Detective Dee – Mystery Of The Phantom Flame

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Detective Dee is in many ways one of the more approachable Chinese films you’re likely to come across, consisting of one part Indiana Jones, one part Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie vintage), one part Scooby-Doo – and all overlaid with the visual style and martial arts spectacle one would expect. There’s a genuine story and a mystery to unravel, and it’s just about followable (with some nice, near-CSI-style flashbacks at the various clue reveals.) However the unfamiliarity of the cultural and historical reference touchpoints makes it difficult for Western audiences to really ‘play along’ as you’re never sure what’s real and what is heightened reality or outright fantasy.

There’s a particular problem with characterisation which is very different from the standard Western way of handling such things, with characters switching from archetypical villains to sympathetic cohorts (and back again) to a degree that leaves nothing certain or reliable (both in character and in appearance) – which to us appears careless inattention but is actually just a different style of doing things. It means it covers up some genuinely meaningful switches ‘in plain sight’, but it’s still weird that a character can go from power crazed tyrant to honourable leader with little backstory to it. Only the eponymous Detective Dee has a consistent character and through story, and ironically that makes him a rather dull focal point in the story compared with the fascinating personalities around him, although there’s no doubting the strength and quality of Andy Lau’s performance.

If you can put aside these difficulties in translation, though, the film is overall a delight to watch – spectacularly so in Blu-ray high definition – and a continual treasure throughout, always fascinating and beautiful to view, even though there is a surfeit of blatant CGI from the start. The film isn’t remotely embarrassed by such evident artificiality though and almost revels in and celebrates it, and with such vivid life and gusto on the screen it’s hard not to be swept away by it, too, and just go with the flow.

If you can do that, you’ll surely enjoy the experience.

**** out of 5.

I, Robot (2004) – Blu-ray

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Is it really already seven years since this film was released? Wow, time flies … Although it’s been on television a few times since then, I haven’t seen it since its original theatrical run and I don’t remember being wildly impressed by it. It was fine – popcorn fodder – but nothing more. Perhaps it was the aggressive product placement in the film (Converse and Audi in particular) or perhaps the divergence from the Isaac Asimov original short stories, or the way it descends into typical CGI blockbuster action sequences, but it never had me thinking “I must watch that again real soon.”

Well, I finally got around to it – and time has been kind to it. It’s a better, more intelligent and better played film than I remembered, with one of Will Smiths best and more layered performances in a blockbuster and clearly a bridge to his later serious work; and the concepts are intelligently developed and explored, with more thought-provoking stuff than I gave it credit for at the time. All in all, it turns out that it does do pretty good justice to Asimov.

The final section of the film does go the rather obvious action flick route with some Matrix-influenced daftness, and the CGI – while impressive and state of the art at the time – has not held up completely. But notably the central creation of Sonny (“played” by Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk in a Gollem-esque CGI fashion) is actually extremely well done and believable, and a genuinely interesting and rounded character.

It’s a film that looks especially good on Blu-ray with lots of detail and very few duff moments indeed – the only problem is that hi-def is really not kind to front- and back-projection scenes that stick out like a sore thumb every time. The film is helped by its futuristic city and robot subject matter that looks great in HD, but it’s people’s faces that really wow you more than anything. The sound is also very good and enveloping – the fact it made me look away and/or wonder if that was a sound from the film or in the room is always a good indication of a top-notch sound mix.

Definitely a better film than I remembered, graced with an excellent Blu-ray transfer.

**** out of five stars.

Skyline (2011) – Blu-ray

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This film has been savaged by fan reviewers who have slated everything from the acting to the script and the premise, and given an oddly lenient review by Mark Kermode who seemed strangely disproportionately charmed by the fact that such an impressive looking effort could be made for what passed in Hollywood as petty cash.

As that language probably already reveals, I sit somewhere in the middle on this one. I think it’s unfairly harshly maligned by many of the reviews – the acting is average but never embarrassing, the script solid and interesting until the last third when suddenly it goes downhill fairly sharply. And as for the CGI effects – they really are very impressive indeed, as you’d expect from a directing duo (the brothers Strause) who are first and foremost FX designers.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a pedestrian by-the-numbers alien invasion B-movie. It takes Cloverfield’s “from the point of view of the little guy in the street who has no idea what’s going on” approach, only this time the guys on the street are in a luxury penthouse with a good view of the unfolding alien invasion. There’s plenty of other films liberally stolen from as well – the Spielberg War of the Worlds, District 9, even the more recent Attack the Block. Oh, and one of the main creature designs is to blatantly a rip-off of the hunter-seekers from The Matrix that to see a credit for “alien design” at the end of the move fairly takes your breath away for audacity.

