only so many different stories to tell, and once you’ve watched so many movies there is a deja-vu feeling to nearly everything. So the first films I saw that seemed still-new and fresh obviously have a brighter allure. Afterall, you don’t need all the wham-bang bells and whistles of these new cgi-riddled efforts, you just need a damn good story, character arcs, acting…

So maybe that’s why Andrew watches The Thing so many times… Or maybe he’s just trying to maximise the times he can see it before that new ‘prequel/remake’ ruins his favourite film forever…

2011.50: Atrocious (2010) * November 2, 2011

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Dir. Fernando Barreda Luna, 75 mins, DVD rental 

If ever there were an ill-judged title for a movie, this is it; as a movie this is, yes, simply atrocious. It’s one of those ‘found footage/character POV’ movies that we seem to have been regularly subjected to since The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. It’s worth noting that after so many years, Blair Witch is still likely the best of the bunch.

Atrociousis a Spanish film that betrays utterly amateur roots. I’m sorry, but in just the same way that anybody with a DVD collection near Hollywood seems to think they are a screenwriter, so it seems anybody with a camcorder seems to feel qualified to be a filmmaker. The problem with these found footage/character POV films is maintaining the central conceit behind them; i.e. what on earth the characters are doing perpetually filming everything. In Atrocious,  a family is enjoying a break/holiday in their country home that has been unused for many years. The teenage brother and sister each have a bulky HD camcorder that they use to film each other and their family during the break… non-stop, endlessly. The idea is that the family were found all murdered and the police are using all the camcorder footage to piece together what happened- now that wouldn’t be a bad idea had the footage been shown, say, from one camcorder first and then maybe the second, so that we as viewers could piece together more clues by seeing scenes for a second time from a fresh perspective. But no, this film isn’t that imaginative or interesting/ambitious. Instead scenes are ‘cut’ using footage from both cameras, and everything is chronological.

The implausibility of two teenagers spending all their time filming everything (and yes, for the first half its even more boring than that sounds) is stretched to breaking point later on when things get ‘interesting’. When the teenagers are awoken by their frenzied mother late at night with news that their 8-yr old sibling has gone missing, they all rush outside to the gardens/woods in which there is a wild maze/labyrinth- but of course the teenagers bring along their camcorders to yet still film everything. Bearing in mind they have already found the bloody carcass of their brutalised pet dog dumped in the bottom of a well within that garden, you’d think they’d be more concerned for their brothers safety than lugging bloody camcorders around in pitch darkness.

The script is about as lazy as you can get. When the father gets a phone-call and has to go home back to work, it’s obviously just a mechanism to get him out of the way leaving the kids and mother in jeopardy. Lazily it doesn’t raise even a comment that since he is taking the car it leaves them isolated and unable to escape when the shit hits the fan. The ‘twist’ regards who it is that murders the kids isn’t a bad idea but it comes so out of the blue its like a WTF moment and so doesn’t really pay off. A few hints or clues tipped earlier that only make sense post-revelation would have improved it no end.

In all though its a hopelessly amateur effort, badly written, blandly acted, which smacks of an opportunist jump on the Blair Witch bandwagon, and I’m pretty tired of the lot of them. Blair Witch has much to answer for.

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