Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) [Blu-ray]

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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has the notorious reputation of being hands-down the worst Star Trek movie of all time. It’s said to be so bad, in fact, that I don’t think I’ve ever watched it a second time after originally seeing it in the cinemas at the time of its release nearly 24 years ago. That has allowed my memories of how poor it is to fester, grow and multiply over the intervening years. That is until this week, when I had a strange moment of … I won’t say weakness, let’s just say unguarded curiosity to see whether it really was as bad as its reputation would have us believe.

postedThe good news: it’s not the total unmitigated catastrophe that it had established itself in my memory as being. There are even some good moments in it. And it’s certainly no where near as awful and unlikeable as, say, the corresponding fifth movie in the Die Hard franchise turned out to be. In fact you might say that it would make a middling episode of the original TV series’ third and final season (which as true fans will know is indeed damning with faint praise.)

The bad news: it’s still unbelievably poor. It’s dull, witless, poorly written, weakly directed, tonally uneven with a disinterested cast and the worst effects of the series and indeed pretty much of any mainstream science fiction film of the late eighties. It justifiably has a total lock on the title of ‘worst Star Trek movie’ and always will. Read the rest of this entry »

James Bond: For Your Eyes Only [Blu-ray]

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The 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film is nigh, and so is the release in October of Skyfall, the latest in the franchise to star Daniel Craig. As part of what’s likely to be an overwhelming onslaught of promotional activity, the studio is also finally making available all 22 previous Bond films on Blu-ray after a partial release back in 2008/9 stalled when the Bond franchise owner MGM Studios went into debt and was sold off.

In the circumstances, it would be positively rude not to review one or two of the Blu-rays from the new boxset …

For Your Eyes Only is one of the Bond films that did get a Blu-ray release four years ago, and the version in the new Bond 50 boxset is the same one that was released back then and which is itself a high definition transfer of the ‘ultimate edition’ DVD, even down to the same menus and extras on the disc.

If you’re labelling the Bond film Friends-style along the lines of “the one with …” then For Your Eyes Only would probably be “the one that no one really remembers.” Somehow it falls through the cracks: it’s by no means bad, so you don’t remember it as being utterly dreadful in the way that you might with Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun or A View To A Kill for example. But neither does it stand out as as anything brilliantly good either. There’s not even anything about the story or the characters that really seizes the imagination.

What there is, is a palpable desire to draw back from the excesses of Moonraker which literally sent Bond into orbit, and to bring him right back down to earth again (pun intended.) That’s made clear from the moment that Bond’s gadget-laden Lotus goes up in flames as the result of an over-zealous anti-burglary device early in the film, after which Bond is almost entirely bereft of his usual trademark gizmos.

Even the opening pre-credit sequence – for the most part a fast-moving, exciting and effective mini-adventure – seems laden with significance, this one a message about closing the door on the past as a certain cat-stroking bald supervillain is tipped down an industrial chimney stack in the Docklands. The film was made at the time when Eon Productions was in dispute with rival film producer Kevin McClory who claimed co-authorship of Ian Fleming’s Thunderball which introduced the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and so the makers of the ‘official’ Bond films decided they would show just how dispensable the character was to them by offing him even before the titles kicked in.

There’s a lot going on under the surface, then, but Roger Moore is still inclined to play the part of Bond in just the same smooth but lightweight and flippant way that he had done in the four preceding films. There are some overly comedic moments that were hallmarks of the earlier Moore films, a completely bizarre last line “I’ll buy you a delicatessen! In stainless steel!” from faux-Blofeld, and the film’s coda sequence with Janet Brown cameoing as Mrs Thatcher is dreadfully out of place (although watch for John Wells playing Denis, who quite beautifully steals the scene.)

However the producers are evidently really aiming for something altogether more gritty, realistic and harder-edged. They lift a nasty torture scene from the novel Live and Let Die in which Bond and his leading lady are painfully keelhauled over coral, and Bond is made to suffer in order to climb to the heights of the villains’ mountain top lair. The biggest change for the character is when he cold-bloodedly kills an opponent by kicking his teetering car off a cliff edge – something that Moore himself is said to have thought wrong for ‘his’ Bond.

As part of their back-to-basics push, the producers return to Fleming’s books for their plot after diverting away completely for the last two film outings. The literary For Your Eyes Only is a collection of short stories, and from the title tale is taken the murder of the Havelocks and the quest for revenge by their daughter (renamed Melina in the film and played by Carole Bouquet) while from Risico comes the story of the feuding smugglers Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Colombo (Chaim Topol), the two threads held together by an original McGuffin of a supersecret encoder.

The Risico plot requires an initial uncertainty about which of the smugglers is friend and which is foe, but that means that neither can be over-the-top moustache-twirlingly evil in the grand tradition of the best Bond villains. We know that Glover can be delightfully nefarious (see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Doctor Who: City of Death for example) but here he’s very reigned in, cold and impersonal. The worst thing that can be said about him is his leering over young ice skating prodigy Bibi (an early role for Lynn-Holly Johnson, whose inexperience shows) and that just makes him slightly creepy and distasteful rather than a full-blooded Bond foe.

Topol, on the other hand, gets to play one of the best characters to appear on Bond’s side in many a film. His passionate, life-loving, pistachio-addicted larger-than-life presence evokes the great Kerim Bay as played by Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love. However, Bay had Rosa Kleb and Red Grant to face off against; whereas when Colombo ends up being almost the most memorable thing about For Your Eyes Only, you know the rest of the film is lacking something vital.

Without a doubt, the single most vital thing the film is lacking is a decent score. Respected American film composer Bill Conti takes over the music duties from John Barry, and while he tries to keep elements of Barry’s trademark brass-heavy sound he also unwisely tries blending it with dance and funk that sounded dated even when the film was released in 1981 and hasn’t improved since. At times the end result is positively annoying. It simply doesn’t sound authentically Bond, although there are at least a couple of music cues when it does come close to almost – almost – taking off. And then it doesn’t, and you’re left thinking that this is just a forgery of the real Bond exploits. (McClory’s Never Say Never Again had much the same problem when it was made, especially when Eon recalled John Barry to make the official films once again sound like the real thing. That was continued when Bond fan David Arnold took over scoring duties with just the right sensibility of updated respect for Barry’s work from 1997.)

