Saturday, April 30, 2011

What I saw this year at the Sci-Fi London Film Festival

Remember, people, support the festival. In these days of arts funding cuts, great things like this are vulnerable.

Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death: Not actually a film, but a stand-up comedy show about mortality statistics. Which is audacious enough, but the show itself was both informative (most deaths in airplane crashes are actually from smoke inhalation, who knew?) and a laugh riot. They're on tour right now, check and see if they're visiting your area.

Robotica: A short film compilation by the One Dot Zero art collective, on the theme of robots, ranging from the silly to the surreal. My favourite was a steampunk Russian fantasy piece-- sort of like I Robot crossed with Grant Morrison-- but there were also some great music video pieces and animation tests featuring giant mecha.

Gantz: One of the two standout features this year. A Japanese superhero film, which uses the idea (a mysterious entity seemingly kidnaps people at the point of death and uses them as an army to combat a series of aliens) as a jumping-off point to ask what it is to be heroic, and how we can all be heroes. Features an attack on Tokyo by a giant statue of the Buddha of Compassion, and gets away with it.

We Are All Cylons: Clever documentary on Battlestar Galactica fandom, and how they use the series not just as a form of escapism, but to inform the moral codes of their everyday lives in a world where the boundary between human and technology is increasingly vague.

Sharktopus: So-bad-it's-good Roger Corman badflick in which a Mexican resort town is terrorized by a CGI monster shark/octopus hybrid. Visibly paid for by the local chamber of commerce (as the film not-so-subtly highlighs the vacation fun opportunities in the area while cheerily dispatching as many tourists, preferably attractive ones aged 18-35, as possible), and starring Eric Roberts, who quite visibly gets drunk during the filming.

Dinoshark: Variation on the above theme, also by Corman and involving a revived pliosaur terrorizing the same Mexican resort town. More of an effort went into making this a serious film than "Sharktopus", which is mostly to its credit (there's a subplot involving the corrupt local police chief which is absolutely sparkling and could have come out of a much better Third World crime thriller), but occasionally to its detriment (the attempts to give "characterisation" to the main players are just boring and pathetic). Some lovely CGI of the dinoshark (sic) coursing along under the surface of the water, and a hilarious sequence involving stunt surfers.

You Are Here: The other standout feature, a surrealist Canadian piece (shot, and set, in Toronto, hooray) which, I suspect, is about the human brain and the question of what consciousness is. Cleaning up at film festivals worldwide-- go see it, it defies description.

Short Films: Standout pieces this year were "The Interview" (pointed topical satire in which the last man on Earth goes for a job interview), "Virus" (cute animated short about computer viruses in love), "VortX Inc" (clever low-budget take on literal technological wizardry), "Death of the Real" (just a lot of evocative shots of a deserted New York), "Once Upon a Time on Earth" (a couple split up, then the Earth is invaded... will they get back together in time?), and "Goodbye Robot Army" (a charmingly ironic take on the mad-scientist genre).

Other Stuff: The freebies are back in spades this year-- I scored five magazines (including SFX's True Blood special, hooray!) seven books, one DVD (albeit of an anime series that looks dreadful) and a couple of inflatable swords promoting a new fantasy RPG from EA. Plus we got to play with the new 3D portable game player from Nintendo.

Movie Count for 2011: 64

Red sails

Sunset Boulevard: Satire on the entertainment industry which is, if anything, truer today than in the 1950s. Norma Desmond serves as a metaphor for the whole of the commercial film industry, a fame-addicted creature making a devil's bargain with creative talents-- feed my ego with facile celebrity-focused tat and I'll reward you, try to be your own person and you'll wind up dead in the swimming pool-- who collude in their own subjugation even as they resent it.

Movie count for 2011: 60

God bothering

The Day the Earth Stood Still: Fifties take on Christianity for the Cold War, as Jesus comes to Earth in the form of the alien Klaatu to try and save humanity from itself. In keeping with the dominant memes of the era, the proposed solution to human aggression is essentially authoritarian (a kind of robot police force which act to forestall any act of externally-directed violence). Not sure how well that would really work in practice. Also visually beautiful, with that kind of clean, spare austerity one associates with the early 1950s.

