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Moments in time, preserved to embarrass me later.

7-12-2005 (archived)

I wouldn't normally post this many film reviews in a row, but even in the midst of a good patch of movies “The Libertine” stands out, and it's just possible that you might still be able to catch it without waiting for the DVD. If you are a consenting adult, you really should.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was real, and indeed biographied by Graham Greene (apparently rather well), and the film is closely drawn from history via Stephen Jeffreys's play. As one would expect of a film with Johnny Depp in it, he dominates it completely with yet another performance of total conviction, depth and power; not only is he out in front of every other screen actor working, he's pulling away. His Rochester is an initially dashing figure, charming in his cynicism, but as the film progresses his promise of the spellbinding prologue is realised: everything we liked about him gradually passes. All the other performances work, Richard Coyle (of Coupling) being a particular revelation, and it is refreshingly grown-up; nudity and what they like to call “strong language” are all over the film where (as almost everywhere in any portrait of this era) appropriate, and the script is both filthy and inventive. The stage origins show through clearly; it is paced without frenzy, driven by words and acting, demanding your full, intelligent attention.

But then there's the cinematography. This is probably the most visually striking film I've seen since Sin City, which is after all as unusual and brilliant a visual statement as has ever been made. The film is grainy, shot at that twilight, candlelit edge where greys run into colour, and it is grimy, muddy, greasy, filthy, whore-ridden and altogether just how the back of the seventeenth century should be. Depp's dissolution, mental, physical and thoroughly syphylitic, is shot almost with enjoyment, and we believe every horrible moment of it.

This is not a film to watch often, or one that is likely to be in the usual sense anybody's favourite, but it is a great film.

9-12-2005 (archived)

Confessions of an Engineering Washout is an interesting piece by an (American) student who, while an “academic superstar” at school found his science classes at a top university so tough that he eventually turned to arts subjects instead. This got a lot of discussion on (void), and opinions in other places ranged from “stop whining you loser” through irritation that he assumes liberal arts will be easier (a follow-up piece as to whether they were either easier or better taught would have been interesting) to a certain amount of sympathy.

Rereading it a while on before writing this post, all of my sympathy suddenly evaporated. Kern was advised to go, and his grades pointed to going, into the arts. Then he went into the sciences and, surprise surprise, it was tough. If you ignore the expert advice, you really shouldn't complain afterwards.

Certainly there's a big jump from school level studies to universities, though here TAs do very little teaching (graduate students do take example classes, though). This is part of the process of growing up, of course; by the time you get to university, you shouldn't need every detail of what you're being taught carefully teased out of you in an interactive classroom. You're supposed to be able to absorb information in a semi-independent way.

On the other hand, there are certainly people who are hired for research and allowed to teach despite thoroughgoing incompetence. All you can do with such courses is find the appropriate textbooks and study independently. Again, you should be able to do that by now, though you probably shouldn't have to. Life sucks. Get a helmet.

12-12-2005 (archived)

Doom” was never going to be a good movie, any more than any other game adaptation, but it always had a good shot at being fun. And it was, though sadly it was one of the movies our usual cinema didn't carry, so we ended up seeing it at the Stockport branch, designed by an idiot (tiny screens, flat seating rather than staircased, exit signs and doors next to the screens so the light intrudes...) and populated by, apparently, retards. I have never been in the presence of a more annoying audience, and I've seen kid's films at matinees.

Interestingly, it wasn't anything like a straight game adaption. The game had a certain amount of plot, parts of which do turn up here, but usually badly mangled; the game plot involved a marine stationed on Mars as punishment for assaulting an officer having been ordered to kill unarmed civilians (mangled), personnel turned into zombies (present but for different reasons), and the basic causes are entirely different. In the game, UAC are researching teleportation, and demons from hell pour out of the gates. Whether for fear of offending Christian nutters, or because it's a current hot paranoid topic, here the teleportation is merely thrown in as another mangled reference and the facility is a genetic research station. This is closer to a mixture of Resident Evil (science meddling with what men should not know bad, mmmkay?) and Aliens (kick-ass band of space marines).