The first half of the film actually takes things slowly and ratchets up the tension in a way that the all-out bang-crash Cloverfield fluffed. There’s some genuinely tense and scary moments making good use of the film’s restricted budget and locations, and the characters do at least have some time to establish themselves.

And then into the final third, it all starts to go off the rails. They start to go in for big set-piece action sequences with an attempt to exit the apartment block triggering a major Michael Bay-esque confrontation with the aliens, and while the CGI continues to hold up impressively, the imbalance between this overblown sequence and the low-key moments in the apartment before and after just serve to underline and exaggerate the film’s budget and cast limitations. The film descends into nothing-very-interesting action sequences, and then spectacularly implodes in the final moments with the most laughable payoff you’re likely to see in a film for some time to come, and which leaves you feeling that it was all just a horrible waste of time. It’s a shame, but not one to dwell on: it’s hard to louse up an alien invasion film but this pretty much manages to do so.

The Blu-ray is so-so – some scenes are very nice, bright and sharp; but many inside the apartment are oddly soft, flat and murky, and there’s unnecessary grain. Good sound, though, and a truly excellent 3D lenticular sleeve.

** out of five stars – and I’m being really, really rather lenient here.

Attack the Block (2011)

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Writer/director Joe Cornish hasn’t made it easy on himself as far as feature film debuts go.

To start with, he’s trying to do a science fiction alien monster movie on a British indie film budget, shooting it in a council estate in South London and hoping that it can look anything like as good as the Hollywood blockbusters of its ilk. That he pulls this off is quite remarkable: at no time do you really feel that this is at all budget-challenged – it’s all polished and stylish throughout and he gives the eponymous block more screen presence and charisma than any cinematic high rise since Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza, a really impressive directorial debut with real visual flair and style.

The second burden Cornish gives himself is his selection of protagonists – it’s hard to label them as ‘heroes’ since their first act is to mug a young female nurse at knifepoint, and their second is to sign up as street drug dealers. Both acts are reprehensible and at no time does the film admonish them or require them to see “the error of their ways” as any mainstream (and certainly American) film would do. Instead the film simply unpacks their world view and their sense of honour and ethos: they later apologise to the nurse, saying that if they’d known she was a block resident they would never have attacked her, like that really should make any difference to the morality of the situation but neatly showing the twisted but nonetheless coherent code of conduct they adhere to.

And finally, the film gets laden with too many expectations to be the “next Shaun of the Dead.” Some of these are accidental – Cornish’s background in comedy and radio light entertainment do help set up the expectation – but in other ways the comparison is self-inflicted, such as the casting of that film’s co-star Nick Frost in a supporting role here, and the movie posters topped with “from the producers of Shaun of the Dead“. I guess you have to sell a film any way you can, but ultimately this one does the film more harm than good.

Anyone going in expecting a laugh-a-minute romcom (with monsters) in the style of that earlier British classic is going to be quite badly disappointed: it’s not a comedy. It’s got laughs in it, to be sure, but these arise out of characters and the surreal nature of the events going on around them rather than any concerted attempt to be funny or comedic. Only Frost and his stoned cohort Luke Treadaway (playing a posh whiteboy graduate who just wants some streetgang/black cred) provide anything like authentic comedy beats, and they rather stick out at times as a result. If the sight of nine-year-olds fronting up to face the aliens with a cap gun and a super-squirter, or the gang going into battle against the alien hoards driving the dumbest pizza delivery mopeds ever seen on film don’t strike you as beautifully laugh-out-loud incongruous and silly moments, then there won’t be much here for you. (And watch out for the super-squirter – it has the final say.)

The film’s also been criticised for not having enough action or scares. That’s a shame, and I disagree – I thought it was very nicely judged, with the action not overpowering the characters and leaving room for a full-rounded film rather than the usual blockbuster bombast we have to put up with these days. Again, outright “horror” isn’t its aim – this isn’t Alien by any means – but the film plays a lovely trick with its limited budget by having the monsters be impenetrable blobs of black that can’t really be seen – except for their luminescent teeth, the reveal of which in the dark back-of-frame enables Cornish to have some of his best and most cinematic moments of all when the scale of the infestation and their proximity becomes grippingly clear.