The one thing that does work in the musical score of For Your Eyes Only is the title song, which is actually very good indeed – right up there with the top classic Bond themes. It was performed by Sheena Easton, one of the very first pop stars discovered by the now-omnipresent ‘reality show’ format and who was very much the major star of her day. Legendary film title designer Maurice Binder liked the look of her so much that he even had her appear in the credits – the first time that the singer of a Bond theme was on screen in the film itself.

Given the unsuccessful score as a whole, it’s perhaps ironic that the soundtrack is one of the best things about the Blu-ray disc. That’s because it was the time in cinema technology history when theatres had just been forced to invest in advanced Dolby Surround systems after the breakthrough success of Star Wars in the sound department. Before then, most films – including the Bonds – had been mono or barely stereo affairs. But For Your Eyes Only was the first Bond to get into the new sound technologies and really start using the multi-directional capability creatively, so it was already a quantum leap ahead of its predecessors even before the Blu-ray restoration team got to work. It’s still a relatively early outing for this sort of new and improved approach to film sound and obviously can’t hold its own against 21st century offerings, but it’s still as good as we’ll ever hear the film.

The visual appearance of the Blu-ray is less impressive – but not because of any technical failings by the restoration team. Like the film as a whole, the visuals are all over the place and very patchwork, hit and miss throughout: spectacular one minute, positively tepid the next. It’s entirely down to the way the film is shot (the production design, the film stock, the lighting) and not because of a poor transfer. Indeed, the restoration team are to be commended for not going over the top and changing the film’s original look and feel in order to show off the Blu-ray technologies. Such tampering with a film should be best left to those who can’t help themselves – like George Lucas.

It does mean that the scenes filmed on soundstages look very flat and soft – perhaps even more so than the DVD versions, despite the same source being used for both. It’s so far off that you might even think something is wrong with the disc or your TV, but it patently isn’t because the minute the film goes back on location in Greece, Italy or the Bahamas the whole thing comes alive and sparkles with colour, contrast and detail. It’s just that the sets seem to have been designed predominantly in beige, pastel and khaki colours; they’re lit in an amazingly flat fashion; and shot unimaginatively without any sense of depth. There’s even a hint that the producers had taken a look at the dailies and panicked when they saw that their star was showing his age, and asked the director to soften the closeups whenever possible thereby losing sharpness and detail emphatically present in the location work. You’ll certainly be left in no doubt about what was shot at Pinewood, simply by the way the transfer looks at any given point.

That means that this is by no means the best of the Bond films in high definition – the earliest Bond films have massively improved the most thanks to the new technology, while the most recent films (from Pierce Brosnan’s début onwards) only needed a bit of a polish to make them dazzle anew in the first place. But if For Your Eyes Only represents the low-water mark for the 22-film boxset, then that’s still a standard by which many Blu-ray releases would find themselves left wanting by comparison.

There’s a ton of extras, all of which are also on the 2-disc ultimate edition DVD and include three audio commentaries. Almost all of the extras are in standard definition, by nature of when the source materials date from.

Film rating: a charitable *** out of five
Blu-ray rating: a slightly miserly **** out of five, just because I don’t want to peak too soon!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows [Blu-ray]

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Here’s the story so far: as a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan, I put off watching the first Robert Downey Jr. film for a long time, before finally seeing it a year later and surprising myself by finding it perfectly enjoyable. It didn’t strike me as remotely a Sherlock Holmes film, mind you, but that didn’t stop the film as a whole being great fun and very entertaining.

Now we have the follow-up sequel, with Downey returning as Holmes and Jude Law as his faithful sidekick John Watson. A handful of the first film’s co-stars (Kelly Reilly as Watson’s fiancé Mary, Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade, Geraldine James as Mrs Hudson and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler) return in brief cameos but they’re not around for long, and instead we’re joined by Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and Jared Harris (from Mad Men and Fringe) as Professor Moriarty, along with Noomi Rapace (Sweden’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza and Paul Anderson as Moriarty’s right hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran.

Having established his ambitious idiosyncratic visual storytelling style in the first film, director Guy Ritchie is free to recap them early on (which comes close to making the film start to feel like it might be veering too close to a retread) – before then turning on the afterburners to fire things up to a whole new level. As a result, the film is hugely impressive on the visual side, with a new confidence and swagger that lets it show off but with an underlying intelligence that ensures all the tricks actually have a point and relevance to them.

For example, the “inside Sherlock’s pre-planning process” concept is re-introduced early on; but at the climax, this mental process is then joined by the equivalent thoughts of his opponent as we see how Moriarty anticipates and plans to react to Holmes’ moves. Back and forth the parrying goes, probably the best and most inspired cinematic representation we’ve ever seen of a genuine battle of wills between two well-matched opponents out-thinking each other at lightning speeds. It’s certainly a perfect way of conveying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon text: “‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he; ‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.”

In the film, Sherlock’s innate ability to perceive small details and process them is represented by hyperkinetic editing, showing us the visual clues and then paying us the compliment of assuming we’re smart enough to follow with only the sketchiest of verbal exposition. And then at other times the action is slowed right down into extreme slow-motion, never more effectively or beautifully than in a shoot out in the forest which is just jaw-dropping, like watching a skilfully choreographed ballet of destruction of the highest order. Other directors would want this scene to be all violent, shaky camera moves, fast cuts, loud bangs and unintelligible editing to bombard our senses; but Ritchie goes to the other extreme, keeping the sound to a muted omnipresent rumble while letting us see and take in every bit of detail which not only keeps it coherent but also actually accentuates the spectacle.

