Film reviews: 2010 so far

Despite the best of intentions, I’ve done badly on the film-watching stakes thus far this year, averaging a mere one film a month. A few films such as Avatar and Sherlock Holmes have had their own blog post reviews already, but here to catch up are the other paltry few films I’ve seen so far in 2010 …

Pandorum

Nobody’s going to say this is an original film, but at least it’s pastiching from some of the best – Alien/s/3, Predator, Event Horizon, Pitch Black and The Descent are heavy influences, and early on the film feels like the many long-forgotten, low-budget, high concept SF movies that flooded out in the 80s like Lifeforce and Leviathan. But there are also more sly ones with tales of amnesia (Unknown?), psychotic breakdowns (Apocalypse Now?), shock twists (Fight Club?) and some high-concept science fiction including “generation” ships.

After plundering from all these sources, Pandorum then puts them together in a very neat and stylish package, managing to pull off the odd surprise twist here and there, and stretching a small budget hugely by keeping everything dark and claustrophobic. The film also manages to keep the film modern and kinetic – with the editing almost impressionistic at times – but not resort to the brainless chopping seen in so many films these days. It does have a few clichés when the characters starting succumbing to “pandorum” (basically, space sickness) but by then you’re either on board and engrossed or you’re not.

And broadly speaking, I was: it was interesting to look at, had a brain for a plot, and good lead performances from Dennis Quaid and especially Ben Foster, looking like a young Brad Dourif and as compelling as ever. It knew how to keep things moving, add action and shocks for the teen audience, but also slow things down now and then to develop plot, character and tension. Not a classic by any means, and not one that’s going to linger long in the memory, but an entertaining watch.

Rating: a solid *** out of five stars.

Men in Black

First time I’ve seen this in over ten years: it’s still great fun and has aged remarkably well, the ideas still feeling fresh and fun, with truly innovative designs and stories. Tommy Lee Jones (who hereafter would tragically think himself adept at comedy and end up in some disastrous turns such as Batman Forever) is genuinely funny as the deadpan foil, while it’s astounding to see how young Will Smith is here – and the music video in the extras reminds us that at this time he was mainly a singer/rapper who got lucky as a TV star and was just moving into films. He does so remarkably well, effortlessly carrying the film and being a likeable, loveable presence among all the oddball stuff.

Vincent D’Onofrio is truly bizarre as the Bug, and there’s wonderfully stylised direction from Barry Sonnenfeld who was this era’s Tim Burton – he also helmed the fantastic Addams Family films. Whatever happened to him? And the icing on the cake is Danny Elfman’s score and that fabulous Men in Black theme which just excites whenever it makes an appearance on the sound track.

This was a film I got on Blu-ray, and in high-def the film occasionally looks excellent, especially in outside scenes such as in the cactus field at the start; the detailed models and shop fronts also. Surprisingly it’s the models and CG effects that come over best of all looking particularly spruced up for high-def (especially when you compare with the MIB music video with guest alien that looks incredibly flat and plastic by comparison.) However, for the most part the film shows its age and relative softness – but it’s still as good as anyone could reasonably expect.

Rating: still a classy **** out of five stars.

The Dark Crystal

The Muppets do fantasy horror.

Actually there’s very little “Muppet’ in this movie but the Henson team brings all its 1980s technical sophistication into play here, and they knock it out of the park. It’s a truly amazing spectacle at times and trounces today’s irksome CGI into a cocked hat. And the design of the movie is also stunning – from the creature design to the astonishing sets and wonderful costumes (only the photographic effects in the final scenes are very poor and dated by today’s standards. Some of the best scenes are just the locations the hero travels through, studio-created but utterly believable and stuffed full of weird and wonderful creature cameos. Blu-ray is a great help, bringing everything to the screen with a rich detail, fabulous colours and spot-on contrast that just makes the whole thing a joy to drink in visually.

