Thursday, 29 December 2011

Trailer: Prometheus

Monday, 26 December 2011

Slow week

We have family visiting Chez Szondy this week at the same time I'm facing a string of deadlines that Christmas has already kept me away from for too long.  Therefore, though I'll be posting the usual video features on Ephemeral Isle, other posts will be as and when I can find time.

Normal service will resume as soon as possible.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas
Reel Ranting

Back after Boxing Day

Monday, 19 December 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

It's 1873 in the Arizona Territory and a man wakes up in the desert not even remembering his name or how he ended up with a strange device manacled to his wrist.  He rides into the town of Absolution, which he discovers is under the control of a ruthless cattle baron and that in his forgotten life he's wanted by the law.  All that, however, is beside the point when a fleet of alien ships strafe the town and snatch up the townsfolk like children jigging for frogs.

With a title like Cowboys and Aliens and a director like Jon Favreau you'd expect a film like this to at least be fun, but it turns out to be one of those pictures that never seems to pull it off.  The idea of mixing a Western with an alien invasion plot sounds great, but it takes a deft hand, a real love for both genre and a willingness to ruthlessly play with both set of tropes.  This film has plenty of good elements and a first-rate cast, though Harrison Ford is miscast as the villain and comes off as a cranky old man, but none of it comes together.  Daniel Craig was a great choice as the Man With No Name, but is wasted as is Olivia Wilde whose plot twist is telegraphed a light year away. We're never given any reason to care about any of the characters nor to be really engaged in anything that's going on.

Worse, the pacing is painfully slow.  At 118 minutes it's half an hour too long and takes forever to get started.  More important, everything that takes up all that time turns out to be irrelevant to the plot and conveniently forgotten at the end.  The alien menace is never credible.   The creatures are neither an unseen menace nor are they allowed to be more than running, jumping things that are about as inherently scary and awe inspiring as a band of cheesed-off gorillas.

But what is most maddening is not the stacking of needless Western clich├ęs, but the repetition.  Heroes get captured, heroes get set free, someone has the drop on a character and a third party shoots the dropper before he can kill the dropee.  Rinse and repeat.

Based on a "graphic novel", the lesson to take away from Cowboys and Aliens is that basing a $160 million film on an obscure comic book is a really dumb idea.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Review: Asylum

Asylum (1972)\

A young doctor goes an insane asylum for a job interview only to be told that the director of the asylum has gone mad and is now one of the patients in  the violent ward.  He is then informed that if he can interview the ward patients and determine which of the four is the former director, he gets the job.  It seems simple enough, but his efforts quickly unveil stories of supernatural horror that may not be confined to the ward.

Asylum is another in Amicus's popular magazine format of horror stories from the 1960s and 70s, only instead of the framing device being a sinister stranger or a trapped group of bewildered strangers, its about a doctor interviewing insane people as part of a larger story.  It's an effective device and working from a script by Robert Bloch doesn't hurt either.  The individual tales, which include one of a man who dismembers his wife only to discover her bits won't stay put, a penniless tailor commissioned to create a magical suit, a young woman whose homecoming from hospital is marred by the appearance of a sinister friend, and a mad doctor into building homunculae all carry a nice blend of horror and whimsy that director Roy Ward Baker is able to infuse with atmosphere and moments of real creepiness by the simplest of cinematic tricks.

But what puts Asylum over the top is the Amicus talent for persuading top-notch actors to sign on for small roles that involve little more than an afternoons work.  Despite a small budget, Asylum boasts Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell and last, but most emphatically not least, Charlotte Rampling.  Every one of them takes their roles very seriously and there isn't a second's mugging or winking at the camera to be found.   Because of this, they are able to convince the audience that they aren't just watching a string of gory tales, but are glimpsing into a world of utter chaos where reason is banished and madness reigns supreme.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

Sophie is a plain girl living a plain life working in a plain hat shop until a witch places a curse on her that turns her into a 90-year old woman.  Unable to face her family and friends, she goes to the wastelands to seek the witch and takes refuge in the castle of the wizard Howl–a moving castle that travels the countryside on mechanical legs powered by a fire demon that Howl keeps bound in the castle's hearth.  Posing as a cleaning lady, Sophie is drawn to Howl, who is an enigmatic young man who always speaks in an amused, though detached tone of voice and is tormented by some inner conflict.  Meanwhile, two kingdoms fight a terrible air war against one another using gigantic airships as the witch and a powerful sorceress hunt for Howl.