For me, the film really did overcome all those problems it started off carrying. I suspect that for others, the desire for it to be Shaun of the Dead overrode the critical ability to view this as a completely different film seeking to do different things. Where Shaun had romcom, this film has a more serious social commentary heart beating in its genre chest, such as the moment when the gang seriously wonder if the aliens are the authorities’ way of wiping out the black population “because we aren’t killing ourselves fast enough for them” – sharp observation of both how the gangs see the white mainstream society’s attitude toward them while also skewering the too-common self-harming tendencies of some black communities at the same time.

The way this all opens up an “alien culture” of street gangs for a mainstream (and doubtless mainly white) film-going audience is praiseworthy enough. It does this not by having the protagonists repent and be redeemed – that would be too easy – but by having them remain true to themselves but open up their world so that we, the outsiders, can see what they’re really about. It doesn’t forgive them their actions, but it does perhaps facilitate some cross-battlelines understanding.

It’s not a perfect film. The opening half hour spends so much time with the protagonist gang that the cutaways to some of the other characters (the mugged nurse played by Jodie Whittaker; the sisters and girlfriends; Frost and Treadaway’s characters) seem underdeveloped distractions and they really don’t work until their fates are properly intertwined with the gang’s. But once things do cohere then there is some clever pacing and writing which ensures that instead of key character moments being dropped into a “quite moment” where they won’t get in the way like you usually get in action films, the emotional climaxes are instead absolutely intertwined with and essential to the film’s action highlights in a very effective way.

All in all, it’s a film well worth seeing – a definite four stars – but if you go, try and put preconceptions aside and take this as an entirely fresh, different film and not necessarily judge it as the one you thought it was going to be.

2012 (Blu-ray)

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Director Roland Emmerich and his collaborator Harald Kloser are used to blowing up the world: they did it with aliens in Independence Day and the environment in The Day After Tomorrow, and along the way wrecked a fair portion of New York by unleashing Godzilla.

If you’ve seen any of those films, you’ll know just what to expect from 2012, which is global doomsday via Mayan prophecy (oh, alright then – by solar flares, if you will.)

Emmerich isn’t one for abandoning a tried and tested template, so you get the same sprawling cast, their initially disconnected lives eventually overlapping and linking up to form the narrative. And along the way, some eye-popping visual effects are unleashed as the world gets quite literally torn apart.

It’s basically standard B-movie stuff, but with a big budget. It’s very bit as clichéd and schmaltzy as its Emmerich forebears: remember how you cringed when President Bill Pullman gave his All-American rousing speech before the final battle? There’s a similar heart-tugging script beat here, too. It’s obvious who will live and who will die (and frankly, a little disturbingly so – it’s not good to be anything but a nice middle class American nuclear family in these films, so Indians and Russians have a very slim survival chance.) But the dog survives, as ever – it’s an Emmerich trope.

Also as is typical with these films, there’s some really great casting going on. John Cusack is always watchable whether in an indie film or a big budget blockbuster; Chiwetel Ejiofor is a new name and face to American audiences, but the young British actor is excellent and assured here, while Amanda Peet and Thandie Newton do well to bring life to the inevitable “supporting wife/girlfriend/daughter” roles. Add lovely turns from old stagers like Danny Glover, Oliver Platt and George Segal, and mix in a scene stealing Zlatko Buric as a Russian oligarch and you have a very agreeable mix.

All in all, then, it’s rather enjoyable as end-of-the-world stories go, and perfectly entertaining. It doesn’t try to do anything more, which puts it one ahead of the painfully worthy The Day After Tomorrow with its po-faced climate change message; and it much better done overall than the lazy, bloated Godzilla. It just about puts it into the three star category.

The Blu-ray disk on the other hand is something else. The film looks absolutely fantastic in high definition even on my relatively pokey 32″ screen, and the CGI sequences are so astonishingly well rendered with such level of detail that they’ll leave you well and truly eye-popped. And while I don’t have a sophisticated sound system, the way that the audio track threw an immersive, all-encompassing soundscape around me was really impressive and the best I think I’ve heard at home.

Not sure if I’d call it “reference quality” – I reserve that for Pixar releases, to be honest – but this Blu-ray still really surprised me by how good it was. It almost made me want to re-watch the film again just by how good it looked and sounded, the quality of the film itself almost irrelevant.

Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

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I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.

Unfortunately, that season was 1994.

By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”

This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.

Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.

But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.

Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.

But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.

Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.

I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.

When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.

Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.

But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.

It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.

But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.

Chatroom (Blu-ray)

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Every now and then I weaken and pick up a low-cost DVD on impulse at the checkout, of a film that I’ve never heard of before and know nothing about. Frankly its anonymity is usually a good warning: there are usually reasons why a movie sinks without trace, and that’s certainly the case here.

This is a film you really hope and expect will be better than it actually turns out to be. It’s got a good pedigree, directed by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (who brought us the original “Ring”) and featuring rising star Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) and it has an interesting concept of a sociopath twisting an online social network to their own ends. But frankly it never really gels or takes off.

There’s no trace of Nakata’s trademark “Japan horror” style, and the film is amazingly “English domestic” more in common with naff 90s TV miniseries “KillerNet” than the “Ring” films. Nakata does bring a nice visual flair to the online life which is presented in vivid colours and appealing (and peeling) design, the different chat rooms all having different and equally interesting visual personalities, while “real” life is effectively contrasted in washed out, pale and bleached out drabness. Nakata also brings a good sound design to the film that adds atmosphere that does much to unsettle the viewer.

The performances are good too, especially from rising star of the moment Aaron Johnson who gets to swing from insecure, troubled real persona to swaggering, confident virtual personality, which itself swings from initially charming group leader to gradually revealing his intensively evil impulses – and Johnson does evil well, too. Matthew Beard is very impressive too as the weak link who is deconstructed by Johnson’s character, while Imogen Poots has the most potential as the upper class airhead bitch initially attracted to but then repelled by Johnson. Sadly the other two characters are barely developed and their storylines suddenly peter out as the film loses interest in them (and the audience’s was never really engaged in them in the first place.)

The chatroom concept itself is nicely presented as a real location (bypassing people hammering away at keyboards) but every so often non sequitor dialogue such as “what do you look like?” or “where are you?” between two characters who appear to be sitting side by side remind you of the actual online situation; when characters do assemble in real life there’s a nice touch with one of them having to hold up a chalkboard in the air with their screen name on it so that they can recognise each other. This confusion of virtual life with real life is very much how many people experience it, and technically the film is reasonably realistic too, with nice roles of iPhones and iMacs, good representations of hacking and pedophiles and password protection into the visual representation of the virtual reality. For all that, it’s strange that this VR should be seemingly based on a text-line chat programme like AOL IM which instantly seems dated.

So how come this doesn’t work better? Really it’s because despite the film’s PR marketing and Nakata’s presence at the helm, this is no horror film. The stageplay on which its based is an “issue play” about online bullying which isn’t really as clever, original or interesting as it thinks it is, and it instantly feels like it would be more at home as a storyline in a teen soap instead of a film. The storyline is also disconnected, confusing, unfocussed and lacking subtlety, ending up in a pointless run around chase sequence around north-west London that feels tacked on.

It gets widely differing reviews online, from those thinking it’s underrated and deserves better, to those who want those 94 minutes of their life back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dreadful by any means, but it’s far from being one that will make you feel that your world is incomplete if you don’t happen to see it. Its flaws are enough to make the film feel rather laboured when it needs to fly, resulting in an okay watch but nothing special despite its occasional merits.

** out of *****.

Mars Attacks! (Blu-ray)

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You can always tell when something is a Tim Burton film – his touch is unmistakable. And yet at the same time no two of his films are alike, as he flits from black comedy (Beetlejuice) to Hammer-esque horror (Sleepy Hollow) and from fantastic drama (Big Fish) to stop-motion animations (Corpse Bride) and musicals (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street). Big studios try to harness him, but for every triumphant Batman they’re just as likely to get a terrible flop (the Planet of the Apes reboot.)

Even so, Mars Attacks! is one of the odder contributions to Burton’s canon of work. It appeared in the same year as the summer blockbuster Independence Day (aka ID4); in many ways Mars Attacks! is a spoof of ID4 and many 50s and 60s alien invasion B-movies in the same way Airplane! brilliantly spoofs the Airport films, and Scary Movie less successfully takes pot shots at horror films like the Scream oeuvre. But in fact, Mars Attacks! is more accurately a case of bringing a classic 1960s American science fiction trading card game from Topps to the big screen.

