Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Weekly Rant - Terminator 3's Biggest Blunder

I think it's fair to declare that Terminator 3 isn't a patch on its two predecessors. But why?

It's not the lack of an 18 rating. It's not to overused CGI that completely detaches you from the action. It's not the utterly pathetic attempts at humour - who the hell decided this was a good idea?

It's not the painful "She'll be back!" line. It's not Arnold's phone-in performance. It's not everyone else's desperate need to overshadow the Austrian. It's not John Connor's transition from T2's badass, gun-totting teen to T3's paintball-wielding skid. It's not even the two terrible romantic leads who we couldn't care less about.

No, none of those things make T3 quite such the terrible film that it is. They try their damnedest, but can't quite tip the top of the lot. In fact, the gold medal belongs to this:

This isn't any comment on Kristanna Loken's acting chops. But rather on this so-called "villain" of the piece.

The Terminator had this guy:

The huge Austrian Oak. A terrifying, unstoppable robot force. A fucking titan who rips your heart out through your chest, who stands, god-like over the concrete jungle he seeks to destroy.

T2 knew that by having Arnold as the hero of the piece, they needed a tougher villain. The smart move was not trying to top the T-800 on muscle (cos no-one's beating Arnold on that!). So instead we have this fella:

The T-1000 is, in completely different ways, just as terrifying as the T-800 from the first movie. He's deathly quick (and runs like a cheetah!) and disguises himself as a cop (someone we turn to for help). Rather than the T-800's all-out "Hulk Smash" approach, the T-1000 is sly, subversive, cunning, sneaky, crafty, smart. He's a whole different killer. But what makes him brilliant is his personality.

When asked about the T-800's involvement in the hunt for John Connor, the T-1000 smiles arrogantly and simply says "No.....I wouldn't worry about him." At no point is he intimidated by the huge machine that tore L.A apart in the first movie. He's also a sadistic S.O.B - it's not enough for him to kill. He takes pleasure in it. That poor security guard gets a metal spike through his eye. And the T-1000 twists it. Similarly, there's no doubt he takes pleasure in torturing Sarah in the third act - "I know this hurts." The T-1000 takes pride in his work. He enjoys it. And the role is played perfectly by the great Robert Patrick.

Two excellent villains from two great films. But what do we get in T3?

Something that's barely a woman - she has a woman's body but she isn't one. There's absolutely no personality there whatsoever. Her only "skill" is the ability to look hot in red leather and make her boobs bigger. Cos apparently that's all the power this film thinks a woman has - sex appeal. Insulting, to say the least.

But wait, what's this? She can take over other machines and make them do her bidding! Utterly terrifying, right? Remember how scared you were of Transformers as a kid? No, me neither.

If the T-X has one redeeming feature, it's in her final moments when she looks like this:

Here, she's a monster. Which is cool! But she's promptly destroyed. Why? Here, they have a new type of killer. The T-800 is the unstoppable machine. The T-1000 is the snake. The T-X could have been the monster.

But no. Instead we're treated to a dull film with dull characters and an overly dull villain. Hang your head in shame, T3 - you could have been good. You could have been new, fresh, interesting. You could have been great! But, alas, you suck. Bravo!

Neil's Weekly Rants are posts about stuff. Read more stuff here.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Weekly Rant - The End of Television

TV has just run out of ideas. As from Thursday 7th March, you'll be able to watch this on Channel 4:
Every night over 20 million of us enjoy an evening in front of the telly, but imagine if the TV looked back at you - what would it see? Channel 4 goes into the living rooms across Britain to get the nation’s real reactions to the week’s biggest and best TV shows.
So just to be clear - you sit down to watch TV. And what you see, on the TV, is a bunch of people. Watching TV. Presumily* TV that's a hell of a lot more interesting than the rubbish you're watching. And this is entertainment?!

Now, you would think the "biggest and best TV shows" would include the likes of Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men, The Walking Dead et al. But alas, we all know they actually mean something along the lines of Made in Essex and Jeremy Kyle's Big Fat Gypsy Pissup.