Dogma: Nineties take on Christianity for the postmodern era, as a group of Generation Xers take a road-trip to try to stop a pair of disillusioned angels from destroying all of creation. The message throughout being that legalism, doctrine and even belief are to be rejected, that grand narratives are generally false, and that what ultimately matters is being good to others, forgiving people and having ideas. Oh, and that Alanis Morrissette is God. Apparently more people were offended by this than by Jay and Silent Bob's continued existence.

Movie count for 2011: 59

The Repeated Meme: Day of the Moon

Idea Proposed and Used to Death in the Virgin Books Era: ...the above theme continues, with a trip to actual Area 51.

Central Premise Recycled From: "The Invasion of Time." No really, think about it. Also the Men in Black (who can, of course, wipe people's minds... and who inhabit a universe where aliens have walked among us for centuries).

Reference to Moffat's Back Catalogue: Leaving aside the kids, the spacesuit, the catchphrase, wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey etc., we have magical Doctor-induced TV images saving the day, Amy-loves-the-Doctor-really action, "silence will fall" and about a million references to last year's season (celebrity world leaders, phantom pregnancies, Rory's past as a Nestene....).

Amy Saves the day with Wuv: Well, she makes Rory feel better with Wuv, but considering that her getting pregnant with Schroedinger's Child is going to be the catalyst for the action all season, I'd say she's got a lot to make up for.

Joss Whedon Called...: ...he wants his Ben and Glory bit back (remember how, in Season 5, anytime anyone found out that Ben and Glory were the same person, they immediately forgot it? Course you don't. Think about it.)

And from Lawrence Miles: Someone falling off a building and landing in the TARDIS pool.

Murray Goldwatch: In the very first scene, he manages to give us yet another musical theme consisting of a single percussive phrase repeated over and over with no variations. This wouldn't matter if we didn't know he could do better.

Nostalgia UK: And the Mad Men meme continues as River and Rory cosplay as Joan and Pete.

Inside Jokes: Dwarf star alloy, plus the Doctor tells Nixon to tape record everything, plus yet another trip to Manhattan (complete with confrontation in a partly-finished block of flats, Empire State Building prominently visible in the background). River cements her position as the female Captain Jack by making the exact same joke Jack does in "The Empty Child" about the lack of utility of a sonic screwdriver outside of the putting up of shelves.

Teeth! Still the anti-teeth!

Fish! Missing! this episode.

Hats! No, though River has a new hairdo! every five minutes.

Small Child! Who might well be looking for its Mummy.

Item Most Likely to Wind Up as a Toy: See last post.

The Repeated Meme: The Impossible Astronaut

Idea Proposed and Used to Death in the Virgin Books Era: American space programme, aliens, Area 51, FBI, conspiracies, blah blah blah. It was the 1990s, you see, and that was fashionable.

Central Premise Recycled From: Pretty much any conspiracy-theory series of the 1990s, via "Dreamland" (the animated David Tennant spinoff story from a couple of years back).

Reference to Moffat's Back Catalogue: We've had creepy spacesuits and cute children, now have a cute child in a creepy spacesuit! And creepy tape recordings! Also wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff with the Doctor's timeline and him and River Song meeting in reverse order.

Amy Saves the day with Wuv: Well, she can't save the day yet as it's only Part One, but her Wuv for the Doctor does get her running out to Monument Valley on a moment's notice.

Joss Whedon Called...: He wants The Gentlemen back. Oh, and Mark Sheppard.

And from Lawrence Miles: The Doctor's body is so dangerous, even dead, that it must be destroyed.

Murray Goldwatch: The irritating da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da theme starts in Scene 2, before the credits even, and never gets better.

Nostalgia UK: Mad Men-inspired Sixties-iana, the Moon Landings, Laurel and Hardy.

Inside Joke List: Space: 1969. "Since when do you drink wine?" Amy asks the Doctor (the Pertwee era, actually).

Teeth! Anti-teeth, on the Silence, who have no mouths and therefore cannot tooth.

Fish! Mentioned, as fingers with custard.

Hats! Stetsons are cool this week.

Small Child! In a spacesuit, no less.