However, the problem lies mainly with a weak script – a by-the-numbers quest, very New Age and emphatically belonging to the 70s-era that dates the film. There’s a very long voiceover narration at the start that doesn’t so much break the show-don’t-tell rule as kick it relentlessly to death, and the film has a soporifically slow pace for much of its middle section. And it’s also an extremely pure “fantasy” film in the sense that there’s nothing realistic, least of all story logic. Things just happen because “that’s what happens in this world” and any attempt to apply thought to what you’re watching is most definitely not rewarded. Even Lord of the Rings or most fairy tales are more grounded in real world structure than this.

The weakest part of the line-up is the gelfling heroes, too puppet-like to believe in if you’re over nine years old and certainly resulting in a film you admire rather than connect with.

The film is also very dark with a stronger horror aspect than would these days be deemed suitable for a young audience: the Skesis are genuinely unsettling and their beetle-like army positively horrific; there are some nasty deaths and you can imagine small kids getting pretty terrified at points. That’s something that lost it a lot of audience when it came out.

The darkness of the film can be a pro or a con depending on whether you think it saves it from saccharine emptiness or goes too far, but for my money was the film’s strongest point along with the design and the technical achievement.

Rating: *** out of five (but five stars for production design.)

Cars

A Blu-ray version of this Pixar film was my second time viewing this film, and I’m starting to think that Blu-ray is a format created specifically by God himself for Pixar movies. Their films suit high-def perfectly, and they get by far the best treatment: the colour is full and vibrant, and the detail in the frame is just spectacular. The glossy modern cars are just phenomenal in high-def, the lines razor sharp; but the trees and rocks and scenery are every bit a match for the steel and chrome. It’s truly breathtaking, and worth an extra star on any rating the film itself gets. Just check out the new paint job Lightning McQueen gets – you’ve never seen/noticed that sparkling glitter until now unless you saw it on the big screen.

As for the film … Well, it’s still one of Pixar’s weaker outings. Pixar’s best work always has layers and dimensions, whereas this is as plain and simple and uncomplicated as you can imagine: a timeless, oft-told tale (big city selfish prick gets won over by the homespun charms of a remote town and learns The Big Lessons Of Life about love and friendship and how money and success are just an empty cup.) Where Monsters, Inc. is innovation upon creative triumph one after another, Cars just has the one (all life is car-based, from people to cars and even flies which are portrayed by VW Bugs, geddit?) and after a while you don’t even notice the ‘idea’ because all the characters are so timeless, from the brash upstart to the love interest to the hill-billy best friend and the old veteran with a secret. The story is shamelessly exploitative in making you yearn for the golden days of the past, and also rather politically incorrectly in these days of climate change by being such an overt peon to the love of the automobile in America.

But you know what? Second time through and somehow none of this really matters. It weaves a spell on you regardless. Is it because since my first underwhelmed viewing, I’ve got into NASCAR? Or the presence of the now-departed Paul Newman adding a certain melancholy wistfulness? Or just the fact that I’m getting older and the themes have more resonance?

On that last point, you’d think that this would appeal only to older audiences (and there’s a sense that this film is more for the now-middle-aged Pixar creators than the kids – but the best films are always personal love affairs for their creators, aren’t they?) but then how to explain why this is such a smash hit with young kids and the all-time biggest grossing film for the studio in terms of kids’ merchandising? Kids of all ages love cars, it seems, and that taps into the psyche in a deeper way that I first realised – much like the conceit of Andy’s toys coming to life when adults are not around, or the truth of the monsters in the closet.

Most of all, though, this is a film that is a lovely, enjoyable, warm and cosy watch: it’s not demanding, but it is bewitching, and that means you can watch again and again and again and feel better about the film every single time. It’s a slow burning love affair, but one that lasts better than you think possible upon first viewing: it’s an old classic in new CGI styling, one that might not be properly appreciated until kids of today are adults and showing their own children their favourite films, rather like adults of old showed their children the classic Disney films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. And that’s the highest sort of praise.