This sequel really pushes the boat out in terms of production design as a whole, with some beautiful locations and less overt use of CGI as the action escapes from London and heads across Europe to the inevitable climax above the Reichenbach waterfall – entirely different in detail from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” but agreeably within the overall spirit of that tale. This journey gives the sequel an impressive new epic scope to play with, but at the same time it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to out-do the first film across the board: instead, it reigns much of the previous film’s mise-en-scène back in, creating a far more down-to-earth setting of European politics, civil unrest, anarchist bombings and political assassinations threatening an outbreak of war than we got in the first outing with its trappings of Black Magic, Dark Arts and the Occult.

While those parts of the first film were ultimately proved by Holmes to be the product of rational smoke and mirrors, they added a grand guignol topping to that film which was embodied by the delightfully full-blooded if not outright ripe performance of Mark Strong as antagonist Lord Blackwood who seemingly rose from his grave to commit his crimes. By contrast, Game of Shadows has the far more low-key Jared Harris as Moriarty – an equally effective threat, to be sure, but a very different and far more realistic style.

Equally, there’s less overall fun in this movie, which is distinctly more sombre than the first – which is by no means a bad thing, actually. Noomi Rapace’s character is one-note intense and somewhat superfluous to the plot for a lot of the time, getting no laughs at all: Rachel McAdams is far more fun and playful in her short time on screen, and even Kelly Reilly supplies more sunshine and purpose in the minor role of Mary. That leaves all the humour in the film to come from Downey’s performance as Holmes and his bromance with Law’s Watson. Certainly the homoerotic theme is turned up to full in this sequel, with Downey even appearing in drag at one point (“I agree it’s not my best disguise, but I had to make do”) and inviting Watson to come and lay down with him – albeit in entirely non-sexual circumstances, naturally.

The thing is that draining away the fun from the rest of the film and concentrating it onto Downey’s Holmes and his relationship with Watson does rather highlight that the central performance is increasingly out of step with the rest of the endeavour. While everything else here is a smart, intelligent and realistic film growing ever more faithful to the Conan Doyle canon, you have Downey at the centre of it who is still simply Downey having fun and not being Sherlock Holmes. Even his wavering English accent increasingly comes across as more at odds with everything else in the film.

This is not to criticise Downey’s performance per se, as he’s very good, warm and engaging. Without him you’d have a considerably weaker film and doubtless a far less successful one at the box office. He’s simply not Holmes, which didn’t matter nearly so much in the original film with its over the top trappings, but does here when the film is taking itself more seriously as a whole. For example, in Stephen Fry it’s got perhaps the most perfectly cast, definitive Mycroft Holmes of a generation; it’s impossible to fault Jared Harris as Moriarty; and it’s by far the best and most memorable cinematic outing for Colonel Sebastian Moran that we’ve ever seen. Plus ironically, in just a short cameo here, Rachel McAdams gets to put in a more faithful and accurate portrayal of “The Woman” than she was able to in the whole of the first film.

And in Jude Law, it’s got perhaps one of the best portrayals of Watson we’ve seen on screen, right alongside Martin Freeman’s in the current BBC stories. Here’s a man who is brave and resourceful; who is normal enough to be infuriated by Holmes’s outrageous quirks but who at the same time clearly has a great fondness for him and a believable rapport; a Watson who is able to act independently and come up with his own innovative solutions to problems, and who would in any other film be the swashbuckling action hero without a doubt. That such a standout character is ultimately overshadowed by Holmes does not belittle this Watson, but only serves to further enhance the extraordinary abilities of the great master detective. Which is exactly as it should be.

At the end of the day as the curtains close on the final titles, the pluses of this film far outweigh any minor quibbles I might have: it’s a more impressive and enjoyable film than the first to my mind, which is no small feat at all when it comes to cinematic sequels which are invariably inferior. Not so here; and if the improvements in Game of Shadows simply make some of the remaining things that I liked less from the original stand out more in contrast, then it seems unfair to count those against the overall success of this latest film as a whole.

On the Blu-ray: the picture looks fine and detailed throughout, as you’d expect for a modern big-budget blockbuster. I can’t recall any flaws at all throughout the entire two hours. Extras-wise seem a little thin on the ground, consisting of seven short ‘Focus Point’ featurettes that tend to veer more to the EPG-fluff side of things; but I confess I haven’t yet been able to rewatch the film with the “Maximum Movie Mode” turned on, which incorporates Downey into the running to chat about the making of the film and explain various details with the aid of production stills, etc. There’s also an iPad app to run alongside this mode, an interesting development to extend the film-viewing experience even further.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) [Blu-ray]

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Let’s say this clearly, right upfront: I’m referring here to the original Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling crime novel, and not to the more recent American version directed by David Fincher.

I took a while to watch this even though it’s been around for a couple of years, mainly because the book was still so fresh in my mind. I needed some space between reading the book and seeing the film, otherwise all I would be doing was comparing the film with the book; it wouldn’t be able to surprise me because I’d remember it too clearly, and that’s a good way to end up feeling underwhelmed and even unfairly bored by the film no matter how good it does its job.

I’m glad I made that decision, and I think I left just enough of a gap in the end: it’s the difference between thinking “Oh, yeah, the next scene is going to be X” to already watching the middle of the scene when you suddenly think “Oh, I remember this bit” – the latter being a much more satisfying experience, while still being able to judge how faithful it’s being to the source material.

And the answer to that question is: very. Whole scenes, characters and settings were reproduced with striking fidelity to the images that I’d had in my head reading the book that it was almost unnerving. The Swedish rural winter settings are beautifully filmed, and despite its reserved, minimal style it still looks like a proper motion picture and not a TV movie that got lucky (which is, actually, somewhat closer to the truth!) It does cut out a lot of the minutiae of the book especially regarding the machinations of the “Millennium” magazine that Mikael Blomkvist works for, and inevitably much of the detail about the longtime city guy adjusting to life on a remote island is not reproducible (although watch for how Blomkvist arrives ill-equipped in a thin leather jacket and two scenes later has acquired the biggest cold-weather quilted coat he could find – a nice way of evoking some of that untold story from the book.)