Still, you're not an idiot, you don't care if the plot details aren't the same as in the game, though at least it would have been original. There are some nice references, most obviously the naming of Dr Carmack, and the marine schtick works pretty well. The FPS scene was an error, though. It looks cheesy, it's badly rendered, and it fundamentally doesn't work at all; it's annoying at best. I guess you can argue that the segue into, effectively, a deathmatch between two marines late on is a reference too, I suppose.

As a whole, it works in a shit-go-boom sort of way, but it's a disappointment; it's not a terrible movie of its kind, but it could have been a great deal better with relatively little work. Still, it should hit the discount DVD stores at a fiver or so, and at that I'll probably pick it up for no-brain Saturdays.

Checking IMDB, I see that one of The Rock's forthcoming films, scheduled for next year, is another game adaptation... Spy Hunter. I am Jack's crushing sense of disbelief. If it has that astonishingly irritating theme tune, I shall become dangerous.

14-12-2005 (archived)

Keeping Mum” is everything a gently British black comedy ought to be. There are vicars (Rowan Atkinson not overplaying, for almost the first time since Blackadder), nosy neighbours, rapacious Americans, pretty, voracious daughters, and Kristin Scott Thomas doing an excellent job as the frustrated, put-upon mother and wife at the centre of it all. And then their new housekeeper, who has a little secret (no surprise to we the audience, of course) arrives and life gets better as the bodies start piling up. Great, great fun, and as gentle as a comedy about serial murder can be.

17-12-2005 (archived)

So we went to see Narnia the other night, of which more later, feeding well on the finest Mexican-inspired dishes, and on the way back through Didsbury to drop Lidbert off a young woman decided to emerge from a bar and sprint across the road in search of a bus. I am glad of several things; that, because of the business of the road, I was doing perhaps 15mph; that I picked up the motion out of the corner of my New Improved Eyes and was braking before she got off the kerb; and, not least, that I had, unusually for a night when dining out, not had a beer with dinner. Three hours later post-movie it would have gone anyway, but still, it would have left me feeling a little less in the right.

As it was, I'm pretty sure I was already stopped when she cannoned into the wing of the car and disappeared under the front, having done rather less in the way of braking than I had. Her boyfriend helped her up (seeming, I have to say, more concerned for her 'phone than her person), Liz and I re-swallowed our lungs, and having checked she was largely OK I pulled in a few yards down the road and went to talk with them.

Entertainingly, the boyfriend looked rather panicked as I approached; perhaps, I don't know, the hair, the sheer size, the chains, the ankle-length leather coat led him to believe I was going to gut them like fish or some such, but she was frankly too alcohol-enhanced to be much concerned about anything; indeed, she apologised for scaring me, thanked us for stopping (and they both seemed genuinely surprised and touched that I had), said it was completely her fault and she was uninjured, and kissed me. Now, I'm all in favour of being kissed by reasonably pretty girls, but I'd really rather not have to collide with them in the street first. They then departed swiftly, presumably (as I quickly realised when, having gotten to Lidbert's, I looked at the car) to avoid any suggestion of paying for the detached front under-bumper I hadn't previously noticed.

Still, the garage put it back on and didn't charge me anything, so I exit the evening with a slightly increased jumpiness behind the wheel and a new story, net.

20-12-2005 (archived)

I promised you a review of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, and the nutshell summary is pretty easy: several elements of greatness, but with a badly misjudged feel and some utterly ruinous, and often really surprising, moments of incompetence.

The chances are that many of you will have read the books; some of you may even have had a similar experience to my own, enjoying the books hugely when very very young, and when revisiting them a couple of years later, having read the gospels in the interim, being horribly upset to realise that what Lewis was really doing was preaching. While I'm no longer upset, I still haven't opened the books in over twenty years, so I may not be best equipped to comment on their loyalty to the text. I'm told, and I believe, that it's bordering on the slavish.