Rating: *** out of five (a high-def upgrading.)

Blood Diamond

Like most of director Ed Zwick’s work, this is a well made film that’s slightly too worthy for its own good.

The plot, such as it is (crook and refugee team up on a quest to recover a huge diamond hidden by the latter) is really just an excuse for an extended travelogue across war-torn Sierra Leone, examining every hot-button liberal issue that’s going – from compassion fatigue to media coverage, refugee camps, the horrors of civil war, and worst of the lot the brainwashing of a generation into becoming child soldiers: the sight of a six year old firing a machine gun is haunting. And of course the illegal trade in smuggled diamonds is at the heart of it, so this becomes a campaigning film to raise awareness in the West about the harm that their choice of bling can do.

Underneath all the ‘message’ is a good film that takes a while to find its own strengths: the photography is certainly first and foremost, from the spectacular African vistas to the squalid camps and devastated villages and cities.

Character-wise, Djimon Hounsou is stuck with a noble, suffering, devoted father role, while Jennifer Connolly is just too perfect, pretty and perky to be a veteran cynical war reporter. So it falls to Leonardo Di Caprio to carry the film, and he does – creating an extremely interesting and compelling character, no angel by any means (he’s a mercenary, jewel smuggler and borderline racist) and while he ends up ‘redeemed’ he’s never forgiven his flaws. Indeed one of the later acts is to cold bloodedly betray Hounsou’s son to the invading general in order to get his hands on the titular diamond. This one character, then, is fascinating enough to hold our interest, and fully three-dimensional.

Otherwise the star is Africa, but a horribly war-torn one: the threat of violence is ever present, guns everywhere (a sequence featuring a road block manned by two armed six year olds particularly harrowing) and overall the whole society seems like the inverse of civilisation, a parody of what progress and modernity should be, and it’s deeply effective in driving home some horrible realities. And if the importance of the message isn’t enough for you: the military/battle/action scenes are outstanding, and as good as they get. And stomach churning.

Rating: **** stars out of five (for good intentions and great scenery.)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

For all that this is Mark Kermode’s worst film of 2009, I can’t go along with that. It’s not much worse – but certainly no better – than the first Transformers film. It’s a typical Michael Bay film, and so you know exactly what you’re going to get from it going in – and he delivers, for good or bad.

The bad stuff first: it’s loud and mindless, the science fiction backstory (something about the Fallen and the Primes and the Matrix … ) is laughable and boring and not even given anything more than a passing nod by the film anyway – it’s simply not interested in story. And the other downside is that it’s crushingly dull once all the battle scenes of robots beating each other to sheet metal start blending into one another. The last half hour is pretty much pure tedium that has you looking at the clock.

But on the plus side, it’s incredibly well done tedium – every shot looks and sounds beautiful, it’s incredibly well put together, and the CGI is stellar and blends into the live action scenes perfectly. There’s a physicality to the CGI as well, that is taken up by the impressive live action practical effects, and it’s this sense of real explosions and real danger that gives it a better edge than most dreadful CGI-based films – you really feel this is happening and people are at risk. It’s helped by an impressive access to real military hardware, to which Bay is clearly more deeply infatuated than he is to Megan Fox who is used laughably and degradingly obviously as a mere sex object.

Having a strong and likeable lead is essential and Shia LaBeouf once again largely delivers, with good support from cowardly sidekick Ramon Rodriguez and franchise returnee John Turturro now in a heroic role; everyone else is vapid however, but it’s better than many an action franchise. And the film earns some bonus points for setting the second half in Egypt at the Pyramids – even if it then loses them for trashing the place in a manner not unlike Team America: World Police did albeit for outright laughs.

It’s mass-market fodder, but there are many worse examples of the genre, so this one comes off relatively well in comparison. Or maybe I was just in a less-than-demanding mood when I saw this one.

Rating: ** and a half out of five.

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