You can certainly see how a top Hollywood director with a big budget like Fincher could make his own mark on it all and produce something really dazzling, but the question is: does it really need such a treatment? Instead, the atmosphere is not dissimilar to the original The Silence of the Lambs movie which was also low-key, the almost drab and ordinary surface hiding and effectively counterpointing the grisly horror underneath. And make no mistake, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a film with a genuine nasty horror at its heart, as it probes Sweden’s dark Nazi past. The character of the parole officer is one of the most disturbing monsters seen in recent films, as is the killer when finally revealed, and these two chillingly personify the book and film’s original Swedish title (Män som hatar kvinnor – “Men Who Hate Women”.)

This original raison d’être for the story has been overshadowed by the rise in popularity of the character of Lisbeth Salander (the girl with the proverbial) in much the same way as Thomas Harris’ books became engulfed by the character of Hannibal Lector. Lisbeth is a truly original and captivating personality, and in this version she is brilliantly brought to life by Noomi Rapace who transformed herself physically as well as mentally to capture the essence of the role. I’m sure Rooney Mara does a great job in the new US version too, but Noomi entirely nails it for me.

Michael Nyqvist is also very strong in the lead role of Blomkvist who has to carry the audience through a detailed and lengthy investigation that involves mainly trawling through old records, receipts and photographs. It was tough enough to follow in the book (where you can flip back to remind yourself of key facts) and the film does well to make this complexity just about possible to follow thanks to the visual reminders of photographs on the family tree pinned to the wall. In the end, this story becomes more about the process of journalism akin to All The President’s Men, State of Play and Zodiac than it is a pure murder mystery, which makes it right up my street.

There are those who find the story (in both novel and movie form) somewhat of a disappointment, but this seems down to a particular way of doing things common to much of the Scandinavian drama we’ve seen of late such as Wallander and Forbrydelsen. The crime/mystery is a starting point, to be sure: but the Swedes and the Danes seem less obsessed with the final answer and with interminable last-second twists and shocks, as they are in the process of discovery and the journey taken rather than the final destination. Often, the drama or novel expects the audience to be right alongside it, so that the end shouldn’t be a surprise but rather a confirmation of what has come into focus over the preceding two hours; that’s a very subtle but nonetheless difficult difference in cultural approaches to the whodunnit. Personally I find it refreshing: a drama that trusts me to think for myself and not need high doses of artificial stimulants to shock and awe me.

For the reasons outlined at the top of this review, it’s now going to have to be a good couple of years before I’m able to give the Fincher adaptation a fair crack of the whip. (And notice, I’m in the camp that calls his version ‘another adaptation’ and not a merely a trite remake of this Swedish film.) I’m sure it’s very good – I loved his early films such as Se7en, Fight Club and the aforementioned Zodiac – although I’m not so sure that another version was really necessary when this one does such a good job of bringing the novel faithfully and respectfully to the screen without compromising any of its qualities as a motion picture at the same time.

But if you really are looking for a review of the David Fincher version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – feel free to bookmark the site and check back in a couple of years or so!

Super 8 (2011) [Blu-ray]

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Okay, that’s quite enough Christmas fare for one year I reckon. Although perhaps we haven’t moved too far away from the general feel of the time of year by going on to review Super 8, a film about families and childhood and overcoming painful loss. Oh, and a massive great alien monster, too.

Super 8 is a film that evokes instant nostalgia: it revives the spirit of the greatest films of my own personal childhood, and specifically those early films of Super 8′s producer Steven Spielberg. It’s hard not to have ET: The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies in mind as one watches this film, as well as the finest of Stephen King’s novels set in small-town Maine (It comes particularly to mind, especially toward the end with scenes of the monster in its den) and even the films of Rob Reiner such as Stand By Me in terms of the story of boys growing into young men.

Specifically it’s the way the film recreates and evokes what it’s like to live a normal suburban childhood in “The Most Normal Town In The World Where Nothing Happens” (TM). Most of the film is told through the eyes of a group of kids who are working together on making a no-budget horror movie of their own. The Super 8 of the title refers to the old film-based cameras they’re using, and it takes a little while to realise that Super 8 is not set in some unspecified “anytime” but is instead firmly anchored around 1979, as a mid-story reference to newfangled portable music players called “Walkmans” makes clear along with the evocative soundtrack comprising of hits of the period. In other words, the homage that Super 8 is paying to its Spielbergian antecedents is complete right down to its period setting.

At this point it becomes very hard for me to give an objective review of this film: it’s reviving so many of the sights and sounds (both cinematic and real life) from my own childhood, and the kids here are so close the age I myself was in 1979, that it’s a powerfully accomplished nostalgic syrup from which it’s impossible for me to extract myself and find an objective stance. As far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much how every film should be: a film more focussed on creating a believable atmosphere and authentic setting, of bringing its characters to life and making the real life anxieties and concerns of those characters the real focus of what happens rather than just been an exercise to demonstrate the latest CGI breakthroughs – as we get these days in the latest instalment of the Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.

The film takes its time establishing its small town location and the inhabitants thereof. And it also takes a long time to allow the science fiction alien/monster element to build as well, a top-notch demonstration of effective tension building worthy of the masters (i.e. Spielberg again, and also Alfred Hitchcock.) As far as I’m concerned this is time well spent, but I can understand that modern audiences are used to far faster story development and more instant gratification, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many now found this to be a rather slow-paced and possibly even dull film for its first half – perhaps that’s why it didn’t seem to make nearly enough of an impression at the box office when it was on general release earlier in the year. But let me make it quite clear: any modern audience that thinks this way is profoundly wrong, and they should immediately sue Michael Bay, Gore Verbinski, Stephen Sommers et al for the grievous harm inflicted on their artistic sensibilities and for the damaged childhoods that have left them tragically impervious to quality cinematic wonder.