Below is an actual transcript from an actual meeting that actually happened:

Past-His-Best Exec: We need a new show. And quick!
Young Fledgling: I have brought this writer with me. He has ideas in his head!
Deadbeat Writer: Does anyone have any food?
Exec: What is your fee, young writer on whom I look at in a downwards direction?
Writer: 50p per hour. And a cookie. Please?
Exec: Fifty pennies? Cookies?! Extortion! Be gone from my sight!
Writer: *slumps away to die in the corner. Quietly.*
Exec: Fledgling, more ideas!
Fledgling: I idea. But it needs work.
Exec: *swings back in his overly-sized leather chair*
Fledgling: We point the camera at people. While they do something interesting.
Exec: But what? What interests the TV-watchers at home?
Fledgling: Television?
Exec: YES! Television is the key, it's perfect!
Fledgling: And it will cost us nothing! We just need some cameras.
Exec: Huzzah! To Argos, away!
Writer: *dies*

This is what we're reduced to, gentle readers - watching TV to watch people watch TV.

More shockingly, this is coming from C4 - the channel that, last year, aired a superb hour of television about the Prime Minister shagging a pig live on air in order to save a princess from death (maybe you had to be there?)

So, as TV comes to a deathly close, I'm off to buy my post-apocalypse wasteland survival kit - fingerless gloves, a scarf, a bit of face dirt, and a zombies-stopped-me-shaving beard. See you on the other side!

Neil's Weekly Rants are posts about stuff. Read more stuff here.

*   "Presumily" - deliberate typo. See Angel season 5, episode "Life of the Party"

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

When The Hunger Games came out last year, the world was divided into four groups of people:

1) The tweenage girls excited about their "new Twilight" (these people should remove themselves from sight)
2) The Battle Royale fans who instantly called rip-off on THG.
3) People who had never even heard of BR and thought this was a great movie concept.
4) Folk who generally couldn't give a toss about one or the other.

You could, of course, find yourself in category numero five - you've seen BR and you like it. But you also saw THG and liked that too. Because they're different, you see. They're not the same bloody movie! Yes, THG clearly takes the idea from its 2000 predecessor - a bunch of kids, grabbed by the government and thrown into a free-for-all fight, with one victor.

But this "stealing" isn't exactly an abomination - Halloween (1978) almost single-handedly defined the slasher genre and its supernatural-esque rules (killers appearing and disappearing at will etc), which was used by every slasher movie since. Likewise, The Rite (2011) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) are perfectly good movies, despite owing a lot to that film of 1973.

Ideas are not the be all and end all - they're far from the most important aspect of a film. Kill Bill (2003) is very simply about one person killing a bunch of folk - nothing but revenge. Django Unchained (2013) is the same. (500) Days of Summer (2009) has no peripheral story, it's merely one man and one woman. But while these ideas are as simple as they can be, it's the way in which they're told that makes them great - Kill Bill's mystery, Django's refusal to shy away from the issue, (500)'s intricate structure and POV realism.

Yes, THG and BR have the same idea. But they're about completely different things. BR is about anarchy - kids are taken, quickly briefed on the sitch, then thrown out into no-man's land until only one remains. We're shown/told very little about the origins of this or exactly why it's being done. Because that's not important - it's the anarchy of the situation that matters, the pure luck of which backpack you get that determines your survival.

THG, on the other hand, is all about the institution - great attention is given to what goes on behind-the-scenes and what it all means. It's BR's anarchy vs. THG's structural control. So while the ideas are the same, the execution isn't. Same idea, different stories.

In short, it's time to accept that two films can be similar in premise but are actually very different. I like both, as it happens. I'll watch THG more (because it's easier and more palatable), but I love BR's unrelenting brutality from the off (it's a great film if only for this scene!)

PS: The Hunger Games gets a rating of 7.2 on IMDb, vs. Battle Royale's 7.8. There's not much in it......

Read more of Neil's film/TV articles.