Unlike the apparently forthcoming Pullman adaptations, from which I am told the religious aspects have been infuriatingly pulled, these do the right thing by standing by their role as Christian apologia. There is a great deal to like, and like a great deal, starting with the dominant, towering central performance of Tilda Swinton as the White Witch; having seen her in this part, no other player is even conceivable. The children are mostly pretty good, as are the other screen and voice actors. The CGI creatures are good, most especially Aslan, who is quite the most realistically-generated animal I've seen in a film, and on reflection Neeson's voicing of him is very appropriate. Furthermore, some of the truly difficult moments are done extraordinarily well, in particular the sacrifice; it is the only moment of the film where the tone, direction, and action all come completely together and achieve something really special, and it probably justifies the picture's existence on its own.

But then, tragically, come the problems. Some scenes fail horribly badly; in particular, “Edmund”'s near-death scene is just dreadful, his mugging reminiscent of nothing so much as the drawn-out hammed-up death sequence at the end of the first Buffy movie (the one with Swanson) - but this one isn't supposed to be funny. I suppose for an audience of under-fives, it might work, but the audience at our screening were reduced to giggling by it. The whole tone of a lot of the film is wrong; they seem to be trying to make an epic, rather than a film. It wants so badly to be a Christian Lord of the Rings cycle, and it's not ever going to come close; Lewis's story simply hasn't the scope, and this crew haven't the talent anyway. They should be giving us a story to be rapt in, and instead they're trying to awe us with spectacle and seriousness.

And then there's what, for me, was the real moodbreaker. This film has been repeatedly lauded and applauded for its CGI, and as I've already said, some of it was great. So what the hell happened; did they run out of money, or time, or just stop caring? If you've seen it and aren't actually blind, you'll know what I'm talking about: the superimposed background shots are dreadful. They look like nothing so much as one of those 50s black-and-white sequences with characters in a car, Plot being Expounded while he saws at the wheel of a clearly stationary vehicle, while an unrelated moving background is projected on to a screen behind them. They really are that bad. The audience at Didsbury is not, generally speaking, a particularly technical or film-freakish one, which makes this all the more telling: we come to our first big superimpose shot. It is clearly intended to remind us of LotR; we have a New Zealand location (fuck knows why, since Lewis based his landscapes on the beatiful but much less extreme Irish scenery), we have a huge sweeping intended-to-be-awesome panorama shot with our company, Fellowship-like, on a ridge, and in the middle of the screen we have a superimpose so utterly inept that many of the audience, myself very much included, actually started laughing in shock and disbelief. There are several more, later, which are probably even worse. It is really unbelievably bad.

On the other hand, the battle scenes are pretty good, though again they couldn't be any more clearly lifted from Helm's Deep without actually slipping up and leaving an orc in there. The initial coming together of the two sides looks, to my memory, like an almost shot-for-shot “homage”.

This should have been great, and parts of it were, but you come away with the impression that nobody actually watched the finished movie before putting it out to duplicate. If your suspension of disbelief skills are much stronger than mine (and remember, I'm the guy who enjoyed and reviewed all those crap pictures) or you're very young, or partially sighted, you may be ok. I will confess that the more I thought about it, the more I had problems with it, and I've now probably ruined it for you too. In the end, for me, those few moments of utterly startling ineptitude turned a pretty decent if over-solemn family picture into a tragic fuck-up.

21-12-2005 (archived)

The Family Stone” is unashamedly an emotionally manipulative screwball-style Christmas movie, and my review comes with a health warning: reviews have been very mixed. Maybe Ebert and I are wrong, but hell, if I'm going to be wrong at least I'll be wrong with conviction and good company.

Not liking Sarah Jessica Parker is not a good reason not to see this, since you're not really supposed to. Not liking manipulative, predictable, typecast cheese would be, but this is well-written cheese with conviction and winning performances, and predictable though the closing sequence is, it nonetheless should fill your seasonal need for cathartic sobbing. If this were fifty years old and in black and white (and necessarily toned down a little), it'd be a beloved classic. As it is, this isn't great art, but it is, in my opinion, a excellent Christmas movie.