Later on mayhem does break out to sate the modern viewing taste, and it all starts to become a little Cloverfield-ish. But by then it’s earned this freedom because of the amount we have invested in the totally truthful characters who have been wonderfully brought to life by an outstanding young cast who really do feel like a group that have been friends since infants school. Joel Courtney as the lead character Joe Lamb doesn’t make a single misstep in the entire film and is captivating in every frame, despite playing a really quite complex character who is required to develop believably from the introverted grief-stricken boy we meet at the start, to the bravest leader of the gang who has discovered not just his first love but also the courage to let go of his earlier grief in order to start to live again. Elle Fanning (younger sister of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds star Dakota – another film somewhat referenced at times by Super 8) is also terrific as Alice, and her early display of in-film acting talent it both believably raw (so as to be clearly acting) and yet sufficiently glowing to make it easy for us to understand why the rest of the gang of boys instantly fall in love with her on the spot.

Adult stars are thinner on the ground, but Kyle Chandler does a huge amount conveying depth and detailed to a not particularly large role as Joe’s father; Ron Eldard is peculiarly heart-breaking as Alice’s guilt-ridden failure of a single father; and Noah Emmerich gives sufficient nuance to the role of Nelec to avoid him becoming too much of a pantomime villain.

Beware the audio track volume levels, however. The earliest scenes are set just after a funeral and everyone is speaking in hushed tones; the soundtrack continues in that vein for a while and you’ll be tempted to crank up the sounds, but whatever you do make sure you have the remote to hand when it comes to the train station or you (and your long suffering neighbours) will be rocked by the explosion of sound that follows. It’s a really lively, state of the art sound mix which conveys suspense and atmosphere as much through the use of implied audio effects as anything actually on screen, and the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is stunningly good at bringing this out.

The film looks wonderful throughout. Abrams manages to bring out the beauty even of a nondescript backwater hick town in the middle of nowhere, lost in heartland USA. Rundown houses, struggling factories, peeling paint on wooden doors and sagging chainlink fences all acquire an appealing polished veneer under Abram’s eye, with a lovely mix of shadows and colours playing over every scene, nicely captured by the immaculate high-def transfer on Blu-ray. The effects are seamlessly integrated – not a single image feels false or overtly CGI’d, although the monster when finally revealed is rather disappointingly generic – and the main train sequence is stunningly conceived and executed to take your breath away, coming as it does more or less out of the blue compared with what’s gone before.

One thing, though: Abrams really needs to do something about that lens flare gimmick. Originally it was stylish, audacious and new; then it came a little too easy to mock by being self-referential and clichéd. Now it’s just irritating, self-parody and distracting. Abrams is far too good to need such little tricks, and now his film-making has grown up to such an extent as evidenced here, he can surely put away his lens flare filter for good.

(Also check out the cinema review of the film over at Generation Star Wars.)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon [Blu-ray]

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I really don’t know why I end up watching the Transformers movies. It’s not like I’m a fan of them or hold them in particularly high regard. In many ways their key fascination is their horrible ineptness. But at the same time, it’s hard to agree with those critics who see them as among the worst films of all time and the spawn of Satan.

The odd thing about these films is that they have an almost pathological split between the micro (individual scenes) and the macro (the film as a whole). On the former level, the film can be at times genuinely staggeringly good: each scene can look quite gorgeous, the explosions and destruction beautifully composed and with astounding special effects. Of course, rendering sheets of plate metal is always playing to CGI’s strengths, but even so the end result is genuinely spectacular, and the way that the computerised characters are incorporated into the world around them is immaculate – the best I’ve seen – and as a result there’s a genuine physicality to the action sequences that you simply don’t usually see anymore in this day and age of CGI. The film particularly dazzles on Blu-ray hi-def (I’d go so far that only the Pixar films are better suited to this medium) and the sound as well is also staggeringly well done.

But if each individual scene is a mini-work of art, how to explain the film as a whole? It’s as if these aforementioned scenes have been shredded into confetti and then glued back together by a blind man with an attitude problem. Scenes are slammed into the film with no regard for context, continuity, logic or coherence. Plots start, stop, get dropped, appear from no where; characters pop up, disappear, and then re-appear at totally inexplicable times and locations to serve up more dialogue, their motivations and general attitude turning on a dime with each appearance (one soldier is happy to be out of it, gung-ho to sign up for revenge, and then advocating retreat and surrender in successive scenes!) And the overall tone is all over the place, with some actors like Shia LaBoeuf, Patrick Dempsey and Josh Duhamel playing straight (and dull) serious roles while others like John Turturro, John Malkovich, Ken Joeng and Alan Tudyk going well over the top into high farce and parody, leaving the estimable Frances McDormand to make a spirited go of it trying to straddle both ends of the spectrum with her role as NSA Director Mearing.

Given the OCD attention to detail at scene-level, how to describe this sheer chaos and lack of interest at film-level? The seeming wanton disregard for the centuries-long traditions of proper, coherent storytelling? Despised though he generally is these days, Michael Bay is simply not as bad a director as the mess that he’s made here of the film’s overall structure suggests. That it makes no sense when you try and join scenes up just doesn’t seem to interest him here, and one has to assume that it’s deliberate in some way. I’m even wondering whether he has pretensions of making a whole new style of filmmaking, much as the way modernist painters shocked the staid art world with their violent overturning of accepted conventions in their day in the late 19th Century. Is Bay trying to say “it’s the impression of movement, the individual beauty of a scene versus the irrelevance of how these scenes join up that’s the future?” I’m tempted to call it ‘kinetic abstractionism,’ a movement in which the parts are everything and the whole is just some sort of surreal, impressionistic background haze not to be taken remotely seriously or even noticed. Who knows, perhaps Bay will in the future be hailed as the originator of a bold new style of filmmaking that released movies from the shackles of the old ways of doing things? It’s possible – but I hope that I’m long dead before that comes to pass, frankly.