Monday, 31 December 2012

Films of 2012

It's been a great year, if only for the fact that I got the chance to see not one, but two Joss Whedon films in the cinema! Obviously, The Avengers is the best superhero film I've ever seen. But the issue is - as a huge horror fan, do I prefer The Cabin in the Woods? I reviewed both and one came up on top by half a star. But the more I watch its opponent, the more I love it. So I've been going back and forth over the last three months about what my favourite 2012 movie is. I've made a decision. I think. For now, at least......

Alas, I haven't been able to catch every movie this year, so maybe a mid-2013 post will be needed to reassess. I was eager to see Men in Black III, which got mixed reviews, but my sister assures me it's "good". Snow White and the Huntsman looked interesting, as did the Total Recall remake, which may actually have been a better movie than the original, despite the absence of Arnie. I was wanting to see Lawless, if only for having Nick Cave in the writing credits. Similarly, Rise of the Guardians looked hilarious and cool at the same time. Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi both look either epically awesome or gut-wrenching terrible. I'm hoping for the former. And, of course, The Hobbit is a must-see.

Honourable mentions:

The Raid was all out, painfully brutal action from start to finish, even if the story was ridiculously thin. But sometimes less is more - the film did what it did and it did it well. I accept that The Woman in Black scared me every time it wanted to, but in hindsight it was mainly just Daniel Radcliffe walking around a dark house for two hours. And the problem with Radcliffe is that, while I think he put in a very strong performance, he just wasn't right for that role.

Looper was a bit of a letdown after receiving 5-star reviews from the big name critics. But at the end of the day, even though it was better than most sci-fi of the last decade, the logic and characters just didn't hold together. And a mid-movie "twist" took us out of a smart time travel story and threw us into a sub-par Stephen King novel. Reviewed here.  

Skyfall got similar praise but ended up disappointing. I enjoyed what it was doing and it had a killer first half. But then everything became a little too run-of-the-mill for my tastes. Still worth a look though. Brave was a slight disappointment but then I'm not quite sure what I expected. I liked it, but it wasn't anything to write home about.

The Dark Knight Rises - a film half the internet insists is the most amazing thing ever! - was a big flop for me. While a few scenes were incredible, the plot and the endless amounts of useless characters brought it all down to what seemed like a parody of the second Nolan-Batman movie. Reviewed here. The Amazing Spider-Man was, in my opinion, a marked improvement on Raimi's trilogy and Andrew Garfield was note-perfect as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, so it was a worthy reboot. Reviewed here.

Chronicle was pretty incredible, easily worthy of a 4/5 rating if only for giving a new take on the superhero genre. It was easily to get on board with the three heroes and actually seemed like a realistic portrayal of what a band of teenagers would do with superpowers. Combine that with clever found-footage-style camerawork and you've got a solid movie. Also pretty dark!

So, without further ado, my my top 5 films of 2012 are.......

5. Prometheus

There are more theories and opinions about this movie than pretty much anything from the last 10 years. I went in expecting a sub-par Alien, but ended up getting something thought-provoking and powerful. Ok, so maybe the whole thing is a little confusing and could do with more answers, but I have a serious weak spot for films that are batshit puzzling and strangely alluring. Stylistically beautiful with spot-on acting, the more I think about Prometheus, the more I like it. It's no Alien, but it's still a cracking sci-fi movie! Had some cool viral vids too!

4. The Hunger Games

I've heard it all - a bad ripoff of Battle Royale, completely boring for the first half, unrealistic, the new Twilight etc etc. But this movie did it for me! Granted, I've read the book so I expected a slow-burn first act and an explosive second. But for all intents and purposes, a great film! Mature for its target audience, strong, assured and not afraid to deal with some big issues. With perhaps the best first half hour of any movie this year, it's Jennifer Lawrence that commands every scene she's in - a huge talent that goes a long way to making this film great! Reviewed here.

3. The Grey

Remove Joss Whedon from the listings and The Grey is easily my top movie. It's intense, powerful, and really fucking emotional! The whole thing hangs on Liam Neeson's performance and he shows some of his best work here, all the while beating the hell out of a pack of wolves. Reviewed here.