22-12-2005 (archived)

In films starring animals day, I have nothing to say about “March of the Penguins” apart from that it is very good indeed.

King Kong” is going to take a little more discussion. The most obvious thing about this film, other than that it is making money hand over fist, is that it's pretty long. It speaks very well of it that you really don't notice that 187-minute length (padded out yet further with an extra ten minutes of commercials over and above what we normally get, which left me less than pleased; the credits rolled 215 minutes after the advertised start time. On the credit side, the management did come in and unceremoniously throw out some badly behaved teens early on, so they break even over all) until you look at your watch as you leave, but still, that's an awful lot of movie - and the first hour is not entirely gripping.

On one hand, as Ebert says, it sets the tone and the sense of place very skilfully, and it allows the anticipation for the monster to build. On the other, as Jamie Zawinski put it, “Seriously! If I'm going to see a movie about a giant fucking gorilla rampage -- and a remake at that -- I'm there for the explodo; the hand-wringing is completely secondary”.

Again there were some effects brilliances (Serkis's Kong is just fantastic), and some cockups, notably again when superimposing humans onto generated backgrounds. Is it that the lighting is inconsistent? I don't know, but there were a few places where it was really poor - notably the dinosaur stampede sequence, so obviously played to a green screen that it just didn't work at all, though that said it was still much better than Narnia's. Much goodness, though; the spiders, scorpions, worms etc were genuinely unsettling and very, very good, and it bears repeating that Kong himself was excellent indeed.

As to the acting, it seems sort of out of keeping with the spirit of the original (one can understand effects dating, obviously, but how is it that “classics” are often acted so astonishingly badly? If the cinema is in decline, as so many people want to claim, how come bad movies today are usually better-executed than great vintage movies?), in that there's quite a bit of it. Jack Black puts his gift for being pretty loathsome to good use playing a thoroughly unpleasant shit of a director, Watts as usual digs every little bit of possible quality out of her role, and Brody is really pretty good too.

When we try to file this film, unlike the original which fits clearly under action/effects, this wants to be a bit more, hence that first hour. I suppose it fits under “epic”, a genre that Jackson has reinvented and utterly dominated, and, unlike Narnia, this has the stuff. No, it's not as good as the more frothingly enthusiastic reviews say, and the ending simply does not pack the kind of emotional punch people have claimed for it, especially as it's no surprise to anybody with a pulse. It's a pretty fine huge-budget blockbuster all the same.

There will now be a dignified silence until New Year. As you were.

2-1-2006 (archived)

Out of three opportunities, I've only done a “year in review” post once before, but I'm in the mood this year. Films get their own post, tomorrow.

Navel-gazing: there were 149 posts last year, of which 73 were film reviews; of the rest, not nearly as many as I'd like were anything other than linkage, and most of what was was probably politics. Must Try Harder. I don't know what my readership figures are doing, because of a recurring problem with log-file permissions. Fortunately I don't care all that much.

The most important event in my life this year was also the most interesting, judging by comments, piece of content of the year: the eye surgery, which remains miraculous and shiny. I've settled in at my new work fairly well, I think, and my personal life remains fairly contented. The big downside of the job has been the battles with child-borne viruses, but nonetheless the gym has gone well, building up to some very satisfying personal bests towards the end of last term. I'm off to the gym as soon as I finish posting this, and hopefully the holiday/cold layoff won't have set me back more than one cycle.

Musically, I only went to four gigs, of which the pick was the Soto gig in which I got on stage, for obvious reasons as well as for their quality. CD of the year was probably the Soul SirkUS debut; it wasn't quite as great as I'd hoped, but it was a good record and was pretty much the only record I heard this year that excited me at all. The band I probably listened to most was Freak Kitchen, but I've heard nothing new this year. This was the year in which I fell away from music a little; I listen to talk radio in the car, and I rarely listen to music at home now, after five years or so of 12+ hours a day every day of listening. In a similar vein, the band has been off the road since early September, for a variety of reasons, and my main response has been that I'm glad of the rest. I needed, and still need, to recharge my enthusiasm.