Of course, my chief problem with the films in the Transformers series was that I was never a fan of the original cartoon and toy series. I was a little too old by the time they came on the scene, so I have no warm, fuzzy childhood memories to sweep me into this franchise. Instead, I still struggle to recognise which character is which (okay, I have Optimus Prime and Bumblebee down okay at this point, providing they stand still long enough to make out among the carnage) and find the whole overarching plot (whether it be the first film’s ‘All-Spark’, the second’s Matrix or this film’s Pillars) to be a pile of old tosh that even the script writers evidently have no belief and respect for and just want out of the way as soon as possible to let the mayhem resume. It means that even at its most explosive spectacular climax, the film perfectly fits into that envelope of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I admit it, I was bored long before the end despite the on-screen action.

There are at least some fun in-jokes: in one scene, Star Trek is playing on a TV screen in the background, and then new Transformer Sentinel Prime shows up and is voiced by the inimitable Leonard Nimoy, who later even gets to use the line “The needs of the many outweigh …” in very different circumstances to those in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The ever-reliable Glenn Morshower shows up in a minor role and this time gets recognition with the part being named “General Morshower”. And a couple of new Transformers show up with NASCAR stock car liveries (those of Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya for anyone who might be interested) which at least meant I could work out when they were on screen, even if they hadn’t also come equipped with characters worth paying attention to.

As a whole, it seemed to me to be little different – neither better nor worse – than the critically well-liked first film or the universally derided sequel that’s since been disowned even by its own star and director. It’s simply more of the same. I’d be quite happy if this were the last we saw of it, but judging from the box office return I very much doubt it.

Now on release to buy and to rent; the disc has no extras at all, so all things considered it’s better to rent this one even if you’re a huge fan of the franchise!

Rio (Blu-ray)

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Rio is another film on the seemingly never-ending production line of family friendly CGI-animated films that seem to arrive at cinemas every few weeks.

In terms of plot, there is absolutely nothing new here whatsoever. It sticks so rigidly to tried-and-tested formula that it’s almost fun to play “spot the homage” and work out in which previous film or films the same plot device, storyline or scenario has previously appeared. The opening, for example, is pretty much Finding Nemo – although without the wheedling, annoying father having angst over his son being kidnapped as a pet macaw for humans. (Linda – his eventual human ‘owner’ – becomes the substitute for the questing father later on in the film.) Strangely the subject of Blu’s parents is never raised – they never appear (although the mother’s voice is heard off-screen) and so they never die, although when it emerges that Blu is the ‘last male of his species’ it’s pretty much clear that they’re long-goners just without the tears to upset the kiddies.

Blu eventually returns to the land of his birth – the rain forest around Rio de Janeiro – and quickly picks up the usual motley entourage just like … well, just like every CGI family film there’s ever been. There’s good guys, there’s bad guys, there’s even a bulldog doing a reasonable approximation of Bruce the shark from Finding Nemo, and the whole thing progresses to the inevitably satisfying happy ending.

But the thing is that it really doesn’t matter: the film’s strengths are really to do with the stunning visuals, with the rainforests and the vibrant city of Rio the film’s real stars and breathtakingly well done in high-res. There’s eye-popping vibrant colours throughout, and some wonderful Brazilian music and songs that give the film such a delightfully different flavour from the usual films of this kind that it genuinely wins you over despite how it’s in cruise control mode in other areas.

The film doesn’t overdo the celebrity voices, with Anne Hathaway on good form as the macaw’s love interest Jewel and Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement doing a scene-stealingly wicked villain of the piece as the inevitably-British bird ‘heavy’, Nigel. But for my money the film hinges upon Jesse Eisenberg pulling off the Woody Allen-esque neurotic, flightless Blu at the heart of the story that makes or breaks the film: and fortunately he’s well up to the task and he and his character manage to take you along for the ride no matter how churlish you might be feeling be going in.

There’s no post-modern ironic edge, no real attempt to add ‘something for the adults’ to the film’s mix like Pixar of old would have done. It’s just a straightforward kid’s film that adults will enjoy (or not) at the same basic level: as part of an undemanding but fun evening of family entertainment. If you need something with intellectual heft then give this one a miss; but if you just want to sit back and enjoy with your brain in neutral and drink in the music and gorgeous visuals, then it would be hard to find better this week.

If nothing else, it’s a delightful antidote to the chilly autumnal weather outside, and the overload of Hallowe’en fare on the television!

Spartacus (1960) [Blu-ray]

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Spartacus is the type of film they don’t make any more: when Gladiator came along and was hailed as a return to the days of Hollywood’s best swords-and-sandals epics, it was this film – along with Ben-Hur and Cleopatra – that people were referring to. But these days, it’s the kind of film that most people know by name but few have ever watched. They either will no longer touch it with the proverbial barge pole because it’s too old and cheesy, or else have a vague idea that they’ve already seen it during one of its endless Sunday afternoon reruns – but actually they haven’t, not really.

That’s a shame, because it’s a solid three hours of entertainment, still very impressive and completely watchable even 51 years after it was made. But it also doesn’t fit into the assumptions and expectations we’ve created in our minds for it. Yes, the “I am Spartacus” crowd scene is here as spoofed many times since, and so is the notorious bath house scene involving Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis alluding to homosexuality that was cut by the studio censors and only reinserted in a 1991 restoration. But the rest of it is almost certainly not as one misremembered.

For example, despite its length, the film really does paint in the broadest of strokes. There’s a couple of scenes set in the slave mines before a rapid switch to the gladiator training camp, but one Rocky-style training montage and a single fight to the death later and that’s all over, and Spartacus goes from a sullen slave to suddenly commanding an army roaring its way across lower Italy with little bridging or explanation.

The Roman politics are intriguing and involve some of the best performances – notably Oliver as the villain of the peace, responsible for pretty much everything that follows, and Charles Laughton as his chief rival. Strangely the sets they get to play on are the least impressive of the film – the Senate chamber would be scoffed at by the average local council these days, and the city itself is represented by a just couple of obvious matte paintings. There is nothing like the sheer spectacle that we get hanging out with Spartacus in the countryside with stunning outside locations and a cast of literally thousands, genuinely tramping up mountains and down hillsides with a jaw-dropping reality that still can’t be matched by today’s state of the art CGI effects for sheer physical presence.