Like many such spoof films, it’s very hit and miss. Some people will love it, some will hate it; many will just be confused and baffled by it. If you can get on its wavelength then it could well become one of your guilty pleasure films than can be watched time and again simply because there is so much happening in almost every frame that it rewards repeating viewings. I’ll be honest – after my first viewing I started off not liking it and just found it left me cold, but now I’m in that latter category and seem to re-watch and enjoy it once or twice every year, a very unusual thing for me.

Mars Attacks! boasts a stellar cast, at sometimes inexplicably so. Danny de Vito pops up in a small role as a Vegas gambler only to be vaporised by the Martians when they invade; Tom Jones pops up toward the end to sing “It’s not unusual” and ends up being one of the “stars” in the end scenes despite hardly having featured; conversely Michael J Fox and Jack Black appear early on only to be early victims of the Martian’s ray guns. It’s all a bit hyperactive, as though Tim Burton burst into a cinematic sweetshop, scooped up all the actors and plots and FX that he could, and then legged it before the shopkeeper could stop him – and then had to make a film from all the candy that he had got away with.

But Burton’s one of the few filmmakers who could take such a disastrous hyperactive set-up and make it work. The Martians themselves (CGI creations, and yet still delightfully effective 15 years later) are wonderful, all the better for chattering away in Martian-ese and only occasionally being translated into English; their facsimile prostitute (played by Lisa Marie Smith) picked up by sex addict White House press secretary Martin Short is inspired, both stunningly beautifully and weirdly wrong and creepy all at the same time. The scene where the first contact in Pahrump, Nevada goes disastrously wrong thanks to a dove is a highlight, eclipsed only by a “second contact” moment that wipes out the whole US Congress before the invasion really gets underway, commencing with the Martians getting “pressed” into their war suits like plastic toys getting manufactured by being pressed by moulds.

Burton’s also the only director who can put Jack Nicholson in a film and make me … not mind. I hate Nicholson in films with a passion, with only two exceptions: his portrayal of the Joker in Batman (which is still a fantastic definitive portrayal of the comic book figure, with all due respect for Heath Ledger’s inspired and very different interpretation in The Dark Knight) and also his roles in Mars Attacks! – he plays both President James Dale and Vegas entrepreneur Art Land and is great in both. How Burton manages to make Nicholson so palatable to me is a mystery and a genuine small triumph.

Other actors include a young Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan (as a wonderful 50s-style pipe-smoking scientist), Sarah Jessica Parker (inspired as a fashion reporter whose empty head ends up transplanted onto a chihuahua), Glenn Close, Pam Grier, film legend Sylvia Sidney (delightful as an out-of-it grandma devoted to the classics of Slim Whitman), Rod Steiger and Paul Winfield (brilliant as petty bickering US Army Generals) and many, many more.

It’s a mad film. It’s inspired at times, and genuinely enjoyable, but it’s also uneven and imperfect. But I’ll happily keep re-watching it until the flaming cows stampede their way home (you’ll have to see the start of the film to understand that reference.)

It’s not had much love in its home cinema life – one pretty barebones DVD in 1999 and now finally a totally extras-free, non-remastered Blu-ray disc in 2011. However the Blu-ray is unexpectedly good given the palpable neglect, with the colours really popping and the extra sharper edge on key details really making this cartoon-esque film look really good, even if the quality is a little erratic (not unlike the film itself): sometimes details that should be sharp (like hair) suddenly become a rather blurry mess. It’s certainly an improvement on the mediocre DVD, though, and well worth adding to your collection.

Oscars night 2011 – in the rear view mirror

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So the Oscars came, and the Oscars went, and the most surprising thing was perhaps how efficient but airless it was: it got the job done, but it was a mainly joyless affair with the two young actor hosts notable only by their near-invisibility in proceedings. Things only really picked up when former host Billy Crystal made a cameo appearance and showed how to fill the room with some energy; and while Kevin Spacey and Robert Downey Jr auditioned for the gig next year.

Looking back, I think I did reasonably well with my list of predictions, although to be honest they were all pretty obvious selections for the most part. What really came across was just how ‘safe’ the Academy were playing it this year: faced with a selection of good and some really interesting films, they seemed to make a reflexive grasp for something cosy and familiar. How else how to explain the Best Director award going to a young British TV director only just starting to get a sense of his cinematic style and vision, than as a sign that the Academy panicked, didn’t know who else to vote for, and went for the security blanket of a classy, old-fashioned British drama that reminded them of cinema’s undoubted glory days? Or that the two Best Supporting acting awards went to the most clichéd Oscar-baiting displays of ostentatious acting of the year? It seems you only stand a chance of winning an acting Oscar if the audience is allowed to clearly see you acting your socks off – which is not how it’s meant to be. At least Natalie Portman won despite the divisive Marmite feel of the film she starred in, Black Swan, which was clearly too way out for the Academy’s overwhelmingly ageing demographic.