2. The Avengers

I was always going to adore this movie - Joss Whedon does superheroes. His work on the X-Men comics is easily my favourite portrayal of the mutants and his skill at controlling ensemble casts is second-to-none (just look at Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Toy Story et al). But where the film shines is in its portrayal of Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Black Widow - two characters mostly sidelined/watered down in previous Marvel projects. Joss made them believable but somehow ridiculously cool. Going in, I knew someone was going to die - this is Mr Whedon afterall. But I couldn't work out who. My money was Pepper Potts. Especially after the first half hour spent establishing a blissful Tony/Pepper relationship. But how wrong I was. A curveball I never saw coming. Damn you, Joss!!! The best scene? This (almost-cut-for-being-too-expensive) hero shot that gives me goosebumps every time I see it! Love it! Reviewed here.

1. The Cabin in the Woods

It's a personal preference - for me, the only thing better than "Joss does superheroes" is "Joss does horror". Combine that with Drew Goddard's direction and we have a winner! Pretty much picking apart the entire American horror genre was good enough - we've all been infuriated by those ridiculously fucking stupid horror teenagers that we actually want to die! But there's a lot more to Cabin. It goes beyond a commentary on films and becomes a critique of life itself - "Society needs to crumble. We're all just too chickenshit to let it." Not to mention it's funny as hell and has a third act better than any other this year (or the last 10 I'd dare say?!) In short - it's a movie that feels like it was meant entirely for me. Shiny! Reviewed here.

So overall, not a bad fucking year! In a time full of bottom-of-the-barrel ideas and piss-poor remakes, there seems to be some light. There may be a hundred Twilights, but there's one Hunger Games. Endless amounts of unoriginal horror tripe may be coming out the yingyang, but The Cabin in the Woods sits proudly out of the crowd. So yes, there's a saturation of horribly terrible movies these days. But there are also some absolute game-changers. Huzzah for them! 2013 won't be able to hold up, but I'm really, really looking forward to it!

Happy New Year, everyone - happy movie-ing!

Monday, 1 October 2012

'Looper' (2012)


Time travel movies are notoriously difficult to make and seemingly impossible to get your head around. "This time travel crap. Just fries your brain like an egg," as is uttered in the movie. Fortunately, Looper spends less time playing the What If? game and instead focuses on the characters at the heart of its story. Voice over digs past the necessary clunky exposition whereby we learn just what Loopers are and what can go wrong. Cinema has now reached a point where no-one is going to see this film without having first seen the trailer. Ergo, we'd be bored if Looper spent half an hour setting things up with subtle dialogue. Yes, that may show better writing, but it just isn't necessary - we forgive the dreaded VO as it means we can get straight into the story from the get-go.

The first thing you notice is just how clever they've been to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt look strikingly like a young Bruce Willis. It's kinda unnecessary, but it works. From there, the influences become apparent - from what I can see, Blade Runner in abundance, with a dash of Twelve Monkeys. A feel of effortless noir drops onto the screen as we see Loopers go about their daily business. We're almost at the "ok, we get it - this is a cool movie!" moment when your attention is perked by a particularly disturbing scene whereby a man's body parts begin to disappear. I'll say no more....

Once things get going, the film becomes a bit of a cat-and-mouse-style race with Young Joe (Levitt) needing to kill Old Joe (Willis) so that he isn't offed by his seemingly mild-mannered boss (Jeff Daniels). Old Joe, meanwhile, sets out on a Terminator-esque search-and-destroy mission of his own.

In any other way this would be predictable and boring. But with emotionally compelling flashbacks and clever use of POV (that forces us to switch sides without noticing), we're hooked. It's not long before we realise an hour has gone by in a flash and we're well and truly invested in both Joes and their respective missions. Which is where Looper throws us a curve ball.

The movie kind of steers off in a direction you don't expect with the introduction of Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (who, like all movie kids, is ridiculously smart and witty for a 10-year-old). I should stress that this isn't a bad tangent (Sara seems to really enjoy beating the crap out of a tree trunk with an axe - there's a metaphor in there somewhere), but it changes the film completely. The cool noir seems to disintegrate and the story sags a little under necessary exposition.