There’s a couple of fine directorial touches from Stanley Kubrick in the film that catch the eye: the first is the way an earlier fight to the death is glimpsed only from Spartacus’ eye-view in a holding pen outside as he awaits his own combat, seeing the fight and the killing through the inadequate gaps in the wooden fencing. The second is an audacious scene showing the huge Roman army arrive on the battlefield and slowly march into positions and break into formations, all shown in real time over a five minute sequence from extreme long distance from the point-of-view of the rebel army, who are standing straggled along a hilltop waiting for battle to begin. These days the whole thing would be boiled down to a 30s fast-cut scene with multiple edits, but this is vastly more effective. As a representation of how it must have felt to be there, and in conveying the real mechanics of the Roman army at work, I’ve never seen better.

Such scenes absolutely demand high levels of detail to work, and the Blu-ray is very impressive. I’ve seen a 50th anniversary DVD of the film before and it doesn’t have anything like this detail, had visible print damage and was also swamped with very visible and distracting grain: this hi-res version has none of that. Some will complain that Universal have been over-zealous with the Digital Noise Reduction in tacking the grain, and that may be so, but I thought it was quite extraordinarily improved overall. There’s great contrast and some lovely vivid colour, although in the late stages of the film there’s some oddly ‘hollow’ blacks in the deep shadows that slightly lets the side down.

Overall I would thoroughly recommend the Blu-ray – as I would the film, for a glimpse of how big movies used to be like.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967) (Blu-ray)

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It’s not particularly well known that Hammer Films had their first horror genre success with The Quatermass Xperiment in the mid-1950s, an adaptation of a hugely successful BBC TV science fiction series. Toward the end of Hammer’s successful times after years of vampires, werewolves, mummies and monsters, the studio returned to a belated adaptation of the third (and last, at the time) TV serial, Quatermass and the Pit.

Like its predecessors, this Quatermass serial is intelligent, adult science fiction with serious themes: here, a theory of how religious evil and superstition can have its roots in science (or more accurately, science fiction – ancient telepathic little green men from Mars.) The gradual revealing of this is compelling, and the implications (that humans today may be the result of Martian genetic experimentation) profoundly shocking for the day.

Nowadays, such theories are tame and routine and have been done to death. Indeed, serial author Nigel Kneale was already stealing from some well-known SF theories when he wrote Pit, and certainly his own serials have since been plundered themselves to the point of cliché. It’s a shame that Quatermass doesn’t get more credit for popularising some of these theories, and it doesn’t help that modern audiences will look at this and say “Hang on, this is basically just a big Doctor Who episode.” Well, it is – but only because that show stole pretty much the entire format and approach of Quatermass when it regenerated the format into The UNIT Years with Jon Pertwee essentially playing Professor Quatermass at least as much as he was a renegade Time Lord.

It’s a shame that Quatermass himself is not a better character, but he was always more of a cipher and a plot device for the events that unfold round him than he was a fully-rounded creation. It didn’t help that the part was played by someone different in almost every TV serial and film version so that there was no ‘proper’ Quatermass, just a bunch of different actors playing wildly different roles from Andre Morell to John Mills. The most damaging and inappropriate of these was Brian Donlevy, the American (albeit Northern Ireland-born) ‘tough guy’ who essayed the role in the first two Hammer films. At least in Pit the part is played by Andrew Keir, perhaps the best of all the actors to play the role.

It’s a really great premise, with the scenes set in the eponymous Pit – actually a closed London Underground station in Kensington undergoing extension – particularly effective. Okay, it’s all clearly done on studio sets (even the London streets are evidently the slightly unreal studio backlot version of the city rather than the real thing) but it all looks good enough to suspend disbelief even now in high-def – save for one ill-conceived ‘dream sequence’ which just looks like toy soldiers poorly concealed by false-looking static interference.

Given the age of the material and the fact that it was never a big budget affair,it’s amazing that the Blu-ray looks as good as it does. A large amount of fine grain has been left in place, but it never distracts or obscures the details and instead just reinforces the film nature of the original in a satisfying way. The colours are good and strong and there’s nice contrast throughout, and the sound is also perfect (whereas the original DVD version had a nasty irritating buzzing sound through one portion of the film as I recall.)

It’s a classic of its time, and still thoroughly enjoyable on its own terms today, despite its age.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Blu-ray)

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Well, here goes. I think I’m about to blow any artistic credibility I might have ever thought I had with the following admission.

My guilty little secret is: I happen to really quite like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the much-maligned first (in numbering if not chronologically) chapter of the Star Wars trilogy.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s by no means the best of the six-film cycle (that of course would be The Empire Strikes Back, as everyone knows!) In fact if you push me I would even agree that it does indeed come at the bottom of the rankings for the six films, but that says more about the strengths of the others than about this one being a steaming pile of execrable outtakes. It certainly doesn’t change my view that it’s a perfectly fine, enjoyable film, a solid three stars out of five at least. It’s one that I can cheerfully watch again and again without flying into a furious rage or an apathetic torpor, which seem to summarise the bi-polar reactions of most Star Wars fans to this film.

So why does it inspire such loathing? It looks great. It has some terrific sequences (the opening arrival of Qui-Gon and Obi-Won on the Trade Federation’s space station; the podrace; the assault on the palace, the space battle and the awesome duel with Darth Maul toward the end.) Sure, it can get a bit talky in between times and there’s a little too much slapstick humour, but overall it nicely conjures up the feel of one of the 1930s Flash Gordon serials which took you on a journey through different cities and species on an alien world. I’m not even among those who loathe Jar Jar Binks – he’s not nearly so bad as the sodding Ewoks in Return of the Jedi as far as I’m concerned, and he does provide some sorely-needed humorous relief in the later part of the film. No, the only really troublesome figure here is the slave-owning scrapyard Fagin who is so nastily stereotypically anti-Semitic that it really does make me squirm.