In other media, my authorial discovery of the year was Ken MacLeod, and my favourite new book was probably Kim Stanley Robinson's “Fifty Degrees Below”. Blog of the year, for me, was the Fafblog. I don't think there was anything home-grown on TV that really grabbed me; QI was good, of course, and Dr Who was good too, but there was nothing that was really, truly exciting. The best thing I saw on TV this year was House, which I loved, but the best TV I saw (note the distinction) was, by a mile, Firefly. It may be several years old and have been cancelled mid-season, but it's comfortably the best TV I have seen in years - maybe ever - and unless you reflexively hate anything that looks like it might be SF, you should go and buy the DVD.

Happy New Year. I'm off to lift.

4-1-2006 (archived)

I saw 81 films in the cinema last year, slightly up from 79 the year before, including all of the Film 2005 top 10 but not including a few Oscar favourites, notably Cinderella Man and The Constant Gardener (missed by choice) and Ray (infuriatingly missed by accident). There were an awful lot of very good films this year - I probably saw more really good movies than just plain enjoyable bad ones, which may be a first. There was also some real crap.

While it was nowhere near the worst of the year, Hitchhiker's Guide was probably the most disappointing. It was always going to be a tough one to film, which is why Adams kept putting it off, but while this passed the time enjoyably enough it was no fit memorial. Serves me right for hoping, I suppose.

Best film that nobody else seemed to see was Bullet Boy, which can't even garner a rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Every year there are a couple of movies that you walk away from genuinely unsettled, and this was probably the best of them. The Machinist gets an honourable mention here; it was extraordinary.

Funniest film of the year, by miles, was Team America. Most beautiful, also by miles, was House of Flying Daggers. Science fiction honours can only go to Serenity, one of the very few true SF movies ever made, and with enough fan support to have made it the Film '05 number one movie. It was several times as good as any of the Star Wars films - including the originals. My review is not as obviously frothing as it deserved; it was certainly convincing enough to get me to go straight out and buy the DVD box set of the never-on-terrestrial, cancelled, series from which it is drawn, Firefly, which in its sheer brilliance wins the film extra brownie points. None of these is even remotely open to debate.

There were quite a few blockbusters this year, and several of them were good, but Batman Begins was clearly the best of them; it would be a candidate for film of the year in any year, and was comfortably the best big-budget movie of the year, despite the lack of giant apes. Even more controversially, perhaps, my pick for best kids film contains neither wizards nor claymation, and A Series of Unfortunate Events, or “The Lemony Snicket movie”, as we called it, may also be the most underrated film this year (though Serenity is the most under-watched).

It was an almost an ungreat year for horror films; the J-horror craze has faded away as we've reached our individual and several limits for spooky self-contained little kids, water as a metaphor for sin, and repetitive plotlines, and while there were several pretty good US films, some glossy and some deranged slasher-movie (take a bow, Rob Zombie), there was nothing exceptional. Until, that is, we turn to the small, cinematically, countries, where Night Watch, which would have been the horror of the year most years, was amazing, and our own The Descent, the best horror film for years, was even better.

It was a pretty good year for “serious” movies, too, and while it's not my film of the year I agree with Ebert that Crash is the best of them, although A History of Violence comes very close (you can, of course, argue about its seriousness). On the other hand, it was a terrible year for romantic comedies in particular and chickflicks in general; Hitch was the best of a pretty disappointing bunch.

Worst of the year was more hotly contended than most categories, frankly, or it would have been if not for a runaway winner: Domino is as bad a film as I have ever seen.

So, what was best? Crash cannot go unmentioned, but, surprisingly, I think the Film 2005 poll had the right top three, just the wrong order. Batman Begins was brilliant; Serenity was better, and will be even better again when I rewatch it having seen Firefly; but there could be only one film on top this year. Sin City is the most extraordinary film I have ever seen, visually and stylistically, and deserves to be in a different category to everything else.