Item Most Likely to Wind Up as a Toy: The Silence of course. Although it looks like the chances of us finally seeing a limited-edition Amy Pond Up the Duff are increasing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

French Fried

French Connection II: In my review of The French Connection, I mentioned its poorer imitators; well, this is one. Perhaps the problem with it is summed up in the sequence where Popeye Doyle is kidnapped and deliberately addicted to heroin by the baddies and subsequently goes cold turkey; it's both saying "drugs are bad, so all that seemingly useless effort that Popeye went to in the first film was justified, really it was," and at the same time "but people who are addicted to drugs are just weak people who can't kick the habit like Popeye can." Otherwise not much, just Gene Hackman wandering around an unattractive Southern French city in a silly hat getting into trouble and doing obvious riffs on better scenes from the first movie.

M*A*S*H*: Another film on the absurdity of war, this one seeing it through the blackly comic misadventures of a campful of army surgeons-- most of them very intelligent, dedicated, drafted, unhappy to be there, and therefore determined to cause as much trouble as possible so long as it's entertaining and doesn't interfere with doing their jobs. Deliberately rambling and plotless, instead focusing on the theme of coping, or failing to cope, with the madness of it all. Contains some brilliant directoral touches, in particular Altman's skilful way of filming scenes where everybody is talking at once in such a way that the audience hears exactly the phrases he wants them to hear.

Movie count for 2011: 57. Hoe for the Sci-Fi London Film Festival next week!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Straight Up

The Straight Story: David Lynch can do feelgood, who knew? Also, it's really lovely to see a Hollywood feelgood film that keeps everything completely low-key throughout-- Alvin Straight, the octagenerian who decides to make a cross-country trip on his lawnmower to visit his brother, isn't played as a lovable quirky eccentric, and there's no dramatic blockbuster ending where everyone who the protagonist has encountered on his journey bands together to help him get that extra mile, cheering as they go. There's no tacked-on sense of closure anywhere, just of simple intimate dramas into which Alvin and the viewer both drift, participate, and drift on.

Movie count for 2011: 55

Monday, April 11, 2011

Back and Back again

Back to the Future II: OK but unnecessary sequel. It had some nice moments (e.g. the "1980s nostalgia" cafe in the 2015 sequences, plus the plot riffed entertainingly on the idea that events were continually repeating themselves from one generation to the next), but really it just felt like a greatest-hits compilation from the first film-- like it was saying "here are all the bits you liked from the first film, writ a bit larger so you'll enjoy them more." Plus, science has exactly four years in which to come up with a flying Delorean.

Back to the Future III: Adequate but even less necessary sequel. Effectively the same jokes are told but in a Wild West setting, which I suppose has humour value in a kind of "the same things happen to the same people every generation" sort of way, but not only is it getting a bit dull and predictable, it also loses the element of irony the first fim (and to some extent the sequel) had, whereby we can contrast the aspirations, ambitions and personalities of the 1950s youthful characters with what they subsequently became in the 1980s. It's also made outrageously dated by being visibly set within the brief window in the late 1980s/early 1990s when Westerns suddenly became fashionable again for a moment.

Movie count for 2011: 54

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Mods and Rockers

Brighton Rock: The 2011 remake. One of those movies where I felt like some bits worked and some didn't. Good use was made of the Brighton setting, but having the blowsy ex-prostitute who decides to investigate the murder be the same person as the owner of the cafe where the girl who witnessed the deed works made the town feel far too small. Likewise I could understand the decision to transpose the action to the 1960s, as Pinky's attempt to take over the gang ran paralell to the youth riots, but on the other hand it occasionally made the whole thing feel heavy-handed and caused accidental flashbacks to Quadrophenia (and also, Pinky never really felt like he belonged in a 1960s setting; he wasn't engaged with the youth culture, or much of an Angry Young Man). The religious themes were well handled though, leaving one to think at the end that God may well have forgiven Pinky, whatever Pinky himself believed about his hell-bound status.

Amadeus: The director's cut. An exploration of envy, which was gripping (despite being about three and a half hours long), well-staged and well-cast, but I also have to say I found it difficult to empathise with Salieri and rather felt he needed to get over himself-- I kept wanting to say, "so what if you're not Mozart, be happy with the achievements you have, and be grateful that you're one of the few who can appreciate Mozart's music for what it is", and, twitterpated idiot that he was, I kept rooting for Mozart.