The film does make things harder for itself by trying to be too clever at times – the switching of the queen and her decoy (how? where? when? why?!?) is very unclear, for example. And I have always wondered how many people missed the fact that the trustworthy Senator and the evil Sith Lord/future Emperor were all one and the same? The film hardly tries to hide it, but then again it doesn’t make it plain for those who need it spelled out, either, and if you miss it then you have lost a huge chunk of the ‘phantom’ part of this phoney war. Anyone who dismisses Phantom Menace as being a boring film about taxation of trade routes (and that’s certainly a horrible phrase with which to start an opening intro crawl, Mr Lucas) has evidently completely missed that what really goes on here is a rather clever plot by which said Senator gets everything he wants and wins completely, while everyone else is obliviously celebrating victory in a meaningless distraction affair.

Only Yoda seems to have an intuition on what’s going on. And Yoda is one of the few changes to this film for the Blu-ray release, where the previously-used puppet is replaced by a digitised version. Purists might hate that, but judging from the pictures I’ve seen of the original prequel puppet this is a welcome alteration: something went very wrong in the puppet moulding facility on the day that unlamented and rather freakishly scary mutant Yoda was spawned. Otherwise I wasn’t aware of too much tinkering, but then I’m not really that much of a purist when it comes to these sort of things.

As for a review of the Blu-ray release, let’s start with the easiest part, the sound: it’s terrific. Seriously, Star Wars was always pioneering in its use of sound (and Lucas went on to set up the THX cinema sound system after all) and you wouldn’t expect anything less than perfection coming from your loudspeakers. No worries: you get it.

Picture quality is slightly more tricky. For the vast majority of the time, I was wowed by it – truly. Pretty much all of the CGI and exterior scenes were just dazzling in their sharpness, clarity and detail, a couple of shots so vibrant and packed with information that it’s almost impossible to look at them without slicing your eyeballs open with it all (that’s meant as a good thing, by the way!) It has just the right amount of contrast and the black areas never overwhelm the frame during darker moments. Some critics have said that it looks too artificial, too “video game”, but I recall that it had that feeling at the cinema on release – because this was one of the first films to be mainly shot on a green stage with the sets created in digital post-production, so that’s probably just a matter of the technology of the day not being quite up to the highest levels of modern HD rendering today. Although for the record, I still thought it looked great.

However there were some scenes that oddly didn’t quite come up to that standard. Mostly they seemed to be location close-up shooting work; Qui-Gon seemed to particularly suffer from looking soft and lacking detail in several shots that I noticed, which was odd. Some reviews have suggested that it’s because of excessive digital noise reduction techniques, and it may well be – I don’t have the technical savvy to comment on that. Personally I was starting to think there might be something something about the actor’s make-up that didn’t work in high resolution and had to be slightly concealed (his hairpiece looks distinctly ropey even as it is.) But really, how picky is this getting now?

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my first dip into the Star Wars Blu-ray experience. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I hadn’t intended to start with Phantom Menace – I’d meant to take out the original film, chapter IV: A New Hope, and instead absent-mindedly took out the first disc from the set without thinking. But I’m glad I did, it’s a good way to start the viewing.

And I still don’t get why everyone’s quite so vehemently against Phantom Menace.

Sin City (2005) – Blu-ray

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I remember watching Sin City on DVD for the first time in 2007, and being really quite overwhelmed by it. Not always in the best way, it has to be said: not having been familiar with Frank Miller’s graphic novel/comic series that Robert Rodriquez and Miller himself have adapted, I was at times completely confused by it all and just had to go with the flow.

For this Blu-ray outing I decided to try the option of watching the four intertwining stories separated out into their constituent parts; whether it was this choice or perhaps the fact that it was a second viewing and I was therefore more familiar with the world and the characters, and what the film was seeking to do, the experience was a lot less confusing and far more satisfying than before.

Separating the four stories out enables the viewer to see how each part has its own very definite personality. There is the revenge thriller of Mickey Rourke’s strand where he is a monstrous, unstoppable Terminator-style figure who only stops when he’s dead (and there’s a visual throwback to the T-800 at that moment which suggests the Terminator feel was no coincidence.) Rourke’s character of Marv is perfectly matched against the enigmatic serial killer Kevin (Elijah Wood) who is as silent and fleet-footed as Marv is crashing and thudding.

The Clive Owen strand is wildly different, and provides almost all of the humour of Sin City. Everyone’s playing for laughs and most of the scenarios are of the richest, blackest comedy, and viewed on its own it works quite wonderfully as a difference take on the Sin City universe – whereas for my money, the wildly different tone just makes the sequences jarring when mixed into the single theatrical cut, which makes the scenes feel jarring and odd compared to the seriousness of the rest of the movie.

The real heart of the film is provided by the Bruce Willis segment, which is a real classic film noir tale and doomed love story beautifully played by Willis with Jessica Alba and a grotesque Nick Stahl in bright yellow makeup. The only strand that doesn’t work as a stand-alone segment is Josh Hartnett’s hit man tale – but it’s only about 5 minutes long so that’s no surprise. Moreover, the first half of it is so very clearly a scene-setting teaser/title sequence for the film while the second half is a coda to the Clive Owen segment that it makes no sense to see it out of order.

Otherwise, the separation of the strands works brilliantly and even the little cameos of characters from one strand in another are clearer and work better for the clarity. It even makes more sense of some of the odd unresolved plot strands, such as the lack of a final come-uppence for the real Mr Big behind it all – he just peters out and gets lost in the theatrical cut.

If ever there was a film to see in hi-res, this is surely one of them. Shot completely on a green stage and with the world computer generated around them (a ground-breaking technique at the time which has now caught on with the likes of 300) its a pin-sharp stylised image almost wholly in black and while with occasional splashes of yellow or blood red carefully introduced at key moments). The generous extras show just how far the film has gone to faithfully recreate the graphic originals.

It’s never going to be a film for everyone, obviously. Like me, you may prefer to try out the stand-alone strands to help get to grips with it at first. But overall, this is an impressive, gripping and enjoyable film that I can see myself revisiting and re-watching many times down the line – in both separate and intertwined formats.

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.

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.