Like a lot of anime, the plot of Howl's Moving Castle is very hard to summarise.  In fact, there's very little point because it's heavily allegorical and serves mainly as a framework for visuals anyway. Director Hayao Miyazaki's screenplay based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones is a charming fairy tale romance that doesn't bear too much close examination.  It becomes obvious early on that this is less a coherent plot than the relation of a dream where logic is heavily internal and isn't expected to hold together very long anyway.  What must and does work is that the characters remain consistent and interact with one another in a logical manner, which Miyazaki achieves beautifully.

This is a stunningly lovely film with animation that is impressive by even the best Japanese anime standards and there is a playful quality to it all that acts as an excellent backdrop to a story that mixes whimsy with genuine emotion.   English-speaking audiences are also fortunate that when Walt Disney picked up the distribution rights they went to Pixar to do the dubbing.  Because of the huge differences between English and Japanese both in language and acting styles, this made for a challenge, but Pixar's choice of cast headed by Christian Bale as Howl and Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer as old and young Sophie respectively reading from a script designed around not only translation, but matching screen action in an English-language context made for a much more accessible story that it is possible to get lost in.

Like most anime, Howl's Moving Castle requires some active suspension of disbelief to buy into and much of its meaning requires thought on the part of the audience, but the beauty and charm of the film make it suitable even for the youngest of film goers.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Sometimes it takes a really bad movie to make you appreciate one that turned out to be not so bad after all.   The 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian starring the future governor of California was no classic. Director John Milus had a thankless task; adapting Robert E Howard's barbarian hero to the screen at a time when Hollywood only knew the character through bad pastiches and comic books.  With such a brief, it isn't surprising that the end result was often downright silly.  That's probably the best word for a scene where one of the baddies hits people over the head with a giant clown hammer.  Still, Milus did manage to come up with a decent story of revenge and manhood that treated most of the sorcery as just another part of the world. And Milus does succeed in getting us to accept that he has created at least a taste of Conan's Hyborian Age that would be recognisable to readers of Howard.

The 2011 version, on the other hand, is a travesty; a pointless remake that adds nothing and does a disservice to both the source material and its predecessor.  Once again, Conan is motivated by revenge against the men who burned his village and killed his father, but where this set up took ten minutes in the original, it now takes approximately the time needed to wear away the Alps with a spoon.  We then jump forward ten years or so and Conan, who can't afford a shirt and wears a skirt liberated from an interpretive dance troupe, decides to finally get down to some revenging.  This being 2011, however, there also has to be a mask involved that allows the wearer to "rule the world" for no obvious reason and an Action GirlTM who says she's a "monk" (Because the correct term "nun" wouldn't be cool enough) is thrown in for sex scenes and general running about.

General running about pretty much sums up the film.  Conan runs about here.  He runs about there.  He runs about a bit more to throw in some variety.  In between and during this running about he's also fighting and every fight is choreographed as an epic Final Battle with lots of CGI blood that makes one suspect that the director thinks human beings are plastic bags filled with Kensington Gore.   There's no sense of time and place and everything is so dusty that it isn't unreasonable to think that the tickets got mixed up and this is Prince of Persia.   Meanwhile, Jason Momoa scowls a lot–or tries to; it just comes across as a pout.  And despite all the mandatory Daddy Issues that modern scriptwriting invariably demands, this Conan comes across as nothing more than a bloodthirsty cipher devoid of any character or believable motives.

It makes one long for de lamentations of da women.