Movie count for 2011: 52

Movie Roundup

Burn after Reading: Cohen Brothers black comedy, following on their familiar two-idiots-acquire-something-valuable-and-mayhem-ensues theme (q.v. Fargo, Raising Arizona, A Simple Plan), but setting it in Washington among the paranoia of the Bush Junior regime. A friend of mine describes it as "bleak," but I just thought it was hilarious.

Infamous: Truman Capote, portrayed here as a cross between Holly Golightly and Porky Pig, writes a fictionalised biography of a convicted murderer (played by Daniel Craig with such intensity as to make anyone realise he's wasted on the Bond franchise), but finds that the experience takes him to his moral, spiritual and ethical limits. Through telling this story, and also exploring Capote's friendship with Harper Lee, the film considers the boundaries between truth and fiction, and the cost of fictionalising truth, without coming up with any easy answers.

Fantasia: the 1940 version (to be precise, the 1969 edit with the racially insensitive bit removed). Some bits work better than others: The dinosaur/Rite of Spring and the witches' sabbat/Night on Bald Mountain sequences were definite hits, the Toccata and Fugue left me rather cold, the Nutcracker Suite/flower fairies and Pastoral Symphony/Greek gods ran the complete gamut from charming to boring to downright offensive, and the dancing hippoes/Dance of the Hours was vaguely insulting to women, composers and Italianate architecture. And how I feel about The Sorcerer's Apprentice depends on my mood.

Fantasia 2000: Scored slightly better than the earlier version in terms of outstanding sequences, with the nature spirit/The Phoenix and Rhapsody in Blue/New York in the Thirties sequences being both fantastic, and the Pomp and Circumstance/Donald Duck loading the animals onto the Ark sequence deserving an award for sheer chutzpah. Unfortunately there was also two tedious sequences, an overly cutesy one involving flamingoes, and a bunch of pointless celebrity intro spots, which just makes the film look like the studio are afraid no one will see the movie without slebs. Take about half of this movie, about half of the previous movie, mash them together and get James Earl Jones to introduce the lot, and you're sorted.

Toy Story: A film that manages to weave together product placement, computer animation, kidult sensibility, irony and metatextuality (prior to this film, after all, Woody and Buzz Lightyear weren't toys...); thus, probably the defining film of the 1990s.

Manhattan: Woody Allen is a New York writer with a complicated sex life. Diane Keaton is a New York writer with a complicated sex life. Meryl Streep is a New York writer with a complicated sex life. In fact, pretty much the only person in the film who isn't a New York writer with a complicated sex life is Mariel Hemingway, which explains why Woody Allen winds up dumping her and then regretting it. So not exactly the most complex or original Woody Allen film, but it's charming and pretty, with some witty lines and a wry take on a world recognisable to anybody who's ever been involved with any sort of literary/arts/academic scene.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: Disney's first full-length feature. As it was made before animation had settled down to a series of tropes, it's interesting to view in the context of 1930s cinema more generally: a male and female love interest who might as well have been Dale Arden and Flash Gordon with slightly different hair; dwarves; organised labour (Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go), and animated animals which are cute but still recognisably animals, even if they do weird things like scrubbing pots with their tails. Also interesting in terms of the ambiguous Christian imagery at the end: is the Handsome Prince actually Jesus Christ, resurrecting the deceased Snow White and taking her away to a golden castle which hovers on the horizon as if in the sky, or is Snow White herself a regendered Christ-figure, a person of royal blood who dwells among the poor and the lowly and makes their lives better, is killed by those in power, and, after lying dead for a while, revives and goes up to claim her magical/heavenly kingdom? You decide. The version we saw had a couple of worth-seeing featurettes, in the form of a behind-the-scenes piece (with surreal footage of dancers in huge dwarf masks and beards cavorting around so the animators could get the movement right) and a cut sequence which explains what happened to the soap that Dopey swallows during the washing scene, and where Snow White is supposed to sleep.

Movie count for 2011: 50