It’s a shame that the “safety first” decisions got in the way: frankly, The Social Network still deserved far better than it got but it was simply too fresh, too new and too stylised for the Academy or else Jesse Eisenberg’s mesmerising central performance in a unique part would have beaten Colin Firth’s obligatory “Oscar for playing a Member of the Royal Family.” Don’t get me wrong, as a Brit I’m absolutely delighted for Firth (and indeed for Christian Bale as Best Supporting Actor) and they both gave two terrific acceptance speeches – I just think the Academy went for the ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ Oscar route in both cases.

It is interesting, though, how the awards were rather shared out this year and no film really dominated. Sure, The King’s Speech won the headline awards of Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay, but that was only 4 out of the 12 nominations it went into the evening with; Inception, despite thought-provoking science fiction clearly not generally being to the Academy’s taste, won 4 as well (out of 8 nominations – does that make it “more” successful?) although it was getting its love from the technical Academicians – Cinematography, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and of course Effects. The Social Network slumped to just three (Adapted Screenplay, Score and Editing) as if the Academy really wanted to stamp home the message “yes – well written, well made, but not a Fincher film.” Heck, even the much-derided Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland came away with two Oscars (Art Direction and Costume Design) as did The Fighter with its two supporting actor/actress nods, while The Wolfman(!) ended up with one for Makeup – although really that should be seen as a well-deserved lifetime achievement award for the great Rick Baker.

If there is a real loser this year – and a real surprise at that – it’s True Grit. It came in with ten nominations, second only to The King’s Speech, and went away with nothing at all. The shutout meant that two nominees that I really felt deserved an Oscar – Hailee Steinfeld and Roger Deakins – were cruelly robbed. The Coen Brothers have been Oscar darlings in the past (Best Film, Best Director for 2007’s No Country for Old Men) so what have they done to hack off the Academy in the meantime? Or maybe it’s just the genre that the Academy have no love for any more? Personally I wonder whether the Academy didn’t pick up on the underlying feeling to the film that the Coen Brothers just simply didn’t understand the Western nearly as well as they thought they did and needed to, and accidentally ended up making a bit of a superficial pastiche in the process.

And there are some mysteries about the Oscars I’ll never understand: how did The King’s Speech win Best Original Screenplay when it’s based on the diaries of speech therapist Lionel Logue and any number of historical documents and memoirs, when the wholly original Inception goes unrecognised? How can Toy Story 3 be in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay for a totally new story, just because it’s a sequel? Yeesh.

Ahh well, that’s enough. The Oscars are done and we can forget about them all for another 12 months. It won’t be hard to put them out of mind; I can barely remember the specifics already, the morning after the night before.

Oscars night 2011 – roll on up, place your bets

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So it’s Oscar night over in Hollywood, and I think that makes it mandatory for every review-inclined blog to troop out at least one post on the subject of who will win, no matter how ill-informed. Since I haven’t seen most of the pictures that have nominations, my opinion is even more ill-informed than usual – but what the heck, let’s roll into the spirit of the thing and trot out a few guesses and groundless preferences.

Best Actor seems a lock for Colin Firth. It’s one of those ‘perfect alignment’ moments, where an actor is playing the perfect role for an Oscar but also at the moment when everyone’s thinking “y’know, really he should have got it last year for A Single Man” so there’s a sense of obligation to put the situation right. It’s rather like that moment in Just a Minute where Nicholas Parsons redresses an earlier benefit of the doubt, so it would be truly shocking if Firth didn’t win for his role as King George VI in The King’s Speech. Arguably James Franco (the Oscar night co-host with Anne Hathaway) should get it for being the only man on screen in 127 Hours but then if screen time was a decisive factor then where is Ryan Reynolds for Buried, arguably a much more effective film and indeed solo performance? I rather wish Jesse Eisenberg had a shot at the award for his incredibly strong performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but he doesn’t – he’s too new and young, which makes the Academy feel uncomfortably old, so he’ll have to wait a few years and pay his dues. And having actually seen Jeff Bridges in True Grit, all I can say is that it was a decent performance no doubt, but if that’s the Oscar-winning role of the year then Hollywood really isn’t paying attention and certainly not at the level of his Crazy Heart performance that won him the Best Actor Oscar just last year.

