November film reviews

I’ve actually managed to watch three DVDs in the last couple of weeks – not bad going for me! – and some capsule reviews are in order.

10,000BC

Since the adverts for Roland Emmerich’s latest blockbuster 2012 are all over the place, I allowed myself to fall into the trap of watching his most recent previous film. 10,000BC is basically about a pre-historic tribe in the snowy frozen lands, who are raided by slave traders. The hero sets off to rescue his beloved from their clutches.

And, err, that’s it. Simple quest film from there. And quest films can be pretty successful – a large part of Fellowship of the Rings is nothing more than a quest story, after all. But that’s because Lord of the Rings had far more interesting things going on below the surface, and interesting well-developed characters that you cared for.

10,000BC has neither. There is no story, and the characters are non-existent. The dialogue is so bad it’ll make you long for it being done Apocalypto style (but leave out the subtitles) and the cast are interchangeable. Any modicum of interest in the plot (such as: who is the “God” figure? What was the hero’s father up to when he disappeared? What’s the significance of “the mark”?) are squelched and dismissed almost as if the film is embarrassed to even hint at being anything more than a brainless action and FX blockbuster.

Emmerich clearly has a major Ridley Scott crush, but he can’t be bothered to stick to the historial detail of a Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven. So he tries to create a quasi-mythic world-before-time, something Tolkien-esque in setting up mythos for the modern times; only Tolkien was incredibly intelligent and detailed in how he did this, and Emmerich doesn’t have a clue. So the film falls between two stools – too absurd for a historical epic, and too bland and realistic for a fantasy film like LOTR/Narnia. It’s like the historical epics that came at the tail end of the 60s after the fad had died – and which helped to kill it off completely.

If the film has any saving grace, it’s that it looks good: Emmerich really shoots the scenes quite beautifully and the cinematography at times almost bears comparison with Ridley’s. And the CGI effects are really quite excellent and don’t look nearly as plastic and fake as a lot of the current CGI crop tend to.

That just about lifts it out of one-star territory, but really it’s a close shave.

Rating: a barely tolerable * and a half stars out of 5

Star Trek – The Motion Picture

Or “the slow motion picture” as it’s been dubbed. I was feeling poorly when I watched this, and for me this film is rather like comfort food – chicken soup or crumble and custard. Basically it was the first film for the Star Trek franchise in 1979, ten years after the original series’ cancellation: the crew are reassembled to intercept a massive alien vessel heading to Earth. Only they can stop it, naturally.

The film makes the mistake of being overly reverential towards its source, with everything treated with solemn pretentiousness. Considering that the basis of the TV series was to be light, fun and action-orientated, this sudden re-purposing of it as some kind of grand po-faced epic along the lines of 2001 – A Space Odyssey couldn’t have been less appropriate. Fans (Trekkers) loved it purely because it brought the old crew back together again, but everyone else was left yearning for the next Star Wars film instead; fortunately the producers learned from this misstep and the next film was The Wrath of Khan which did a far better job of reviving the TV series’ spirit and joie de vivre.

Personally I’ve always really liked the first film too: it helps if you see it more like 2001 than the TV show. But there’s no doubt about how slow it is. The first half hour is full of sequences where four establishing shots are used when one would be almost too much. Considering that they’re meant to be racing the clock to stop an alien invader from reaching Earth, you’d think that some of that pace would have transferred to the film.

The FX get too much screen time, but at least they are very good effects – the journey through the alien vessel being comparable with the final sequences of 2001 and delivered by the top FX guys of the period. And the music (by the incomparable Jerry Goldsmith) is left to carry the film through long sequences of inactivity, and almost pulls it off. You’ll recognise the film’s main theme as the one that Star Trek – The Next Generation appropriated for use some years later, it’s that good.

The DVD I was watching was a new remastered version, and it looks wonderful – as good quality as any film just released in cinemas. Alas, they could only remaster the theatrical cut which means that many well-known sequences from TV and director’s edition versions are missing, which feels rather odd, but apparently these were never completed in high definition film and so can’t be remastered, which is a shame. Just occasionally the film looks as though someone’s gone overboard on the color rebalancing – the scenes on the Klingon bridge and on Vulcan look suspiciously neutral – but that’s a minor quibble to an overall excellent restoration.

The film’s faults are still there for all to see, but if you like the film then you’ll love the new version.

Rating: a well-restored *** out of 5.

Duplicity

This is essentially a con or heist film with a screwball romantic comedy plot involving Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as two spies collaborating (or competing?) in a plot to steal a company’s industrial secrets.

I’d expected this to be a light and fluffy film with little substance, but found I enjoyed it much more than that. Clearly influenced by the likes of Oceans 11 (or the TV series Hustle) this film puts a similar emphasis on style and fun over any serious substance. But if you liked the Ocean films of the classic double-crossing David Mamet puzzlers then there’s no reason why you won’t like this just as much.

This is a smart, stylish film with a fantastic visual sense to it – the title sequence punch-up between Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson is especially stunning, and the writer-director Tony Gilroy is fond of the split screen technique we haven’t seen since the 60s. He’s also supplied his stars with some crackling dialogue reminiscent of the type that Grant and Hepburn used to snap back and forth, and while Owen and Roberts don’t have quite that class they do pretty well with it nonetheless.

If there’s a complaint, it’s that the film is just too complex to be fun: there are wheels within wheels within wheels just to get to the start of the enigma wrapped in a puzzle. No one could figure this one out until very late in the day, and you could well prove to be exasperated by the whole affair. The best con/heist films are the ones that look really simple – you’re sure you know what’s going on right until the moment the film pulls the rug out from under your feet and shows you how you were conned from the very start and nothing was as you assumed. But instead, this film takes pains to remind you at every opportunity by flashbacks and dialogue that no one has a clue who is doing what to whom or who can be trusted, and that can leave you feeling a bit tired and frustrated rather than entertained.

But if you let it slide past you, accept that you have no idea what’s going on, and just drink in the intelligent script and gorgeous locations, then there’s certainly a rewarding payoff at the end, with unexpectedly deep characters for such an initially frothy-seeming piece of fluff.

Rating: a generous **** out of 5.

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