It doesn't take a half-genius to work out exactly where the story is leading, which hits you with a weird combo of tense inevitability and finger-tapping tedium. While Young Joe hangs out on a farm discussing his past, Old Joe carries on in the city. We're well and truly going through the motions before the unavoidable final conflict. Fortunately, most of those motions involve seeing Bruce Willis shoot people (and not just any people!) so we're willing to stay awake.

After its slight lull, Looper comes full circle (not unlike a loop - see what they've done there?) and builds to a spectacular close. Action isn't hurled at the screen in an explosion of excitement like in some lesser movies (I'm looking at you, Michael Bay!) but the film instead focuses on the characters we are, by now, thoroughly invested in. The ending is either genius or completely ridiculous. I can't make up my mind without having my brain fried like an egg.

Overall, Looper is a solid movie. Easily better than most recent sci-fi actioners, but I expect all those 5-star reviews floating about are because expectations for this sort of film have become so low in recent years. This is no Blade Runner or Matrix. But it does a damn sight more than it needs to in order to earn a few pennies at the Box Office, which is commendable - it's good to see a sci-fi movie that is both smart and fun! Recommended.

Read more of Neil's reviews.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

'The Hunger Games' (2012)

As adaptations go, The Hunger Games is pretty much spot on and there's hardly anything left out from the book - naturally some scenes play out shorter and a few developments are ignored, but for the most part it's a page-by-page copy. Which in itself might not be anything to write home about. If anything, it would be a criticism since we already have the book, so why do we need the film?

But where the movie is unable to compete (mainly in the subtleties of the action), it makes up for in some key moments that set up future films. Not too much so that everything is rammed down your throat, but enough to tell you that more is at play than what we're seeing. The film also compensates for the lack of detailed backstory with some clever exposition and a particularly effective flashback sequence.

The movie doesn't talk down to its aimed-at teen audience and rarely shies away from the violence, dealing with some big themes and tugging at the heart strings along the way. What's extra impressive is the brave decision to stick to the book in terms of pace - with a fairly actionless first hour-and-a-bit (and remember, this is an action film!) it would be easy to lose the audience. But the first half is tackled with such subtlety and attention that you don't care - there's more than enough to enjoy in seeing the way life plays out for the young Hunger Gamers(?) in their training. All this builds and builds as very little is known of the Hunger Games themselves, meaning that when things kick off we're eager and ready to go. Let the Games begin!

What follows may be fairly basic "survival of the fittest" stuff (yes, a lot like Battle Royale and a chunk of Stephen King's work), but we're fully invested in the key characters by this point, making the drama far greater than you could hope for if we'd quickly joined the action half an hour in.

Jennifer Lawrence shines in a daring role that would be easy to play fairly straight, bringing just the right balance of tenderness and power to spring Katniss Everdeen into life. The supporting cast do their jobs well - Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz and Amandla Stenberg all hold their own, while Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci put in predictably good performances - but our attention never leaves Lawrence, who commands every scene she's in.

There's nothing wrong with The Hunger Games (it's daring, emotive, dramatic and powerful), but there are times when you feel it could do more. Having a character throw a big metal rock to prove his strength may work in the book, but on the screen it seems clunky and lazy. Likewise, the decision to stray from the source material and cut away from the Hunger Games, showing the goings on of friends and family etc sometimes detracts from the intensity of the action. Yes, some parts are necessary (commentators explain key bits of info that are essential), but at times, there are clear cuts that pay maybe a little too much attention to possible future storylines when all we really care about it the young woman fighting for her life. But these are all minor criticisms (you know how good a film is when you're picking it apart for such tiny issues) and never really bring down the quality of the movie.

All in all, The Hunger Games hits the audience across the board - there's something for everyone. Ok, so I might have liked a bit more brutal violence, but it's rather refreshing that an action movie is capable of retaining your interest without showing blood and guts at every turn. The movie never patronises its young fans and never frustrates its older audience - it's strong, powerful, self-aware and confident. Overall, a cracking film that has me itching for parts two and three.....

Read more of Neil's reviews.