Best Actress seems a lock right now for Natalie Portman for Black Swan, which in itself is a bit of a “Marmite” movie (love it or hate it) but at least everyone seems to agree that her performance itself is stand-out memorable and fantastic. Her closest rival is probably Annette Benning for The Kids Are All Right, but Benning seems to have slipped up with her “I don’t care about any of this” early refusal to take part in the Oscar beauty parade and may have left it too late to repair the damage, which is a shame because her performance – rather like Eisenberg as Zuckerberg – takes a hard-edged, initially unsympathetic character and makes it work against expectations. The best performance of all is probably Michelle Williams, but the way that Blue Valentine has been treated in other categories looks like the Academy isn’t particularly well disposed toward it.

I haven’t heard much chatter about Best Supporting Actor which probably means it will default to The King’s Speech nominee Geoffrey Rush, although Christian Bale’s flashy performance in The Fighter stands a chance because the Academy can’t resist an ostentatious display of overacting and some good old fashioned method weight loss. Over in Best Supporting Actress the scandal of the year has been Melissa Leo’s over-zealous self-promotion for her role in The Fighter against co-star and fellow category nominee Amy Adams. The controversy and film duplication will probably knock them both out, leaving it to Helena Bonham Carter – admittedly fabulous as the Queen Mother (to be) in The King’s Speech and frankly long overdue an Oscar; and Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit who absolutely deserves it – and at 14, she is under that age that makes Academy members jealous and instead makes them go “awww, isn’t she terrific for a kid?”, so she may pull it off. I certainly hope so, but I have to confess Bonham Carter wouldn’t be a bad choice either.

In other categories, hard to believe Toy Story 3 won’t win Best Animated Picture rather like The Return of the King got the best picture nod for The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole; I’ll be cheering Roger Deakins for his brilliant work on True Grit in Best Cinematography; I’ll be hoping the provoking, controversial and important Inside Job wins Best Documentary, and I’ll be speechless if Inception doesn’t at least win Best Visual Effects for its brilliant, fascinating dreamscapes.

Talking of Inception, the Academy has already blighted this year’s nominee list by the omission of Christopher Nolan for Best Director which is just shocking given that one of the year’s biggest and best films was such a personal project and vision and which would never have been made without him. I hope at the very least they’re embarrassed into giving him Best Original Screenplay for the film – and as for Best Adapted Screenplay, as far as I’m concerned that just has to be Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network, no question.

As for the the director award, I’d say that it’s a three-way fight between Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan, David Fincher for The Social Network and the Coen Brothers for True Grit – I’d be surprised if British director Tom Hooper stood a chance for The King’s Speech, and David O. Russell will only win if we’re in the middle of a landslide evening for The Fighter. Oddly, Fincher doesn’t seem to be particularly keen on winning the Oscar for his film: as a renowned control freak he probably isn’t wild about the amount of control and attention writer Aaron Sorkin’s been getting for the film, and given that The Social Network has become a “tale of two auteurs” it’s probably not right that he should win for this and not for, say, Zodiac which was much more of an authentic “Fincher” film. I would be happy to see the Oscar go to the Coens for True Grit, but as my review a couple of days ago said, I tend to have “issues” with Coen Brothers films and so I’m not entirely sold. Instead, I have a sneaking feeling that this category is Aronofsky’s to lose.

And finally to Best Picture. The category’s been expanded to ten nominees to crank up the tension but really most of these don’t stand a chance – Inception in particular is a lame duck, unless everyone’s feeling very, very guilty about the Nolan omission indeed. Early on in 2010 this seemed like a shoe-in for The Social Network; then True Grit came along, and then the betting flirted with 127 Hours. Black Swan has rarely featured because of its divisive Marmite taste. Right now it seems like a lock for The King’s Speech. Personally I hope it defaults back to the first of those films and that Fincher/Sorkin’s collaboration walks away with the top prize, but I suspect the betting is right and that king trumps billionaire.

And now we can all sit back and see how completely wrong I am.

True Grit (2010) – a bleak sunset in the West

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I’m a relative newcomer to Westerns, having mainly scoffed at them until I was dragged along to a digital showing of a remastered The Searchers at the BFI by a friend five years ago. Since then I’ve got to know and like the genre rather better, and would even go so far as so class 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favourite film of that year. I was certainly very much looking forward to seeing this much-lauded Oscar-nominated new adaptation of True Grit. I come out of it, as so often the case when I watch Coen Brothers films, with mixed feelings.

It’s common these days in studies of the Western to talk about ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ examples of the genre, and the film seeks to have and balance both at the same time. For the latter, there is an unflinching look at the harsh reality and brutality of the life in the 1870s’ American West, from casual racism (the Indian denied his last words before being hanged) to every urine, sweat and vomit stain on Rooster Cogburn’s long johns as he sleeps fitfully in a cot at the back of the local butchers among the animal detritus – this film seeks an unflinching physical realism at all times. The big bad bogeyman, when finally tracked down, is as wretched and pathetic a wreck as you can imagine, rather than the evil devil Mattie Ross needs him to be if he’s to be worthy of slaying her father. And the land around them is also an emphatic character – cold, harsh, drained of colour. It’s beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins who also shot The Assassination of Jesse James … – but whereas that film has dazzling drop-dead gorgeous vistas, this film refuses anything remotely “pretty”. This scenery is plain and ordinary, or threatening and alien, an environment to be endured rather than admired; a hostile place where the land would much rather see you dead than suffer you to live off it.

But at the same time the underlying story on which it is based (the 1968 novel by Charles Portis) is a distinctly conventional story of Wild West revenge, with main characters and character arcs quaintly old fashioned. It’s clear from the start that Mattie Ross will overcome scorn and derision to prove her worth; that LaBoeuf will finally earn those dandy spurs; and that the irredeemable wreck of a man, Cogburn, will be redeemed by a pure love. And they’ll get their man too: but in true revisionist style, it will be at a cost. In fact the film’s strapline is “punishment comes one way or another”, and this is a film where any victory, no matter how small, invariably comes with a high physical or emotional cost to all parties.

Even so, I expect John Wayne would still be quite happy and at home starring in this film. And Wayne is in some ways the film’s biggest problem because of the huge shadow he casts: every scene featuring Jeff Bridges, you can help but remember (or imagine, if you haven’t seen the 1969 original film version) how Wayne would do it, and truth is that it’s not that far apart – Cogburn is still rather too larger than life, over the top and borderline cartoonish for the hard, realistic context of the rest of the film. By contrast, Matt Damon has infinitely more shading to work with when it comes to the role of LaBoeuf (and to be fair far less competition from his filmic predecessor: Glen Campbell is many things but actor was never one of them) and as for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie – well, every bit of hyperbolic praise you’ve heard about her are true. Only, double them. (And it’s a crime that not only is she not nominated for Best Actress, her name isn’t even on the poster – while Josh Brolin’s cameo inexplicably warrants banner billing alongside Bridges and Damon. Absurd.)

Ultimately, the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘revisionist’ simply don’t fit. The tag that does is ‘elegiac’ – in the sense of this being truly an elegy not for a lost time of place, but for a lost genre. It comes not to praise the Western, but to bury it once and for all. After all the physical reality of the West, the styling of the film is strangely more of a romanticised pastiche: from the opening Southern-drawl voice-over, to the nostalgic country guitar-picking soundtrack and final scenes set in a Wild West touring sideshow, this falls back into the familiar techniques and tropes of a Ken Burns documentary. We’re seeing a film of the West that no longer has any personal connection with its subject, not even memories of the Wayne films and classic 50s TV shows, just recent sepia-tinted reconstructions. We are so far removed now from the era depicted that it is irrevocably lost to us. Everyone who truly remembered any part of the West has passed on, and so have all those that knew them – we’re now on third- or fourth-hand memories. The West is no longer real – as it was to John Ford and Raoul Walsh when they started making films in the 1920s – but folklore, myth and fantasy fixed in amber.

Never has the Western felt more lost to us in the present day than True Grit makes it: this is no revival of the fortunes of the genre in Hollywood, rather the reverse. The final scenes of the film are set in a graveyard, and the epitaph on the headstone may as well read: “Here lies the Western. Beloved genre, finally laid to rest once and for all with the most tender and lyrical parting kiss.” But the evident sentiment of the filmakers can’t avoid the fact that as far as they are concerned the corpse is still dead, and the ground is now hard and cold.